In advance of PRESENCE, the 2018 edition of the renowned UNSOUND festival in Kraków, Poland, Joseph Sannicandro reflects upon this year’s theme, the history of the festival, and previews some of this year’s highlights.
The very human drive for increased communication is always about loneliness, about reaching those who are absent. Communication tries to address this lack. We often think of this as new, as a form of alienation which has resulted from Industrial society and new technologies. When we hear talk of “technology,” this “technology” tends to be coded as inherently digital, the only mediation we recognize is new media, while the old fades into the background, eventually considered so “natural” we don’t really think about it at all. Our fraught relationship with technology is certainly nothing new. The ancients reacted to the creation of writing much the same way we have to the Internet. Anne Carson recounts an example from literature, taken from the Roman-era, Greek writer Achilles Tatius, in his novel Clitophon and Leucippe. Clitophon thinks that his lover Leucippe is dead, and becomes engaged to another. Before the wedding, he receives a letter from Leucippe. He immediately writes back: “I am miserable in the midst of joy because I see you present and at the same time absent in your letter.” Even in ancient times, long before industrialization and mechanization, before electricity and digitization, human beings expressed both hope and sorrow in the face of new technologies. Absence and Presence are not so easy to untangle from one another.
Music remains, certainly for us and I hope many of our readers, a privileged form of communication in addressing such absence. With the invention of the phonograph, when it became possible to “write in sound,” to produce physical records which could travel freely, disembodied from musicians, when sound could be dematerialized and broadcast across the radio waves, did our cultural relationship to the art of music change forever? Access to new sounds meant a seismic shift in the constitution of the audience for particular kinds of music. With the advent of electrical recording in 1925, entire new hybrid genres (from jazz to tarab to tango and hula) emerged around the world as new urban trade centers collided with these new technologies. From a production standpoint, music was no longer confined by musicians and listeners in a physical space.
Studio recording is a fundamentally different art from the performance of music as it existed prior, as different as cinema is from theatre. While many musical artists and businesses are content to film their plays, so to speak, and sell them as commodities, many others have continued to push this new art as far as it can go, and this in turn has changed the way music can be performed and diffused. I don’t mean to draw too fine a line here, as of course a live recordings of a guitar and voice can be mindbogglingly powerful, while a state-of-art studio production can be little more than disposable, lowest-common-denominator pop entertainment.
Yet while new technologies seem to be an inextricable part of the production and consumption of new music, music cannot be reduced to a mere effect. As we must all know by now, every new opportunity seems to bring with it a host of problems, and like the Old Woman Who Swallowed the Fly, the situation has rapidly gotten out of hand as we try to develop technological solutions to non-technological problems. Our experience of music cannot be reduced to a question of its technological production or the format of its “consumption.” The experience of music transcends these questions of technological production or format of reception. It remains about creativity and connection. To my mind, it is in this territory that A CLOSER LISTEN and the broader community of which we are a small part is dedicated to exploring.
And community is very much at the heart of the music that moves us most. How have these technological changes affected our broader community? While the Internet has, in many ways, brought us closer, it has also become a source of constant tension, loss of revenue, an impoverishment of art and criticism into mere “content.” The ubiquity of cameras (in the form of smart phones connected to social media) has undeniably changed the experience of live musical performances, with the now painfully common sight of screens in the air at every concert, performance, action, gallery opening, museum exhibition…
There is, perhaps, no festival which is a part of our broader community that treat these themes as deeply, which dedicates itself to the elevation of music as communal experience, as UNSOUND. For their 2013 edition, entitled “Surprise,” Unsound banned the use of phones and photography, and kept half the festival bill a secret. For their 2018 edition, they have returned to these themes with “Presence.”
The first Unsound festival took place in Kraków, Poland in 2003. While in the 15 years since the festival has branched out to editions in other cities (including New York, Toronto, London, Adelaide and more besides), the annual festival in Kraków remains the heart of Unsound, renowned for its thoughtful programming and innovative venues. They engage the senses in ways that go far beyond the tired explorations of the audio-visual. Unsound interrogate space through experimentation with architecture. They break new ground in olfactory arts, matching the sounds of Tim Hecker, Ben Frost, and Kode9 with custom made perfumes diffused during their live performances. They’ve curated artists to perform alongside the silent film works of Andy Warhol.
Poland and Eastern Europe often receive limited global media attention, despite the fact that Poland has consistently proven itself through innovation across the arts, from literature to software design. Unsound has thus been in a position to focus some due attention on Polish culture, not merely bringing international audiences to the beautiful city of Kraków but in the form of commissioning new works. For instance, a new score for Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Sólaris, based on the novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem composed by Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnasson and performed in cooperation with Kraków’s Sinfonietta Cracovia, which made its debut at Unsound Kraków in 2010, and at Unsound New York in 2011, both accompanied by film manipulations courtesy of Brian Eno and Nick Robertson.
