Sydney Festival: Jlin + Howie Lee

Scott Wallace
20th Jan 2018

The open, imposing industrial space of Carriageworks was the perfect setting for Gary, Indiana producer Jlin's headline Sydney Festival set last night. Carriageworks' fascinating blankness is perhaps its ultimate strength as a performance space, allowing Jlin and her opening cohorts to imprint atmosphere and experimentation upon it uninhibited.

Beijing-based musician Howie Lee opened the show, his restless, walloping bass and flighty melodies the perfect foil for Jlin's more aggressive, direct approach to follow. Accompanied by the Taiwanese duo of Veeeky and Thoiid, with live 3D animated visuals, the performance was halfway between DJ set and experimental film - enjoyed standing up or sitting down. 

Go to Howie Lee's Soundcloud page and you will immediately see the words "Dude, soundcloud is blocked in China." It's a remark that's flippant in its delivery, but in light of the music and visuals of his live show it's clear that the relationship of his home country to the rest of the world is a key concern for Howie Lee. Between surreal, often hypermasculine video game pastiche, Veeeky and Thoiid deployed tourism videos, corporate videos, and bizarre advertising, to effects both anxiety-inducing and sinister.

Projected behind the performers, the virtual camera moved freely around the 3D spaces without regard for clipping through objects both "living" and inanimate. They seemed determined for us to remain aware that beyond the virtual space they had created was nothing but a void. 

Howie Lee's music, played entirely live with a sampler and synth is restless, often arrhythmic, but rich in tone and fluidly dynamic. Marrying traditional Chinese melodies and tones (to Western ears evoking nothing less than the Forbidden City) to hip-hop, house, and autotuned pop, the result was like centuries of culture colliding, compressed into 40 minutes of music, and deployed through a bad broadband connection. In one particularly spellbinding sequence, a giant golden statue erupted into pixels in time with the tumbling, blocky beats. 

By contrast, when Jlin took the stage after the opening trio's brief and humble bows, she was alone. Wreathed in fog, impressionistic spirals of light created by MFO and Theresa Baumgartner were her only visual accompaniment. Boldly, she chose to open her set with "Guantanamo" from her first album Dark Energy, a track that features dialogue sampled from The Ring along with schlocky horror movie screams between relentless, pummelling percussion.

Jlin has been spoken of a percussion prodigy, but last night she never touched any physical percussion instrument. On her frequent Instagram live videos, she can be seen trawling through her computer for minuscule sound bites to find the piece of percussion that slaps, cracks, or bangs in just the right way. The thrilling contradiction of her music is that it is at once both meticulously assembled and also blindingly, blisteringly present and forceful.

It was rare that the pivoting stage lights would illuminate the shadowy figure of Jlin at her controls, but unlike many electronic musicians she was a joy to watch as her fingers hovered over her minimal performance set up. The rhythm of her body guided the dancers below her, and occasionally a wide, white grin would shine through the murk, or gritted teeth as she pulled her hands away from the controls as if burned by a particularly gnarly flurry of percussion.

At once both threatening and empowering, Jlin's music conjures enormous atmosphere in a live setting with next to no melodic elements in the bruising mix. Snatches of dialogue or disembodied voices seem to battle with the drums. Fruitlessly - it seems nothing is more powerful than the pulses and triplets that Jlin digitally creates.

Aggressive highlights like "1%," "Hatshepsut" and "Challenge (To Be Continued)" from last year's stunning masterpiece Black Origami found the audience trying to adapt to the wild and woolly rhythms that refused to slow down for them. But Jlin injected into the performance moments of smoothness and quietness that flirted with the 4/4 thump of house music and the codeine-slow sway of contemporary hip-hop.

New material used in the set proves that Jlin is not slowing down or stagnating, even after two albums that have redefined and recontextualised entire genres. Paired with Howie Lee, Veeeky, and Thoiid, last night's gig was a showcase of people with something to say finding bold, innovative, and profoundly engaging ways to say it. 

Photo of Jlin by Mahdumita Nandi.