Le Guess Who? is an apt name for this festival of experimental delights. The cobbled streets of Utrecht are currently flush with tourists and locals, the squares overrun with spin-off markets and jubilees, and the twisting bike paths cursed with Google Mapping foreigners looking for their next turn that will take them to one of the many stages dappled over Utrecht.
What is Le Guess Who? Great question. To be honest, it’s hard to say. The website describes it as ‘a celebration of sound in the picturesque city of Utrecht, The Netherlands.’ It’s a vague description, but ‘a celebration of the strangest and wildly endearing bands utilizing the most diverse range of music that takes you from a downstairs classical arrangement with a full orchestra and choir to a ninth floor electro-ambient soundscape exercise involving layers of industrial noise and sound from everyday life,’ was probably a bit too intimidating. Does it make sense? Not really, but not much of this festival does.
But this is precisely the charm of Le Guess Who?. The question mark implies so much, but can be condensed to ‘what the hell is going on?’.
I’ll preface this with a confession: I’m not a music nerd. I can’t tell you the difference between Jersey Club and Cyber Grind (yes, these are real electronic sub-genres). But, I don’t think many people can. So here’s an introduction to Le Guess Who as a completely ordinary expat.
Tip #1: Start in the centre
Since Friday, there has been a steady flow to the fourth-largest Dutch city, positioned squarely in the centre of the Netherlands. The hub-bub of it all takes place at Tivoli, the entertainment centre. The various beats are almost squarely contained in the various venues which range from the aforementioned Tivoli, the beating heart of the scene, to famed music club Ekko, and the industrial park De Helling on the city fringe.
As Tivoli’s revolving door spins, the odd beat escapes outside, bouncing of clusters of smokers who protect themselves from the cold winds. Inside, it’s a different story. As a festival, there is a certain sense of anticipation hanging in the air, and fair warning: it’s contagious. In the foyer, festival-goers and art-searchers alike cluster in small groups, the chatter of various languages all accumulate into one general hum. Friends reunite, calling ‘yoo-hoo!’ (seriously, you can’t make this up), and the accents range from the local to the unidentifiable.
The advantage of Tivoli is that it offers seven of the twenty venues used for Le Guess Who? across the four-day program, so for those hoping to avoid the Dutch November weather they can float in the central heating and still not miss too much of the show – although I’d recommend broadening the horizon and experiencing the many other venues available, which range from thousand year old churches to newly created pop-ups.
Tip #2: Go with the flow
This is not a festival for planners, but it is a festival for everyone. With over 150 bands, movies, and performances it’s undeniable that you can find something that appeals to your taste. The trick is finding it. Originally, I had planned out which acts I wanted to see, circling them in the brightly coloured programs. It was futile. Le Guess Who? is a festival that keeps you guessing constantly, and the amount of distractions everywhere are enough to make the best laid plans go awry.
It’s also not a festival that can be contained by a schedule (although it does run remarkably on time). Instead, this is festival has its’ own flow, its’ own way of doing things, and the best way to enjoy it is to let yourself be picked up by the various vibes and float your way along.
Start yourself in Tivoli, the epicentre of it all. Immerse yourself in the more traditional Grote Zaal on the first floor, where one night the grueling notes and imperfect rhymes of Sun Kil Moon deliver an off-tempo, unnerving spoken word diary entry, but the next the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra offers a classical rendition of Lili Boulanger’s composition ‘Du fond de l’abîme,’ while the audience continues to drink the frothy draught beer they ordered outside.
Follow the arrangement of steep escalators winding up through Tivoli’s levels accompanied by transformative harp music and take a minute to peruse the accompanying Black Power Tarot Exhibition, a collection of posters depicting ‘22 prominent African American personalities’.
Tip #3: An open mind is essential
Over two nights I watched an aging man pounding impressively on a drum-set like an eighteen-year-old hopped up on caffeine and speed while his co-performer used a basketball and mallet to play an electric guitar. Meanwhile, twenty metres away watched people rapturously applaud multimedia performances filled with various Egyptian symbols. This is festival that is all about contrast, and the result is glorious.
The festivities aren’t contained to the performance halls. In between are various bars and food offerings, filled with cheerful socialisers. Various musical beats continue the festival between each stage, and the coloured lighting on the sixth floor provide a tropical environment. The staircases to the upper floors fill with people in anticipation of the following events – go one floor up and you’ll find yourself in Pandora, a box full of hidden treasures, or climb even more stairs to the ninth floor, the aptly named Cloud Nine, which hosted the also aptly named Klein on Friday night (get it? Cloud Nine – Cl-ine – Klein?
Tip #4: Be on Cloud Nine
The previous night, this climb up the stairs had revealed a stage clouded in fabricated smoke, and a constant stream of people filled the venue, some already tired from the nights activities and resting by sitting on the floor. What I first thought was a playback of an electro-singer-songwriter track turned out to be a small women hidden behind the grandiose piano, only visible by her bun on top of the head. Her voice is accompanied only by silence, except for the occasional shuffling footstep, and the clink of an empty beer glass being laid on a table. The atmosphere is intimate, as the producer/composer/vocalist has her voice electronically manipulated in a way that captures the entire audience.
Tip #5: Bike it to enjoy it
You could spend your whole night here in Tivoli, but the festival reaches much further. A five minute bike-ride will take you to EKKO, a venue typically populated by the varied indie music lovers, hipsters, and rock’n’rollers of Utrecht. Last night they hosted Sex Swing, a band described by the website as ‘spectral free jazz, withered 60s psychedelia, monolithic drums and sinister vocal howls.’ It’s accurate, a bizarrely enchanting performance accompanied by the swinging and squealing sounds of a saxophone which makes the crowd bop it’s newly collective head in approval. The music is like in acid trip in space and is full of audience approval.
A ten minute pedal will take you to the city fringe, a venue named De Helling in the ex-industrial centre of Utrecht. A reformed warehouse, this venue is large, but fills to capacity early creating a line waiting outside in the chilly Dutch spring evening. Inside, even post-performance the electrifying atmosphere remains, hanging with the remaining smoke that fills the air.
The unsummable: should you go?
It may sound intimidating to be surrounded by all these conflicting musical processes, but the result is eye-opening to the various possibilities and instabilities of music. The festival is a free-form creation of various worlds locked inside the Le Guess Who? universe. While some of the acts are bizarre, and others border on the extreme, there’s undoubtedly something to catch everyone’s attention – it would be impossible not to.
Le Guess Who? is an experimental, curated collection of various music from all over the world, and even as a non-music-buff it still contains enough essential elements for the whimsical experience into the unknown to be delightful. It’s a challenge, and not every act will please every person – one British tourist described one show as a ‘load of horse***t. But this is part of the pleasure of Le Guess Who? – it’s a festival that will keep you guessing. Answers are not guaranteed – and that’s all the fun.
To experience the remaining two days of fancy, tickets are still available from the Le Guess Who? website.