Nicolas Jaar has a capacity for invoking thought. His ambient and experimental nature as a producer has led to some of the greatest compositions of music this decade, like his 2012 BBC Essential Mix of the Year, in a way that broadens many perceptions of electronic music. The same can be said of his live sets.
Jaar’s fall tour took him to Berkeley for Halloween weekend, with sold out Friday and Saturday shows at The UC Theatre. The 1,400 capacity theatre proved to be an excellent choice for Jaar’s live set. Despite demand for Friday’s show being through the roof, management knew exactly how many tickets to sell. The three-level venue had the atmosphere of a sold out show with the comfort of a theatre; the lower level dance floor was packed, but the two levels above afforded enough space to move freely and get a different angle on the incredible show below. There really isn’t a bad spot in the house. We spent the first night in the middle of the second level and the energy was what one would expect from the pit, all the while having tables and seats and space to breathe. The second night we discovered the beauty of the third level, with the least obstructed views and the most room to dance. The rectangular layout with stepped levels worked perfectly with the acoustics and visuals of Jaar’s set.
Then there’s the music. What makes Jaar most impressive, aside from being only 21 when he released his first and most breakthrough album, Space Is Only Noise, is his ability to blur the lines between conventional genres. His live sets are as experimental and improvisational as his productions, like a technological jazz. I was impressed by the way Jaar interwove elements of techno and tribal into his more ambient sounds, laying down percussive foundation with booming drums and haunting basslines. He invokes a primal connection with drums, reminding us of how our ancestors first communicated. It’s the tapping into that foundational feeling that brings the crowd together.
Jaar builds off the percussive backbone with a synthesizer, drum machine, saxophone, as well as his voice. He creates a sense of fullness that one misses out on with traditional DJs. As a one-man live act he has as many tools as an entire band, looping and adding layers to his set like a tribal symphony. The minimalism of his visuals contrasts with the complexity of his sounds. The smoke machine adds a fullness of its own, punctuated by pulsing white lights forming a silhouette around Jaar. As the smoke bleeds over the stage and the backlight fades to lasers in the periphery, you can start to make out Jaar’s stare, fixated on his instruments. He keeps that focus throughout his two-hour set. Nicolas Jaar knows how to make music. It’s a kind of music that lends itself greatly to the live setup. As convenient as a mixer and CDJs are in a traditional DJ format, the hardware in Nicolas Jaar’s ensemble give an organic sense of improvisation. It’s refreshing to see this form of instrumentation in the midst of an oversaturated DJ market. That’s not to say DJing isn’t as meritocratic. When using CDJs, the art is being able to assign focus otherwise used on playing instruments to cultivating an atmosphere through track selection. In this sense, each track in a set is to a DJ what instruments are to Nicolas Jaar. He uses the stems of his tracks in conjunction with instruments create the widest range of possibilities for his sound. What results is an ambient, melancholic, groovy masterpiece.
Here’s a look at the show through the talented eyes and lens of John Felix.
Many thanks to John Felix, Tessa of UC Theatre, Ben of We Are Free, and Joe of Sacksco for making this night possible.