While some of our contributors have been lucky enough to attend some of these satellite editions, I am truly ecstatic to be able to be in attendance in Kraków this year. During and after the festival I will publish reviews of the performances, interviews with artists, and some more general thoughts on the theme to conclude. Until then, below are a few of the highlights I will be most looking forward to. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Unsound Krakow’s 2018 edition features far too many artists to do justice in this preview, but I will focus a few capsule picks here to give a sense of the great scope of the festival.
Eight days is a long time for any festival, but UNSOUND both begins and ends with a metaphorical bang. Sunday October 7th features a very special performance from Tim Hecker, joined by live musicians Tokyo Gagusu and Kara-Lis Coverdale to present his latest album, Konoyo. The soon-to-be-released Konoyo is easily the most minimal we’ve heard from Tim Hecker in a long while, perhaps ever, and his performance at Unsound will feature live contributions from a Japanese Gagaku ensemble (a form of Imperial Court music also associated with Shinto temple rituals) and Kara-Lis Coverdale (his collaborator on Virgins and Love Streams and a brilliant composer in her own right). Instrumental Tourist, Hecker’s 2012 collaboration with Daniel Lopatin of 0PN falls low on my ranking of Hecker’s albums (the Van Halen EP My Love Is Rotten to the Core is the only record I hold in lower regard, and certainly Fantasma Parastasie, his 2008 collab with Aidan Baker, is a far more successful). Thus it is interesting to find Hecker engaging with Japanese music on Konoyo, considering that Instrumental Tourist seemed to be poking fun at just this kind of cultural appropriation. But as with everything, context matters. Hecker isn’t blindly pulling from a World Music sample pack, mashing up gamelan with tablas and koras. This engagement with Japanese Gagaku is not in the form of incorporating the shakuhachi into his already established musical palette. Konoyo is the product of working and recording with Japanese court musicians from Tokyo Gagusu. It is the result of a deep conceptual alignment with the history of this music, careful consideration of the boundaries and limitations of pre-recorded musics, what it means to translate a music intended solely for the Imperial court into modern music no longer facing such constraints, and a formal meditation on the theme of loss and negative space.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Tim Hecker play on many occasions, mostly in his longtime home-base of Montreal. While I generally prefer the polish of his studio albums, his live performances can be a mixed bag. At best, his concerts take advantage of the physicality of LOUD SOUND, taking on the role of the DJ in secular church calling the crowded masses to sit in dark contemplation rather than move their bodies. In fact, his performances in churches are amongst his most memorable, particularly following the organ-centric Ravedeath, 1972. But in less forgiving venues, his compositions seem to lose some of their impact. With this in mind, I eagerly await the results of Tim Hecker’s collaboration with the Gagasu ensemble and Kara-Lis Coverdale with “the golden interior of glorious Juliusz Słowacki Theatre” in Krakow.
On October 8th, the innovative drummer Andrea Belfi, who has floored us with his mixture of percussion and electronics, will be joined for an improvisation session by fellow Italian ex-pat Valerio Tricoli, former member of the criminally slept on 3/4HadBeenEliminated and whose two LPs for PAN remain some of our favorites in recent years. Their meeting will be entitled “Drums-Fried / Tape-Fried” and no doubt some minds will be fried as well. Additional performers include Eartheater, whose PAN-debut from earlier this summer has been making waves, following through on the promise of her earlier work from several years ago. Her recordings hint at the experience of her energetic live performances. Don’t miss this one.
Director Jake Meginsky’s Full Mantis, a filmic portrait of legendary free jazz percussionist Milford Graves has been making the rounds this year, and the acclaim is universal. Screening at 4pm at Kino Pod Baranami on October 9th.
Lea Bertucci has been on our radar for years now, with each new release better than the last, and her recent LP Metal Aether for NNA remains one of the standout records of 2018. Her performance at the Synagoga Tempel on October 10th is sure to be a highlight, where she will be opening for Todd Barton and The Kesh Ensemble, making the live debut of Music and Poetry of the Kesh, a 1985 collaboration with the legendary novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away earlier this year.
