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EJN Award for Adventurous Programming winner 2022: Crossing boundaries, celebrating sound

We share adventurous programming approaches from our 2022 award-winner, Le Guess Who?


The 2022 winner of our Adventurous Programming Award is the visionary Le Guess Who?

The Utrecht-based festival is renowned for its thought-provoking and diverse programming, featuring artists from across the world. And it is the first festival to win this award that doesn’t identify itself as a jazz festival in the traditional sense.

We talked to Bob Van Heur, festival co-founder and artistic director, about Le Guess Who’s programming approaches. Here are some of its defining characteristics for your inspiration.  

Dissolve boundaries

Le Guess Who describes itself as “a celebration of sound” and by not imposing limits to its programming, it is able to cross boundaries in many different ways.

The programming blurs and challenges genres and defies our expectations about music and sound. Significantly, it dissolves global borders by featuring a rich diversity of music and artists from all around the world.

The festival also blurs boundaries between artists and audience. Bob explains that “Le Guess Who? will always try to look at the programme from the artist's perspective at first.

Artists generally want to see lots of other artists on the line-up. So then ‘artists’ become ‘audience’. Everyone is the same then. They are all music fans. There is no barrier between them anymore.” 

Hand over control and be democratic

Over the last seven years, the team at Le Guess Who? has invited a range of guest artists to co-curate the festival.

Over thirty different curators have been involved, bringing up-and-coming artists to perform alongside more established names. The traditional hierarchical festival line-up is flattened, with a much more democratic approach taking its place. No one artist is a headliner, and less well-known genres are given equal billing.

The guest curators are given free rein to pursue their boldest ideas and audiences love the fact that each year there is new energy, new vision, and new discoveries to be made.

Bob explains the value of this approach in Drowned in Sound: “The audience also gets a better feel of what these artists like and love, and the artists feel more at home as they play with many of their friends and bands they love. Everyone connects better with each other this way.” 

In 2022 guest curators included experimental pop quartet Animal Collective; hip hop trio clipping., and CURL, an underground collective.

Bob describes how they select the guest curators: We have a longlist of artists that we feel could be interesting curators. And every year we ask the audience for their recommendations. Every part of the programme influences the other parts.” 

“So, for example, once we have an artist confirmed as curator, then the other curators we  invite should either offer a perspective on a genre of music that the other curators are not representing, or should present artists whose work deepens the already booked programme. The same approach goes for the co-curating partners.” 

Build trust and stimulate imaginations 

Le Guess Who? has grown deep levels of trust with their audiences, and much of this stems from its programming approach.

By drawing on multiple curatorial perspectives, the festival has become renowned for the curiosity it piques and the joy it creates. It’s a playground of sound and music that inspires the imaginations of audiences and artists alike, and pulls people back for another journey of discovery. 

For festival programmers thinking about how to build trust, Bob’s advice is: “Try not to crowd-please with the artists you book. Your audience is generally more intelligent and open to music than you might assume.”

He goes on to explain how Le Guess Who?’s approach to building trust has evolved:

“We have been doing it for 16 years and have worked with curators since 2014. The good thing about having artists curate is that they have their own following and have already built trust with their fans. This gives room for experiment in the curated programmes as the audience already has trust in the curator.”

“It’s also of great importance that the live shows are of high quality live as well. Once we stop doing that, I'm sure the audience would stop 'trusting' us too. But we have a steady and committed audience now that comes back every year.” 

Facilitate intriguing collaborations 

An integral element of Le Guess Who’s programming are its unique artistic collaborations. By co-curating the programme with guest artists, innovative and unexpected collaborations are born, highly valued by artists and audiences alike.

For Bob, collaboration is key to everything. He adds that “We would be very naive if we believed that Le Guess Who? holds all the knowledge. Collaborators fill our blind spots, they inspire us with different thoughts and ideas, and they challenge us. Always with the goal to make things better.”

“Every curator and collaborator brings their own vision and ideas to the table and always shows us something we didn't know before. That keeps triggering our curiosity.”

When asked about his collaboration highlights, Bob says: “Some of my favourite curators were people who come from different backgrounds to me (like Radwan Ghazi Moumneh or Moor Mother) or who work within a different field (Iris van Herpen, a fashion designer). And then there are the artists who are obsessed music lovers (the Bug, Devendra Banhart, Shabaka Hutchings, A.O.). There are tons of highlights. Too many to name here!” 

Shine a light on under-represented music

Traditional music from around the globe is made more visible through the festival’s ‘Hidden Musics’ strand. This means audiences can experience centuries-old music that has few outside influences, and under-represented artists are given a platform for their work.

In 2022, the programme included a flamenco innovator, a collective of Jbala Sufi trance makers from Morocco, and a mistress of voice from Algeria. 

Bob describes Hidden Musics as: “A series where we tend to focus on music that generally doesn't have access to the (main music industry) world. There is so much music out there that is considered essential locally but is totally unknown outside of that context. This music gives a deeper understanding of people and their emotions, and that is something we like to share so that we can understand each other better.” 

Create a community

The most successful festivals don’t just create an event, they create a community around them. One reason that audiences return to Le Guess Who? again and again is that they feel part of a community of like-minded music-lovers and adventurers. 

Le Guess Who have built on this sense of community and are now nurturing it in a digital space. Cosmos promotes international collaboration and brings little-known music to a global audience. 

Bob explains that Cosmos developed out of LGW-TV, the online programme that was presented in 2020 when the physical festival wasn't possible. “At Cosmos we present video content made by our LGW Embassies. These are local organisations across the world that are deeply connected with the local scenes and give an overview of what's happening there currently.”

“On the one hand, LGW gives them a platform to reach an international audience. But an equally important part is the exchange of knowledge between the embassies. We see it as a think tank of like-minded organisations.”

Cosmos also gives Le Guess Who? the opportunity to present work from artists that is difficult to present physically at the festival. For example, those who can't come due to finances, visa issues or other restrictions. 

Make it of your city

As well as bringing your audiences on a sonic adventure, take them on a journey through your city.

The Le Guess Who? programmes artists in venues range from large theatres and performance spaces to churches, cafes, warehouses, community centres and nightclubs. It takes audiences from well-known areas of Utrecht  to places less visible to visitors.

Its free participatory programme U? is created for and with communities in the city and brings new venues into the mix. With performances, exhibitions, brunches, silent discos, boxing matches and more, this strand features Utrecht’s cultural life in all its diversity.

The Le Guess Who? programme is mainly internationally focused while the U? programme is focused locally. Bob describes this as “the Yin and Yang” of the festival.

Bob underlines the importance of the connection with local communities in Utrecht, saying: “Giving people room to develop their own programme is important to us. It is about the interaction with each other, the impetus to create something together. To make Utrecht a better place. And no one can envision this better than the people from Utrecht themselves.”
You can read more about Le Guess Who? in this longread and podcast by Cheri Percy that was commissioned by the festival for its 15th anniversary.

The next edition of Le Guess Who? is on 9-12 November 2023.

Photos: 1) Hatis Noit by Tim van Veen; 2) by Tengbeh Kamara; 3) ​by Tim van Veen; 4) Sons of Kemet live by Jelmer de Haas