As I stepped into the lobby at Fira Montjuïc, the massive trade and conference center in Barcelona’s Placa Espana, I struggled to piece together my surroundings. While the expansive building seemed purposed for formal, professional endeavors, I found it packed to the brim with giddy SonarDay concert-goers. Was this a conference? An art exhibition? An indie-electronic concert or a rave? It was difficult to point my finger at a definitive answer but the familiar smell of stale cigarettes and lager beer beckoned, so I moved forward through the lobby and into the relentless Catalyunian sun, straight into Lena Willikens’ set. Though hers was an unfamiliar name, the gritty, sparse, and techy sounds that echoed across the “SónarVillage” courtyard caught my ear, and slowly, but surely, the intrigue began to set in.
This, for me, is emblematic of the spirit that pulses through Sónar Festival - a gathering that celebrates discovery and the embrace of aural and artistic exploration. Now in its 24th year, Sónar has become world-renowned for its bold and avant-garde, technology-centered showcases where the imaginative is given precedence over the typical, and art and media are intimately fused into sound. This concept was most evident in the line-up of 140 artists who, from rising talents to peak-time festival heroes, took over SónarDay and SónarNight (the day and night arms of the festival are held in separate locations).
While wandering through the performances across SónarDay, I discovered Jacques, a French musician with one of the most unusual haircuts I’ve ever seen, who crafted a loop-based set using live field-recordings of random objects like an empty glass and a stainless steel whisk. Bejo, a rapper from the Canary Islands, impressed with prodigious Spanglish rhymes and smooth witticisms in a larger-than-life style distinctly his own. At the front of the SónarVillage stage, I was glued to the floor alongside a hardcore group of fans adorned with Soulection apparel at Joe Kay and Jarreau Vandal’s eclectic set. The performance was one of my favorites and featured classic hip-hop and RnB tracks flipped and remixed with inspirations from jazz, brazilian baile-funk, and future bass among others.
In contrast to SónarDay, SónarNight generally featured bigger, more well-known artists across the sprawling, cavernous Fira Gran Via convention center. Giggs brought out the UK grime to a packed audience at SonarLab dropping hits like ‘Whippin Excursion’ and ‘Lock Doh’. Nicolas Jaar performed with relatively minimal stage production and kept his live set heavy, moody, and atmospheric. Craving for a bit more classic four on the floor, I would occasionally drop into Seth Troxler/Tiga or Masters at Work’s mammoth six hour sets, chock-full of techno and house vibes. But for me, the entire festival culminated in Eric Prydz’s 4 am set on Saturday night. Having missed the Swede’s lauded EPIC 5.0 London show, I was keen to experience his live performance at SonarClub, the venue’s largest stage. Prydz delivered a heady, journeying set that ranged from boisterous to euphoric and was surely one of my highlights this year.
A quick stroll away from the music areas took me to some alluring installations that kept true to the festival’s focus on innovative tech. In one corner, was Realities+D, which displayed the year’s most innovative virtual reality audio-visual content. In another, was the mysterious looking Sonar360 dome which pleasantly surprised as it revealed a relaxing and immersive 360-degree screen – airing trippy and expansive pieces, custom made for the festival. Perhaps wary of Barcelona’s dubious reputation as a pick-pocket hotspot, Sónar provided for cash-less payments on chip-infused wristbands which enabled festival-goers to top up and leave the cash at home. And using the free Wifi throughout the festival, I was able to access the incredibly well-made Sónar mobile application which gave access to a festival map, friends’ locations, and the ability to peruse through a real-time line-up.
Electronic Music Festival. Modern Art Exhibition. Tech and Creative Industry Conference. Sónar is all these things and much, much more. This is a global meeting point for electronic music and culture - where there is a belief in the air that the weird and unconventional can be as celebrated as the traditional and there is a shared thrill in exploring the intersections of music, creativity, and technology. True to the theme of discovery that pervades, Sónar must be experienced to be understood.