Hundreds of curious festivalgoers gathered to see Brazilian-born electronic artist Amon Tobin on a Friday night at Coachella this year. Fanatical buzz had been building all day, and they couldn't help themselves, even as unusually frigid wind and spits of ice-cold rain drove most people away from the festival grounds and back to the warmth of their respective shelters.
At 10 minutes to midnight, the audience huddled in and gazed upon the dimly lit stage as three enormous masses of white cubes were rolled out and connected together. Appearing as a three dimensional canvas for a larger-than-life game of Tetris, the set onstage elicited a hushed din of assumptions and expectations, each person quietly prattling on about wild stories they'd heard about Tobin's show.
The stage lights went black, and the first wave of deep bass pulsed through the audience and out into the cold night. The once-white Tetris blocks came to life, illuminated with dark, pixelated visuals that were, at first, incomprehensible. The changing images moved with the music, responding to each sound. The set appeared to be lit from within but was somehow shifting across the stage—the cubes falling apart and then coming back together—in reaction to the undulating sounds Tobin was producing. People in the Mojave tent that night stood transfixed by the unfolding spectacle.
Since releasing his first singles in the mid-'90s, Tobin's always had an ear for pushing boundaries. He's explored found sound on his 2007 album, Foley Room. He's written scores for the 2006 Hungarian film Taxidermia and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory video game. The Kronos Quartet and the London Metropolitan Orchestra have both performed his works.
With this particular show, known as "ISAM Live," he continues to push the limits of electronic music. He produced it in 2011 in collaboration with Los Angeles design firms V Squared Labs and Vita Motus Design. It's the touring complement to his latest album, ISAM (Invented Sounds Applied to Music), which came out via Ninja Tune Records last year.
He unveiled the show at Montreal's MUTEK festival last year and gave subsequent headlining performances during both weekends of Coachella this year. Ever since, Tobin and his design team have been showered with critical acclaim. As Tobin describes it, ISAM Live was produced, in part, from his own distaste for seeing electronic music in a live setting.
"I've always thought it's kind of lame when you see that sort of music shoehorned into a live environment where it doesn't really belong," he explains.
"With live electronic music," he says, "visually, it's pretty barren. You're normally looking at a guy who is looking at a computer screen, surrounded by faders and knobs. It's just not very visually compelling."
So, Tobin set out to create a production that would change the way his music translated live. He eventually came across a technique known as "projection mapping," a process that allows visual media to be mapped sympathetically to any two- or three-dimensional surface.
But Tobin's interest in this new process faced some immediate quandaries. In addition to the exorbitant cost of projection mapping, he had to deal with the crucial issue of portability, a factor rarely taken into account when dealing with this medium.
Tobin solicited the help of production designer Alex Lazarus, whom he describes as the "catalyst" for the collaboration behind ISAM Live. Working with Heather Shaw of Vita Motus Design and the V Squared Labs team, Tobin and Lazarus worked to build not only a portable set, but also a cohesive show. After five weeks of set construction and days of "storyboarding, composing the musical score, conceptualizing what each song represented and putting all of it in a narrative order," ISAM Live was born.
One major element of the show, which was actually a point of contention between Tobin and the rest of the production team, was Tobin's placement on stage. Tobin says that, initially, he was hesitant to appear anywhere on stage.
"Eventually, I compromised," he explains; he agreed to appear transiently throughout the show to allow audience members to feel a human connection.
"It's important that [they] get some insight that there is a person involved in all of this," Tobin says, "so they're not just watching a massive YouTube clip."
Most importantly, though, Tobin says he designed ISAM Live to act as a conduit to introduce his style of music to a new audience.
"You get to perform what you feel is relevant to yourself to a wider audience," he says. "Rather than trying to compromise what you're doing musically to reach more people, you find a way to present your music in a way that makes people curious.
"Hopefully," he adds, "people who would have never dreamed of listening to something like my record would come to see a show like that because of the visual aspect. Hopefully, they'll hear something new."
Amon Tobin plays with Holy Other at House of Blues on Thursday, Sept. 27. amontobin.com