Dance-floor activities at the Hotel Forum kick off Thursday night, October 11th, featuring genre-bending sets from Lotic, Ben UFO, Gábor Lázár, and many others. But to be honest I’m most excited to have another opportunity to see the footwork originator RP Boo work his infectiously joyous juke magic. He was featured on the influential Bangs & Works Vol.1: A Chicago Footwork Compilation alongside the likes of DJ Rashad and Traxman, his 1997 “Baby Come On” is considered the point zero for the genre, and his singular style remains keyed in on getting footwork dancers to do their thing for over two decades. While he’s grown as an artist in the years since, the template was there from the beginning, with the ability to shock with sudden shifts without ever loosing the groove. Despite being one of the pioneers of Chicago’s footwork scene, which has since become a global phenomenon, his previous records have been compilations of old and new material, making his 2018 I’ll Tell You What! shockingly his first record of all new material, and with it he’s ready to finally become known to the wider world. I had the great pleasure of witnessing a long set by the master at the Saturnalia festival at MACAO, an occupied palazzo in Milan, in the summer of 2017 and am very much looking forward to a repeat. I’ve never seen a DJ smile as much as RP Boo, and that positivity was felt loud and clear on the floor. #arpebu !
The party at the Hotel Forum continues on October 12th with sets including SOPHIE’s light and laser show, the “sonic warfare” of Hyperdub’s bass master Kode9, and the gabber-rap of Bamba Pana & Makaveli. The Forum’s basement will completely shake things up with a peek inside the local Polish jazz scene, with performances from Wojciech Jachna with Ksawery Wójciński, Jan Młynarski, and Pokusa. Over at ICE, the evening will take a rather different approach altogether, with three performances taking varying approaches to audiovisual art. The Halcyon Veil label-boss Rabit teams up with Texas performance art group House of Kenzo and visual artist Sam Rolfes for the premiere of Magna Surgat, working with live motion capture technology and dancers. Oh, and Alva Noto will also be doing his thing, presenting UNIEQAV, more of his signature blend of minimalism, electronics, and data science.
Drew McDowall is a Scottish musician who was active in the post-Throbbing Gristle heyday of British industrial music, performing as a member of Psychic TV in the 1980s. He became a full-time member of COIL by the mid-90s, including on 1998’s Time Machines, a record which has been credited with kick-starting the ongoing drone revival. While sadly founding members Balance and Sleazy have since departed this mortal coil, McDowall has been touring Time Machines in celebration of its 20th anniversary. At ICE for an early afternoon show on October 13th, McDowall’s rendition will be accompanied by a new A/V show developed with British visual artist Florence To.
Also at ICE later that evening will be the women responsible for two of our absolute favorite records of 2017. The evening opens with new work from Berlin-based Italian synth innovator Caterina Barbieri, working with visual artist Ruben Spini. But the main attraction will be Autobiography Edits, the European premiere of Jlin‘s specially produced version of choreographer Wayne McGregor’s dance work Autobiography. Jlin collaborated with the acclaimed Company Wayne McGregor to produce a soundtrack to Autobiography, based in part on Wayne McGregor’s on DNA. Commissioned by Unsound, Jlin’s performance will be performing alongside dancers from the company. And to give even more cause for celebration, Jlin and McGregor were just the 2018 prize for best composer and choreographer from the “The Charles and Joan Gross Famiy Foundation Fund.”
Huerco S. has been making waves at the hazy intersection between dance-floor oriented house music and bedroom ambient since his 2013 debut, Colonial Patterns. Earlier this year he released the exquisite Make Me Know You Sweet under the new moniker Pendant, much more spare and spacious than his work as Huerco S. but no less engrossing. He will be playing live at the Hotel Forum on October 13th for a huge final night blow out, joined by many artists across three dance floors, including blistering singeli music from Tanzanians MCZO & Duke, the bizarre Berlin-based Amnesia Scanner (fresh off their PAN debut, with some help on vocals from Pan Daijing), dance-ready electro-pop from Montreal’s Marie Davidson, Egyptian rapper Rozzma, and many more. And if the dance-floor is too much to bear, did I mention there will be a chill-out drone room playing the music of none other than drone legend Phill Niblock all night in celebration of his 85th birthday? What!?!
I can think of no more fitting ending to the festival than MEMORY, dedicated to Jóhann Jóhannsson. Our readers know that we have been longtime fans of Jóhann’s music, and were devastated along with the rest of his listeners when he died earlier this year. (Richard wrote this eloquent tribute to the great composer, reflecting on the power of his music coupled with his great humility.) While Jóhann Jóhannsson attained great success as a composer of film music, for which he won a Golden Globe and was twice nominated for an Academy Award, we remember him best for classics such as Virðulegu Forsetar (2004), IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (2006), and Fordlandia (2008). On October 14th, the final night of Unsound, his fans, friends, and collaborators Hildur Guðnadóttir, Sam Slater, Erik K. Skodvin (Svarte Greiner), Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (Lichens) and the Sinfonietta Cracovia will present a special evening of music in tribute to Jóhann Jóhannsson.
See Unsound.Pl for the complete schedule and more information about all the artists.