London. Berlin. New York. Krakow?
Poland isn’t exactly the first place one associates with experimental music. Krakow is far from the bustling, cosmopolitan cultural centers, but it is nonetheless precisely this peripheral status that makes Unsound’s home-base so special.
While ultimately it is the quality of the music that makes any festival, in this regard Unsound is not so very different from other well-curated, multi-city festivals such as Montreal’s Mutek. They both feature excellent programming, editions organized around a coherent theme, music augmented by workshops and panel discussions, installations and free concerts to draw in the locals and feel more inclusive. Another obvious comparison is Berlin’s CTM, which features a similar structure. Even smaller festivals, like Braga, Portugal’s Semibreve, will feature a number of the same artists one could find at Unsound, as the global festival circuit grows and artists make routine stops in different countries.
What really sets Unsound apart from its peers is the setting of Krakow itself. Krakow is unique in that it wasn’t heavily bombed during WWII, wasn’t destroyed by the Soviet invasion, and wasn’t gutted by Modernist architecture. The Soviet-era buildings are instead on the outskirts, such at the Forum hotel where Unsound hosted most of their club nights this year. Krakow remains one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, yet ironically Auschwitz is close by, a powerful juxtaposition. The Soviet Bloc countries didn’t destroy inner cities in the post-war period like Western nations did, instead letting them degrade to be rediscovered and gentrified decades later.
Krakow’s center is a tranquil, dense, and walkable medieval city, and Unsound takes advantage of this by encouraging attendees to move from venue to venue, with few overlapping events. The city comprises a literal palimpsest of architecture styles encompassing Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco (sometimes within the same building), and the range of venues reflects the architectural diversity of the city. In this edition alone, Unsound hosted events in a synagogue, a medieval salt mine, an abandoned railway warehouse, a boutique hotel, hip cafes, a Japanese museum, baroque theatres and palaces, a state of the art performance hall, and the aforementioned abandoned Soviet-era hotel.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Krakow has become increasingly full of tourists drawn to its lovely buildings and squares, its Jewish history, its cheap food and beer, and its phenomenal royal castle on Wawel hill. I had visited Krakow only once before, more than a decade ago, and I couldn’t help but notice how much its changed even in that time. Many more cafes and chic bars and restaurants, the younger generation speaking excellent English. For all the talk of “the Polish Plumber” in the UK, it is worth pointing perhaps just how many English pensioners have retired to a cushy life as non-Polish speaking landlords, let alone the roving bands of drunk Brits on a stag party. The weak zloty, budget airlines, and fast train connections means easy access from the UK and around the continent.
Unsound, which began in Krakow in 2003 as a small showcase of experimental music, has played a key role in raising the profile of the city and has in fact contributing to revitalizing some of the stately venues which now play host to experimental musicians from around the globe. It’s a rather interesting position to be in, and the festival organizers seem to be quite reasonably ambivalent towards their baby, a stance which allows them to embrace the contradictions and take chances. As the Polish government has drifted increasingly right-ward and nationalistic, Unsound can no longer count on funding from the Polish Ministry of Culture, but still enjoys wide support from the region of Malopolska and from the city of Krakow itself (despite some recent controversy).
The majority of their revenue comes not from ticket sales but from creative partnerships, which keeps the festival affordable for locals and travelers alike. A prominent sponsor in recent years has been the municipal water supply, which makes brilliant sense. “Festival goers, you should drink more water, and did you know the tap water is delicious and safe, and free?” Everybody wins. It would be nice to have been informed, however, that Krakow is also one of Europe’s most polluted cities, with a horrendous air quality resulting from a topography that captures air pollution caused from burning coal and garbage in the surrounding area. It gets so bad in winter that many of the cities better-off residents (including expats like found Mat Schulz and the aforementioned British landlords) leave for the season. This is where I wonder about the limits of socio-political engagement. If the festival tried to draw attention to this issue, would they maintain support from the city and the region, which depends heavily on tourism?
