Out of the box

Communikey holds its final festival as it looks to the future

Robert Aiki Abrey Lowe, of Lichens, uses the modular synthesizer to complement his voice in his spontaneous musical performances.

The Communikey festival is not easily defined. Perhaps it could be loosely pinned down as a transcendental experience surpassing mediums and disciplines in a desire to explore the intersection of artistic and technological innovation, with a smattering of electronic music throughout.

The festival started from the organization with the same name. The Boulder-based organization CMKY was started by people in the electronic dance community who were interested in edgier art and music outside of the dance floor. It started with a series of one-time events that developed into the festival.

“The larger purpose of the festival is to expose new and emerging art forms, whether it’s sound-based, visual-based, interactive art or set design,” says Kate Lesta, the creative and managing director of CMKY. “We’re not showcasing big-name artists to sell tickets. The idea is, we want new, cutting edge work to be showcased, and we want all the festival participants to experience something they would not have come across otherwise.”

But just as the festival is hard to put in a box, it seems to have outgrown its own structure. This year marks the eighth and final year for the festival. Lesta says that it wasn’t an easy decision to make, but the organization is expected to keep growing outside of a festival parameter. She says she’s grateful for everything learned over the past eight years.

“When we started it in 2008, we really had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know if it was going to work, and we didn’t know if it was going to happen or happen again,” she says. “Now getting eight years down the line, it feels very different. We’ve grown a lot as creative professionals, and the community’s changed, and CMKY has international recognition. … It’s really exciting. We can take whatever we’ve done with it, and apply it to the future.”

This last CMKY will be a grand finale for the festival, she says — a celebration of the past eight years and a look to the future with the lineup full of artists that encompass their mission of celebrating innovation. One such event is a showcase for the Canadian electronic music record label Silent Season. The label’s founder and curator, Jamie McCue, spent a lot of his time DJ-ing and in the outdoors. Through that, McCue drew inspiration from his natural surroundings in British Columbia for his music.

“The sounds of dub-influenced music, given that it has structure rhythm, bass and echoes, really work with the natural environment in a way that the music is very organic feeling — soft and subtle, not harsh or sharp in any way,” McCue says.

Jamie McCue, founder and curator of record label Silent Season, couples electronic music with views of nature to create a multi-dimensional experience. Courtesy of Jamie McCue
Jamie McCue, founder and curator of record label Silent Season, couples electronic music with views of nature to create a multi-dimensional experience.

McCue uses field recordings from the forest of elements including birds, wind and rain and then layers in white noise and electronic music. He also couples the music from his label with a photographer and videographer, so audiences can immerse themselves in the feeling of being in nature in a multi-dimensional way.

“When you really look at a really captivating forest on a rainy afternoon, it’s dark and soft, and you can almost hear the music,” he says. “The music washes over you. There’s a thickness to it, where the sounds create a texture. It feels thick and mossy like the rainforest floor, wet and soggy. That’s how I envision the music to be.”

One of the biggest differences of CMKY from another festival, Lesta says, is the lack of focus on entertainment and more on experience. This is a large part of the performances, but also in the timeline for the festival itself. In an effort to tell a story and avoid a feeling of fragmentation, there are no overlapping events. This way, Lesta says, people have room to breathe and experience the festival as a whole.

“CMKY is not entertainment based. I mean it’s entertaining, but it’s not an entertainment vehicle,” she says. “It’s an experiential vehicle.”

One performer who demonstrates that concept is Lichens. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, the mind behind Lichens, is an artist who’s more interested in exploring spontaneity with music and the moment than playing the same set of music over and over again.

“I was always of the mind that the first time you do something, it’s the best,” Lowe says. “It’s the freshest the idea will ever be. After that point it begins to age and will never be as fresh or exciting for the person who has created it or the audience.”

His instruments of choice are the modular synthesizer and his own voice. But Lowe isn’t a songwriter; he says he works with the expressive, tonal quality of the voice without being bound to words or language

“I felt like there was a way that another set of rules could be applied, so that’s why I did it the way that I did,” Lowe says. “Language and words are roads extremely well traveled, and I felt like there was room to create a new vernacular without using actual words. It was more interesting to me. … There are systems and theories and scales in place, and people adhere to those things because they’re taught that’s what it’s supposed to be. … It’s more interesting to me to try things that haven’t been done or done in a certain way.”

Through his spontaneous performances and study of the voice, Lowe is able to offer the experience to the audience while navigating the moment himself — this idea embodies this year’s theme of Inner Space//Outer Space. While the two concepts are literally worlds apart, Lesta says, there’s a connection between the two.

“Since the ’50s, there has been a cultural obsession with getting off the rock or exploring space, and it’s been identified as the last frontier,” Lesta says. “So while that’s very interesting to us, there’s so much that happens in our societies and social structures and in ourselves as individuals.

“Those two spaces — inner and outer — are essentially one in the same. We want to foster a place [at CMKY] for people — that while they’re launching into outer space at these events, there’s also a lot of room for contemplation and self exploration about our own inner space.”

This concept bodes well with the most of the artists at the festival, like Jen Lewin who creates interactive art. Lewin says all of her pieces have these kinds of layers. Her piece “The Chandelier Harp,” which will be featured at the festival, is a structure with a series of lasers that play different sounds when triggered. At first, Lewin says, the focus is on the self, navigating through the piece and the sounds you create. But the next phase is outside of yourself, collaborating with others who are also interacting with the piece.

Lewin’s work includes a lot of intersection between science and art. She says she’s always been drawn to art that calls for participation. It’s especially important nowadays, she says, with society constantly engaging with the world around it through technology.

“I have two kids, and we were at a museum and my 12-year-old walked up to a piece and said, ‘Well, what does it do? What can I do with it?’” she says. “His expectation is that he can interact with it and change it and affect it.”

CMKY has more than just interaction with art pieces, but also has workshops for goers to create their own art. Workshops include software synth development and paper electronics. Lewin is hosting a wearables workshop, which involves painting silk scarves and then weaving LED lights into them to make wearable technology.

With her harp and workshop, Lewin says, she values the participation aspect of the festival. With her own work, she says, she’s starting to stray away from strictly music festivals and focus on more community-driven events, which is why she chose to work with CMKY.

“It’s a very different kind of festival,” she says. “It doesn’t just feel like a rave. I like the part that it’s part of the city.”

Those core community-oriented values will not be lost as CMKY, the organization, continues to evolve, Lesta says. And she hopes that festival goers will help contribute to a vision for the future. CMKY, she says, will continue to do one-off events but has bigger aspirations on the horizon for something greater.

“The idea is that with a clear mind, without only thinking about the framework of festival to define what we do, that the possibilities are endless,” Lesta says. “And my hopes are that everyone who’s been involved will continue to work together, and that we will create something new and exciting and discover a new way to showcase all these different mediums and ideas as a collective.”

ON THE BILL: Communikey Festival. April 16-19. Various times and locations. Schedule and tickets on cmky.org/festival