Ulrich Schnauss, the German master of ambient electronic, finally made it to the Mezzanine last night after his tour with shoegazers Chapterhouse had been postponed earlier this year. Like most cheap shows worth seeing in San Francisco, it was put on by Popscene, which meant the show included notable interludes by DJ Aaron Axelsen as well. Mezzanine is in a pretty prime location, just off Market Street in the heart of SF, and a classy standing area with a large stage makes it a great venue.
Before Mezzanine started to fill up, A Shoreline Dream opened, surprising most of the audience with their style. It was clear most had come for Ulrich and Chapterhouse, because even after their finale, the crowd barely mustered a round of applause.
Aaron Axelson quickly got the crowd bumping a bit with some brilliant remixes of Animal Collective and Florence and The Machine while the anticipation for Ulrich mounted. It must have been a tough task, transitioning between loud A Shoreline Dream to the soothing Ulrich, but as always Axelsen handled it like a pro.
Anticlimactically and silently, Ulrich Schnauss eventually made his appearance. He certainly hit some of his more recognizable songs, but it was basically just a long DJ set incorporating his favorite sounds: high pitched chimes, basic drum beats, dramatic cymbal rolls, subtle bass lines and echoing euphonic chords. He played piano a couple of times, but most of his work was done with a mouse on his Mac.
His ambient music rarely contains a hard beat, but it isn’t dancing music at all anyways. This meant the crowd just bobbed around a bit while they stared at Schnauss, hunched over his computer on stage. He barely interacted with the audience, only smiling once when there was some applause during a lull. He made his exit after a slightly forced climax which just consisted of some highly distorted bass noises. With that, he simply got up and walked off stage without even a wave. After another DJ set interlude, 90s shoegaze legends Chapterhouse closed out the night with their catchy riffs.
It was certainly an interesting concert, and seeing Schnauss meant a lot to people based on the turnout. Still, it was unclear why so many wanted to see him live. He wasn’t performing any great feats, nor was he providing banging tunes for dancing. Did the members of the audience witness a maestro in action, or a prerecorded set only made live by a play button?
In general, artists like Schnauss need more transparency with their live performances (even an extremely literal attempt at transparency would help). It needs to be more obvious that he isn’t doing the electronic equivalent of lip-syncing, and that he is instead either improvising on the spot with prerecorded tracks, or making the sounds live. Even Imogen Heap, reliant as she is on computers, manages to make her shows a truly impressive musical experience through obvious actions. Schnauss’ concert instead was reminiscent of abstract art; audience members were perplexed as to what they were supposed to be looking for, but were too embarrassed to admit it to one another.
Ulrich Schnauss is still the master of his musical niche, but his live performances should have something else going on. The MoMA should really book him for some abstract art exhibitions. He’d fit right in.
Ulrich Schnauss – Blumenwiese Neben Autobahn (download)
Ulrich Schnauss – Blumenthal (download)
Chapterhouse – Pearl (download)