There are of course limits to what a festival, any festival, can achieve. And I truly appreciate the high-minded and politically engaged subtext to the festival, proving that Culture is a worthwhile and necessary battleground. It is courageous to hold a panel such as Traces, which asked “how can we respectfully live around, or visit as tourists, sites connected to the Holocaust?” in a cultural moment when the ruling Law and Justice party has been white-washing Polish anti-Semitism and erasing the central role Jewish Poles played in the nation’s history. Yet it strikes me as ironic that while multiple panels addressed environmental themes and climate change (“the Anthropocene” and “apocalyptic tourism”) the question of air pollution, something directly affecting everyone is the city, isn’t addressed. But ultimately I must applaud the festival for its high level of self-awareness and self-critique.
In these ways, Unsound is truly a laudable organization: commissioning new works, managing innovative artists, expanding beyond the audio-visual, organizing a world-class festival, encouraging attendees to think and discuss and interact and address difficult questions, enjoying a charming and historic city while experiencing some of the best and most diverse music the world has to offer. On the other hand, they work with reviled global brands like Ticketmaster. Compromise is of course a necessary part of growth, and these compromised help keep the festival accessible to locals and capable of hosting truly special events.
Festival organizers estimate that 50% of attendees come from Poland, with most of the travelers coming from the UK. Anecdotally London and Berlin were well represented, which is no surprise. Unsound uses all this to its advantage. For the London and Berlin crowd who have made the pilgrimage many times, Unsound Krakow might seem old hat by now. For the Press flown in and put up in boutique hotels, they can skip the prolegomena and highlight the best shows. But for everyone else, I hope some wider context is worthwhile.
In the coming weeks, I will debut a new podcast series, an episode of which will be dedicated to UNSOUND and feature interviews with Lea Bertucci and Resina, field-recordings from around Krakow, excerpts from panels, and a mix of music from artist’s who performed at this year’s edition. Below, I relate some personal highlights. In keeping with this year’s theme of “Presence,” I took very few photos, and as such as the imagery below comes not from live performances but from press photos and album covers, with a few shots of my own. While not everyone seemed to embrace the concept of being “present,” it certainly contributed to the unique vibe of the festival. (Joseph Sannicandro)
UNSOUND’s “Presence” ran in Krakow from 7-14 October 2018, and the planning for my preview alone was overwhelming. These highlights are far from exhaustive, given the hundreds of artists present, but with 8 days and night of events, this article is a bit of a #longread. I’ve organized my personal highlights thematically below, grouping events in ways that reflect something unique about UNSOUND.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
UNSOUND’s “Morning Glory” concerts are the perfect way to start your day off right. I wish more festivals had such soothing palette cleansing concerts. These early performances are free to the public, and both of this year’s concerts remain highlights for me, even if I had to rush out of bed to get to the venue by 11am.
On Tuesday morning, Sarah Davachi performed a gentle (so gentle) set at the Manghaa, as a calmness fell over the enraptured seated audience. That museum had been the site of much more intense performances the previous night. While Eartheater’s set was accompanied by live harp playing, the result sounded more like the result of a generation groomed on Bjork and nu-metal. I respect the obvious seriousness with which she brings to her music and performance, but it is an aesthetic vision that just wasn’t quite to my taste. By contrast, the improvised drums and tape duo of Andrea Belfi and Valerio Tricolo exceeded my already high expectations. Belfi’s percussion grants some necessary structure and fluidity to Tricoli’s tape improvisation, which was itself surprisingly dynamic and lively.
Davachi’s morning meditation was the perfect salve to the prior evening’s cacophonous celebrations. Davachi’s reputation continues to grow with each new fabulous full-length (of which there have been, by my count, at least four in the last two years) and the crowd showed up ready to be soothed. Her calm and meditative layers of synth feature no sharp attacks, slowly building up and changing in a minimal way such that every small gesture maintains out-sized impact.
