Event Review: MIDI Electronic Music Festival, by Alta

For the first time in this site’s four and some year existence, I offer a post from a guest author – my friend Chris Russell aka Alta from the United Kingdom. We both attended the MIDI electronic music festival in Shanghai on October 27th and discussed writing essays about what exactly happened that day. He finished, I didn’t.

While my unfinished essay is more of a pragmatic guide for running a music festival and pitfalls to avoid, Chris wrote a straight-up scholarly work that examines potential links between rave culture and the spatial and architectural wastes of late capitalism.

If Pudong had been a site instrumental in foisting alien economic ideas upon an unsuspecting Chinese public, then the idea was that MIDI Electronic would have a similar impact, but this time in the cultural realm

Full essay after the jump, it’s great.

Review of the 2012 MIDI Electronic Music Festival – Shanghai, PRC

In the never ending duel between Beijing and Shanghai, the capital has for some time laid claim to hosting the country’s preeminent dance festival, a provocation that had, with uncharacteristic inertia, gone unanswered by the bustling city of glitz and commerce. Until now, that is.

The MIDI Music Fesitval has for years stridden like a colossus across the Chinese festival circuit, its brand eclipsing even those of more illustrious competitors. Never before, however, had it deigned to bestow an exclusively electronic music festival on China’s most populous city, parachuting in at an improbable time of year and with little warning into the much-maligned area east of the Huangpu.

If Pudong had been a site instrumental in foisting alien economic ideas upon an unsuspecting Chinese public, then the idea was that MIDI Electronic would have a similar impact, but this time in the cultural realm. Various exhortations were heard from the event’s MCs that participants were ‘making history’, a claim that, if true, would only obtain in a small, incremental sense, for this was no grand historical rupture, no Longwick 1989 *. Not that it needed to be, but the event did nonetheless lack the excitement of a world-famous headliner, instead opting for a cohort of local DJs of varying repute.

*A famous rave; effectively the Woodstock of the UK’s Second Summer of Love

Walking down the entrance ramp, initial impressions were not dissimilar to those typical of other Chinese festivals. There was the usual cast of individuals whose presence was highly questionable: mothers with children, girls wearing moustaches. There was also an abundance of sitting, seemingly one of the preferred activities of festival goers in China, at least before nightfall. Falling on the unofficial weekend of Halloween celebrations in Shanghai, MIDI’s press blurb had encouraged people to dress up for the occasion, but, a banana and a girl wearing a hammock aside, few people had heeded the call.

Each of the festival’s three stages was delineated somewhat loosely by genre. Upon entering the main plaza, visitors were greeted by a bridge, home to the DJ booth for the festival’s main stage, which was named for that most abused piece of modern musical terminology: ‘bass’. A term that gained greater currency as a musical tag due to the not-quite-a-genre ‘UK bass’, which arose after the initial post-dubstep diaspora  to describe the myriad sounds emanating from or influenced by the UK, it has slowly been encroached upon by all and sundry, to the point where its meaning now denotes very little. As such, the stage reverberated with a whole gamut of unconnected sounds, ranging from sawing electro house to warbling drum and bass.

Despite ‘bass’ now meaning whatever you want it to mean, using the term to label the main stage may, with the benefit of hindsight, appear to have been a strategic error, especially given that it was largely usurped by the bizarrely named ‘traditional EDM’ stage around the corner. Quite what was traditional beyond the relentless four-to-the-floor thump was unclear; the music mostly seemed to consist of those twin bastions of commercial dance music – the all-conquering house derivations of electro and tech – both of which are comparatively recent developments in dance music’s storied history.

In the nonsensical stage name stakes, the traditional stage was no outlier. Despite morphing into the hip-hop stage by the time of the event itself, the third stage had originally been identified in the promotional literature as the ‘trap’ stage. A particular niche of hip-hop associated with producers such as Lex Luger and Shawty Redd, trap has in approximately the last twelve months undergone a uniquely Web 2.0 transmogrification and subsequent calcification. Naming part of your festival after what is for all intents and purposes fast becoming a flash in the pan Soundcloud genre might seem like a strange strategy, and I had in part wondered whether the organisers might have installed an actual trap, a house used for the selling of drugs from which the sound takes its name, in order to imbue this section of the festival with an air of authenticity. Disappointingly all that was to be found other than the stage and its flashing lights was the sales and marketing centre of Tony’s Farm, sadly closed.

I arrived in time to see Heatwolves and DJ Cavia running through a selection of trap standards and classics accompanied by the disembodied voice of MC One Consciousness in one of the few sets that lived up to the stage’s original appellation. This is not necessarily a criticism of the other acts; a whole day of the style would have been unrelenting and the variations in style, from DJ Sal’s lopsided moombahton to Cha Cha’s reggae-inflected set, made a welcome change.

Nonetheless, this was very much an EDM festival, that pseudo-genre that has swept the United States of America in recent years and which is more concerned with the whirring and rattling of Las Vegas roulette machines and overall spectacle than it is with any underground subcultural pretentions. Curiously, though, the event was entirely divorced from the usual glamour associated with Pudong. Situated in an unfinished commercial development, only occasional glimpses of the phallic and otherwise ubiquitous Oriental Pearl tower were on offer, akin to those proffered by sexual miscreants on Clapham Common**, its sighting harsh and jolting.

**A patch of grass in South London

Whereas the initial incarnations of rave and dance music culture were happy to operate in the liminal spaces opened up by the process of deindustrialisation or the rural arcadias found outside the London Orbital***, MIDI was a thoroughly contemporary instantiation of those codes and practices, albeit with none of the revolutionary spirit, as it instead chose to operate in the proverbial shadow of towers adorned with the logos of major Chinese banking institutions. In doing so, the event exploited the kind of space that gives sustenance to doom mongering China pundits: an area of unclear utility undermined by the current era of global tumult and fragility.

***The motorway that circles the UK’s capital

If the initial act of rave was predicated on co-opting the collateral damage of the process of post-modernisation in order to fire one last valedictory shot for modernism, then perhaps MIDI has inadvertently, and despite its tenuous connection to the old school, hinted at a way forward for a new flourishing of rave culture; its hijacking of the undead wastelands generated by the excesses of late capitalism signifying a movement of potentially gargantuan import, both globally and across China.


Today’s music selected by Alta as well.

Music wise I’ve got for an old skool rave track on Reinforced that I’ve always wanted to play out but for some reason never have. Fits the piece a bit better than grime or something I think. (No download on this though!)

Manix – Special Request

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all words and photos by Alta, from the Phreaktion crew.

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