Concert Review: Nicolas Jaar

Nicolas Jaar is an electronic music producer, whose vast experimentations make him difficult to categorize anymore concretely than that. He is of Chilean heritage, a detail which is pronounced in his musical style. Latin rhythms and his own Spanish lyrics often feature, but only to intersect with Eno-esque ambience, Villalobos-inspired techno and microhouse, downtempo dance music, and hints of dubstep. His releases are gorgeous and intricate, masterfully woven together from disparate fragments. The compositions feature exquisite piano stylings, scattered percussion, glitches and scratchy silence, an industrial noise-flavored saxophone, occasional beats, and Jaar’s own stunning baritone voice, soaked in heavy reverb. Silence holds as much weight as any musical element; careful listening is met with reward. 

Jaar began his career as somewhat of a prodigy, releasing several impressive singles and remixes starting at age 18, followed by the critically acclaimed Space is Only Noise at age 21, while he was still a student at Brown University. He has since become something of a leftfield international celebrity, as evidenced by the sold-out show at L'Olympia - the lineup spilled out onto Rue Sainte-Catherine, rounded the corner, and extended down almost to René-Lévesque. Security was intense that night, retaining control over the swaths of very down-to-party concert-goers with full pat-down searches. In my brief pass through security I witnessed more than one flask sacrificed to the garbage cans before my eyes.

The crowd inside was restless and tightly packed. The group in front of me performed their own concert version of manspreading, making sure to carve out enough space for any anticipated fist-pumping in advance of Jaar’s arrival. When our enigmatic star finally appeared, he was veiled in smoke. A glimmering sample of trickling water pierced the air, announcing the dawn of what would be a two-and-a-half-hour set. Ephemeral sounds bloomed and wilted, gently unfolding. Jaar made clever use of the spacing between speakers, allowing scattered bits of sound to stream in, then intermingle. 

When his deep velvet voice first penetrated the room, the audience erupted into adoring applause. But Jaar did far from pander to their appetite; the music didn’t become danceable until at least twenty minutes in, and even then, it wasn’t sustained. Bursts of rhythm alternated with patches of ambient static. Some people’s patience wore thin, and by the time he played “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See,” he had lost maybe half of the crowd. Each time that he teased at the party having finally begun, it cut was short with offerings of artful abstraction. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what we were expecting; this is exactly how he structures his albums.

The benefit of an album however is that the listener controls their exposure to it; you can choose to be in an environment and a headspace that is conducive to absorbing complex musical ideas. I would cherish the chance to see Nicolas Jaar play a smaller venue, or a seated concert. His elegant canvasses of sound only become richer with focus, and the privilege of watching such a cunning craftsman produce in real-time should not be overlooked.

In author Heidi Julavitzs’s recent memoir The Folded Clock, she explains the reasoning for travelling to see a certain 15th century fresco, painted by someone called Piero della Francesca: “because Piero was big on math and so, behind his expressive faces there is not emotion but the math of an emotion.” Nicolas Jaar’s set felt like the math of music; meticulous and intelligent, containing all the requisite elements, deserving of your devoted focus, but ultimately too difficult to be enjoyable for any more than a small minority.