The second evening at Manggha featured the relentless Irreversible Entanglements’ free jazz collective fronted by the fierce poet/rapper Moor Mother, among others. The Morning Glory set the following morning from 81-year old Polish avant-garde tuba legend Zdzisław Piernick was a delight. Not quite as soothing as Davachi’s set the previous morning, the setting in the ornate Synagoga Tempel granted the entire proceedings a devotional air, though perhaps the black paper kippah handed out to all the men on entrance helped set that tone. I’m struggling to think of any other prominent avant-garde tuba players, so I was delighted by the opportunity to be introduced to a Polish musician with such deep roots. Since the ‘70s, Piernick has worked to develop and expand the possibilities for the tuba. One of the real joys of a festival like UNSOUND is being introduced to the rich local musical history that rarely travels outside the region to the cosmopolitan centers that so often dictate which musical scenes and genealogies matter. Piernick was joined by Hati, an improv duo of a younger generation who perform with recycled and home-made instruments. The duo brought some textural variety to highlight Piernick’s tuba playing.
To the credit of the curators, UNSOUND’s program balances unknown young artists with established touring acts. They introduce festival goers to a variety of Polish musicians, up-and-coming and elders alike, while also highlighting artists from around the world outside the usual press attention. This year that meant acts from Egypt and Palestine, as well as a number of African artists (from Angola, Kenya, South Africa, and especially Tanzania and Uganda), a number of whom organizers had seen impress them in early September at Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival. Slikback, a Kenyan producer based in Kampala, Uganda, so impressed crowds he ended up playing three different sets, his first time performing anywhere in Europe. You can here one of those sets below.
Increased global communication doesn’t just boost new producers. In recent years, the Internet and a growing reissue culture has helped to raise the profiles of innovators from decades past, bringing increased attention to established classics and even unearthing recordings that had never received commercial release. It is, without a double, fantastic and long overdue that the work of Suzanne Ciani, Éliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, CC Hennix, and others are connecting with contemporary audiences and producing opportunities to tour and release records. This is equally true of many free jazz legends, of pop and soul musicians, and even the bedroom producers of the early 1980s cassette culture. As so many of these artists may not be able to rely on royalties of have pensions to support them as they age, it is important we find ways to financially support those whose music we love.
UNSOUND also featured a screening of Full Mantis, a documentary dedicated to the work of Milford Graves. Though the elder-statesmen of free jazz percussion did not perform at the festival, it is heartening to see the unique vision of his work, and his continued forward momentum and experimentation, acknowledged in forums such as this.
However it may often be the case that important names from the past draw crowds on the strength of recordings made many decades ago, while their more contemporary music fails to be captivating. When we see Terry Riley’s name on a bill, we might expect something to conjure the magic of Reed Streams or Persian Surgery Dervishes, but what we get is something far different. This may be an unfair expectation, but certainly many in the crowd seemed to have experienced this kind of bait-and-switch. (The terrible lines for beer didn’t help audience morale, as separate unmarked lines existed for drink tickets and drinks.)
While that was certainly true of Terry Riley’s performance with his son Gyan, other members of the Old Guard lived up to the hype. The New York Times had a very charitable, if unconvincing, explanation for why half the crowd walked out of Gyan and Terry Riley’s concert 440 feet underground in an historical salt mine. Not the easiest venue to walk out of. Believe me, no one left early to get to the Forum, as the performances there started just after the buses carrying the remaining crowd from the salt mine arrived. The father son duo started off promisingly enough, with Terry on vocals and Gyan noodling on guitar. But the rest of the set gave new meaning to Dad Rock, except the fault isn’t with Dad. Terry switched to piano, with mixed results, improving somewhat when he switched to a brassy-sounding synth. But Gyan’s circular playing, palm-muted chugging, and whammy action was out of place, and just never managed to connect in a meaningful way. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the best thing about the duo was the location.
Lucrecia Dalt opened, and while the Times may have found the Berlin-based, Colombian producer’s music to be too “soporific,” her abstract and lugubrious rhythms far outshone the headlining duo. Her set did not entirely cohere, but it wasn’t sleepy or aimless. There was often too much going on, which could have been edited down, but despite this had several beautiful moments, and I would encourage listener’s to give her most recent record Anticlines a closer listen.
