Mouse On Mars at the Chicago Symphony

They are the heirs to Kraftwerk, the German synth-pop unit that invented an electronic vocabulary from thin air in the 70’s. Both on the level of sound design and compositional heft, no one in electronica matches Mouse on Mars.

And this month, they came to the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series.

One year ago, my co-conspirator Anna Clyne and I banged our heads together for several months as we dreamed up programs for the historic new-music series. We wanted the best new music, from a wide variety of composers, that would speak to Chicago in a unique way. About two dozen pieces emerged, ranging from post-serialists to post-minimalists, from Paris to London to Chicago, all with something fresh and exciting to say.

But we wanted to save one spot for someone truly outside the classical field. And Mouse on Mars was perfect.

This electonica duo, comprised of Jan Werner and Andi Toma, has been pushing the boundaries of techno for two decades. I have seen them play in front of thousands of people in Rome, Berlin, and New York, each time delivering completely different music. Their sophistication, their wit, their uncompromising focus suggested that they could step up to the challenge.

They delivered.

From the first rehearsal, it was clear that Jan and Andi were not simply grafting classical arrangements over old tunes. The opening movement burst to life with the textural richness of Ligeti, mixing brash wind sonorities with processed sounds piped through two huge megaphones hanging behind the duo. The final piece in the set accumulated with the trippiness of The Beatle’s “Day in the Life,” and everything in between displayed the sheer sonic curiosity that has made Mouse on Mars one of the most respected names in electronica.
And they are damn funny.

Jan, the tall Arian blonde, is constantly causing the Dada-esque mischief that you can hear in his music. During a post-concert dinner at the famous pork restaurant Publican, he requested the vegan menu. The waiter squinted his eyes narrowly.

Andi is the hardcore half of the duo, the one whose head-banging energy keeps the crowd on its toes when he performs. But he is as shy as a mouse offstage and often stumbles into chaos. At the end of the night, after we’d hung out in his hotel room listening to music, he saw us to the door and said goodbye. Then the door shut behind him, locking him out. He was barefoot, so he couldn’t go to the opulent lobby to get a key; and he certainly couldn’t ask someone to deliver one, as the hallway reeked of marijuana. Tense German conversation ensued.
What this motley crew brought to Chicago, the home of their label Thrill Jockey, was a bright-eyed, left-field approach to electro-acoustic music that one rarely finds within classical music. They eschewed both heavy beats and film-score easiness; this was an avant-garde project, and Chicago was the right place for it. (Two nights before, Anna and I heard an all-12-tone concert at the Art Institute — standing ovation.)

Many thanks, too, to the weather gods, who delayed the arrival of ‘Snowmeggadon’ until the day after our concert.