The venue itself was extraordinary, the real highlight of the night, which included a claustrophobic double-decker elevator ride down hundreds of feet, and a labyrinthine walking exit through miles of interconnected tunnels.
Phill Niblock’s performance at UNSOUND, on the other hand, had tremendous impact. Niblock considers himself, above all, an intermedia artist, and his status as a filmmaker should not be downplayed when discussing his music. His films have been prominent parts of two performances I caught of his recently. In Napoli, Italy, in late July, I attended an evening dedicated to his film work and the work of Katherine Liberovskaya. In different ways, they both produce work that might be described as visual drone. The concept is apparent in the first seconds. One understands immediately how the duration of the film will play out. In Liberovskaya’s work, with a score by Niblock, we see grains of rice removed off-screen one by one, or ice cubs in a sink slowly melting. This is not film-making driven by plot, but an exploration of time and gesture. This phenomenological aspect of drone explored in visually and sonically.
Niblock is probably best known to our readers, however, for his pioneering drone music. His downtown NYC loft, Experimental Intermedia, has hosted countless performances over the last five (!) decades, and mentored artists from around the world. 2018 marks 50 years since Niblock’s first musical composition, and also his 85th birthday, so it was a pleasure to see him receive pride of place in UNSOUND’s programme.
Niblock performed on Saturday night at the “Secret Lodge,” a circular bar area in the basement of the Forum hotel, adjacent to the bathroom. The Forum hosted UNSOUND’s club nights, with three different halls on the main floor dedicated to different strands of dance music. The Secret Lodge, by contrast, was billed as something of a chill-out room, a place to take a breather from the intense spectacle and kinetic crowds above. Performers ranged from more down tempo DJs to jazz ensembles. Covered in carpet from floor to ceiling (including the floor and ceiling!), the entire room smelled like the bathrooms had overflowed more than once over the years. The prominent Bulleit bourbon whisky sponsored bar could do little to salvage the vibe, but somehow it all worked. While many patrons were certainly chilled out and dozing off (as was Phill himself on occasion), the music was anything but relaxing. Since trading tape editing of acoustic instruments for composing in Pro Tools two decade ago, the intensity of Niblock’s music has increased along with its density. While Huerco S.’s Pendant project floundered up above, a muddy mess going nowhere slowly, Niblock showed how crushing and powerful electronic music can be without adhering to the clichés of club music. The tremendous volume has the effect of amplifying minor shifts in timbre or tone, the constant momentum crushing the listener into an odd stasis, like standing in a rushing river. His late-night performance was accompanied by a screening of work from his film series The Movement of People Working, depictions of the dignity of slow human labor, in stunning Kodachrome. Sometimes the Old Guard does it better.
WHEN ABSENCE IS A PRESENCE
The theme of “Presence” also foregrounded what, and who, was missing. Many of this year’s events were underscored by a palpable sense of loss, of absence. Reading-groups dedicated to the late Mark Fisher, whose tragic suicide took the music community by surprise. The live debut of a musical work created by Todd Barton with legendary author, the late Ursula K. Le Guin, to accompany a work of hers from the mid 1980s. Drew McDowall’s solo performance of COIL’s Time Machines, calling attention to the passing of founding members Balance and Sleazy. (Even the accompanying visuals, recalling a 90s computer screensaver, seemed to be a kind of remembrance.)
The most explicit remembrance was also the edition’s final concert, “Memory,” dedicated to the life and work of Jóhann Jóhannsson. The beloved composer died unexpectedly on 9 February 2018, of what was later reported to be an accidental overdose of cocaine combined with prescription medication. His sudden and tragic passing is all the more so knowing it might have been avoided. Taken alongside the suicide of Mark Fisher, I can’t help but wonder how much our culture of overwork may have contributed to both of their deaths, and took this time to honor their memories while also thinking about how we might strive for a better world.
Jóhannsson must have felt a strong kinship with Unsound. He first performed there in 2009, and skipped the 2016 Academy Awards (he was nominated for best original score for Sicario) to perform at Unsound Adelaide. “Memory” was a lovely tribute to Jóhannsson’s work, bringing together four of his friends and collaborators, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Erik K Skodvin, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, and Sam Slater, as well as the Sinfonietta Cracovia. The evening’s proceedings were pushed back a bit later by the unfortunate delay of one of the musicians, increasing the audience’s anticipation. The night began with the quartet’s minimalist interpolation of End of Summer, a work originally realized with Hildur Guðnadóttir and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, the two of the quartet who were closest to the composer. According to Skodvin, it was Guðnadóttir and Slater who proposed the work, as they had previously performed the piece as a duo, without Jóhannsson. Skodvin has also contributed to the design of the release, for his and Monique Recknagel’s PATTERN imprint. The choice of work is thus fitting on multiple levels. End of Summer was also Jóhannsson’s debut film, inspired by his journey to the Antarctic Peninsula and the tranquility of the changing seasons manifested upon the austere yet grand landscape.
The flight delay ruined any opportunity for a proper soundcheck and rehearsal, perhaps contributing to the more sparse and restrained iteration of End of Summer. But I found this to be fitting, lending itself to the nature of the work, and leaving a palpable, negative space where Jóhannsson should have been. Erik recalled to me the first time he met Jóhannsson, in Copenhagen at PIX festival in 2013:
I was opening for Erik Enocksson who was performing his “Man tänker sitt” score in a church with a full orchestra and Johann on organ. That gig ended up being probably the best gig I ever did, as I got given a great cello and was performing alone while the sunset came down behind me.
He feels it was on the strength of that performance that the composer invited him to work on his score Prisoners later that year. Working with him made a strong impression on Skodvin. Jóhannsson didn’t seem at all experimental, but rather possessing a clear vision. “Johann was a type who knows exactly what he wants artistically.” Skodvin also praised the composer for his ability to straddle and fuse different worlds. “[Jóhann] knew how to bridge the experimental scene with the more classical and commercial. I don’t think anyone has been using musicians and underground sound makers in the same way as Johann did for his scores.”
Following End of Summer, the Sinfonietta Cracovia took the stage. The string ensemble have worked with Jóhannsson on various projects, and had performed with him at Unsound events in the past. The set included Part I of IBM 1401, a User’s Manual, as well as a number of other string-heavy compositions. I last saw Johann perform in the fall of 2017, when he was supported by the ACME quartet. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to hear these stunning works performed by a full string ensemble. The entire evening was a moving tribute, marked by profound loss.
The title of Tim Hecker’s latest LP Konoyo means “the World Over Here,” and its music is marked by a more abstract sense of loss. Its negative space is a conceptual conjuring inspired by conversations with a recently deceased friend, perhaps a conjuring of that lost friend as well. This loss served to bring together a group of musicians for Hecker’s most collaborative and minimal record of his career. The album features prominent contributions from Tokyo Gakuso, a gagaku ensemble, keys from Kara-Lis Coverdale, cello from Mariel Roberts, and technical assistance from a number of others. On this tour, Hecker was joined by frequent collaborator Kara-Lisa Coversale and the Tokyo Gakuso ensemble, here Motonori Miura, Fumiya Otonashi, and Manami Sato. Like the Johannsson tribute, the event took place at the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, a late-19th century construction modeled after the best European Baroque theatres, reinforcing the aristocratic origins of Japanese gagaku music and granting a kind of seriousness to both events.
The ensemble performed behind an opaque screen, back-lighting projecting the silhouettes of various ornate instruments. Hecker generally eschews visuals in favor of performing in the dark or within a haze of fog, but the opacity of shadows on screen felt appropriate for the larger ensemble and for Konoyo more generally. Hecker very much looks like he’s spent the last couple of years in LA, the punishing Montreal winters a thing of the past. Initially he is alone on the stage with Coverdale, whose organ drone set the tone for the proceedings. The first of the Tokyo Gakuso members entered the stage, slow staccato hits on a low drum processed by Hecker, drawing out and exaggerating the bass, as other players are gradually introduced, walking out on stage and building up a dense drone. The five musicians performed a version of Konoyo, leaving space for traditional Japanese instruments against Coverdale’s keys and Hecker’s synth and processing. The Japanese musicians depart one by one, then Coverdale, leaving only Tim Hecker in profile on stage right, manipulating and looping fragments of lingering tones, eventually evolving into something like “Amps, Drugs, Harmonium” from 2013’s Virgins, his first collaboration with Coverdale. After an extended solo romp, of often intense low pulsing bass and punishingly high frequencies given shape by classic Heckerian manipulation of short melodic loops, the four musicians rejoined Hecker on stage for a Konoyo coda.
During the performance a handful of audience members walked out, something I’ve observed nearly every time I’ve seen him perform, especially in seated venues. I understand his music may not be to everyone’s taste, and I take this as a good sign, that something about the music might bother someone enough to physically walk out. Something about the density and pulsing bass, the shear volume of it, achieves a kind of interface between inside and outside that some may find discomforting. But surrendering to this experience can also be transcendent, and the use of gagaku music lends itself to this task, conceptually, much more than one might expect at first. Gagaku is an Imperial court music, that is demarcating strict social distinctions, and it is also performed at Shinto shrines, evoking the barrier between life and death, the world over here and the world over there.
The shadows flickering on the screen called back to opener Resina, a Polish cellist whose own set featuring visuals of shadows dancing on the face of an ancient marble statue, depictions of our history of violence from prehistoric hunters to modern warfare. Drawing on her sophomore album Traces, her work wrestles with similar themes to Hecker’s. The backdrop of the state was entirely black, the white face of the statue hovering clearly in the middle. Resina was joined by a drummer, the two musicians on either side below, bathed in soft blue light to keep the audience’s attention on the visuals. Resina’s cello lines are looped and layered, occasionally augmented by vocal tracks and live percussion, often to stunning effect.
In her 1985 novel Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin asks, “Which is farther from us, farther out of reach, more silent—the dead, or the unborn?” The Music and Poetry of the Kesh, a body of work produced by Le Guin with Todd Barton to accompany that novel, approaches the question of absence from a very different angle than these others. Le Guin sadly died in January of 2018, at the age of 88, and her loss was present, both as a lamentation that she was unable to witness the live debut of this music, but also a joyous celebration of her life and legacy.
Uncovered and released by RVNG Intl. sub-label Freedom To Spend, co-founded by Pete Swanson, the Music and Poetry of the Kesh saw release earlier this year after being out of print for decades, largely forgotten. The album, however, is not about recovering a lost past but imaging a better future, and we should all make room for this kind of utopian dreaming in today’s world. Always Coming Home is an imagined history of a possible future, a pastoral and peaceful civilization living in California’s Napa Valley. This could easily be branded as a kind of Fourth World faux-ethnomusicology, which might slide into the worst kinds of exoticizing tropes. Use of invented and reimagined instruments often appropriates traditional cultures without care, flattening difference for the use in a Western context. But Le Guin and Barton sidestep this charge for the most part, its use of invented language and history close to the conlangs (constructed language) of science fiction than the exoticism of “World Music,” skirting the common Orientalist tropes.
For the recordings, Barton relied mainly on a Jupiter-8 synthesizer to approximate different instruments, as well as a seven-foot horn and a bone flute, augmented by field-recordings made in the early morning in Napa. Following the release, readers of the book would later seek to build the various instruments Le Guin describes for themselves. At Unsound, Barton was joined by the Kesh Ensemble (Agata Harz, Katarzyna Smoluk-Moczydłowska, Ania Broda, Rafał Grozdew, and percussionist Hubert Zemler), brought together especially for the live debut of the Music and Poetry of Kesh at UNSOUND. A combination of the “traditional” instruments of the Kesh with synth, percussion, and vocals, the songs were interspersed by Barton reading some of the poems Le Guin wrote for the project. Barton read the poems in English, while recordings of Le Guin’s voice would play afterwards, reciting them in Kesh.
Unsound also featured a screening of “The Worlds of Ursula La Guin,” a 2018 full-length documentary by Arwen Curry dedicated to the life and Work of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her career saw her move from a rare female author in “low brow” genres such as sci-fi and fantasy to being recognized as one of the most important writers of her generation who helped lend respectability to genre fiction, now embraced by the mainstream. Her unapologetically feminist work was never heavy handed, and her vision is as powerful and necessary today as it has ever been.
New York composer and multi-instrumentalist Lea Bertucci opened for the Kesh ensemble at the Synagoga Tempel that evening. As with Piernik and Hati’s performance earlier that day, the religious venue granted the performance a devotional air. Bertucci began her set with a piece for alto saxophone, taking full advantage of the space. Her performance culminated with a compelling tape spatialization, as she manipulated hand-held tape players to great effect, far exceeding their seemingly humble and lo-fi abilities.
A SONG OF ICE
While I’ve already stated that UNSOUND is characterized by Krakow’s incredible venues, of which there were many this year, so many of my favorite musical moments took place at the ICE center, a modern music hall which could be almost anywhere. The cutting-edge venue is just across the river from the historical Wawel Castle, at the confluence of several major roads, on the way to the Soviet-era Forum hotel. The juxtaposition of these three eras in close proximity feels like an appropriate metaphor for the festival itself.
Tomoko Sauvage and Paweł Romańczuk came together to create original music to accompany Polish photographer Zofia Rydet’s work in a premiere of the Archive show. As photographs were projected in the background, the two took turns providing aural accompaniment. I was unfamiliar with the Polish multi-instrumentalist Romańczuk, who demonstrated considerable virtuosity and skill performing with a wide array of instruments and effects, from guitars and toy keyboards to triangles and a gong. By contrast, Tomoko Sauvage’s water bowls seemed all the more minimal. Her craft is so finely honed, with gentle manipulations of hydrophones in water bowls, some stones, a pedal or two (likely a tuner) and a mixer. She plays with the water’s surface tension, drips, shakes metal meditation balls, introduces some crackles, noise, distortion. Just extraordinary.
Colin Self’s performance was rather on the other end of the spectrum. Self has an angelic voice, not incredibly virtuosic but pleasant and pure, singing over a laptop running Abelton and a a live string trio. Self seemed impassive at first, but it became apparent this was part of the act, which is at times campy and theatrical. The use of visuals and text in help to ground the performance in an abstract narrative. The visuals and costumes suggest an aesthetic influenced as much by superheroes and video games as drag culture. The theatricality unfolds as a kind of fake diva act, but it becomes clear Self isn’t driven by ego. Self’s performances seem to draw on cabaret and revue shows of old, conceiving of performance as a kind of activism, in which care is a form of resistance and troublemakers become caretakers. Colin Self is confused. We’re all confused. But better be confused together, figure things out together. This care work extends towards cultivating new modes of kinship and relationality. Self even enlisted audience members for some participatory group singalongs, praising the volunteers for being brave. For those who couldn’t volunteer, Self’s final song brought self into the audience, tearing up books and crawling over the seated crowd. It matters what stories we tell, and our stories should be empowering.
The unquestionable highlight of UNSOUND 2018 was Autobiography Edits, with music by Jlin and the dancers of Company Wayne McGregor. Autobiography is “the first in a cycle of choreographic portraits illuminated by the sequencing of [McGregor’s] own genome.” The Edited version has been stripped down and prepared especially for a theatrical setting to emphasize the music, and Jlin’s performance earned a massive standing ovation.
Jlin’s Black Origami was one of 2017’s most beloved records, further proof that the Gary, Indiana artist could pay homage to the language of footwork and build upon its legacy without being constrained by it. She’s always been a forward looking producer, going all the way back to her breakout track “Erotic Heat” on Bangs & Works 2 (2011). She was already pushing the boundaries of footwork then, and her craft has continued to evolve since. Jlin’s hometown of Gary is just over the state-line from footwork’s birthplace in Chicago, perhaps just enough that she’s consistently been able to assert her own identity. Footwork is rooted in the relationship between music and dance, the two aspects feeding off one another, and dance crews and producers have always worked together. Jlin’s “Unknown Tongues,” from her 2015 debut LP Dark Matter, already gestured towards the possibilities of combining her music with modern dance, in stark contrast to the style of dance typical of footwork. From the street to the theatre, this contrast is part of what makes the work so interesting.
Autobiography Edits began with Jlin alone on the side of the stage, because while the dancers go on to dominate our visual attention, Jlin is still the real star. Initially she is joined by just one dancer interpreting the syncopated electronic patters. One becomes two, two trade for another couple, then four, then three, and so on, in constant reconfiguration. The dancers are not necessarily dancing together, but seemingly obstructing one another, pushing and pulling in different directions. The dance and the music can be in turns aggressive and jubilant, always relentlessly rhythmic, full of big bass and sputtering vocal chops. While we are far from the origins of footwork, as both music and dance, the reciprocity between the two is still the animating principle, and the symbiosis between Jlin and Company McGregor results in a vital performance.
Dance Dance Revolution
If I haven’t said much about the events at the Forum, it’s because I was generally underwhelmed. The venue itself was certainly interesting. Construction began in 1978 but didn’t open until 1989, so although it is Soviet-era, it was already a relic by the time it went public, and was closed by the beginning of the 21st century. In recent years it’s made a living as a giant billboard. It’s just the kind of place Unsound operates, turning the downtrodden into something spectacular. The main dance hall, the Ballroom, was rather uninspiring, entering at the back and oriented straight-ahead towards the stage. The Kitchen was exactly what it sounds like, just stripped down. The Chandelier room was again quite literal, but with the added twist of a modern LED light system rigged into the light fixtures, granting some extra pizzazz to the sets hosted there. It was the two smaller rooms that most consistently impressed me, and which generally were most reliable for a crowd dancing in good spirits. RP Boo never disappoints. Slikback was so well received they had him do three sets. Kelman Duran’s ethereal reggaeton walked the line between experimentation and pop recognition while being 100% danceable throughout the set. Nazar’s rough take on Angolan kuduro left a strong impression, surely his upcoming Enclave EP on Hyperdub should be one to look out for.
The Ballroom lent itself best to big spectacle. SOPHIE’s performance drew the largest crowds and critical accolades. Huerco S.’s debut under the Pendant moniker remains one of my favorite records of the year, but did absolutely nothing for me opening the Ballroom on Saturday night, lost in a muddy quagmire that even the exceptional visuals couldn’t salvage. Sinjin Hawks & Zora Jones know how to excite a room. Sinjin Hawkes has gotten some attention for his mainstream production work (especially on Kanye West’s “Wolves,” which quite frankly is not one of my favorites from Life of Pablo) and his work with partner Zora Jones has a dynamic owing as much to modern hip hop as electronic dance music. The duo’s dynamic and bass heavy music is all over the place, switching gears too often to really dance to. The way they incorporate visuals into their set is where they really excel, using some sort of live motion capture technology to project versions of themselves on screen behind them, into digital worlds indebted to ‘90s cyberspace imagery and video game culture. While in some ways the pair seem bleeding edge, I can’t help but notice how much of our contemporary visual aesthetic seems arrested with the tropes of ‘90s cyber culture. It all does feel so boring by now. The finale of their set used the mo-cap as a Theremin, a performative flourish that united their bodies, sound, and visuals in an extraordinary way. Ultimately, I’m not sure that their music has much to say but their show is very entertaining.
And this is how I felt about so much of the dance side of UNSOUND. There is a lot to be said about the intersections of experimental and dance music. Certainly the club nights remain big draws for a festival like UNSOUND. But when dance music tries to get too heady, rooted in a concepts that takes an artist statement and multiple press releases to spell out, I’m not sure that the result are any better. I have a lot of respect for the PAN label, who were celebrating their 10th anniversary at UNSOUND this year. PAN has released some of my favorite albums, but I’ve been less moved by some of their recent releases. The hype surrounding Amnesia Scanner, for instance, underscores my disconnect with this liminal space between experimental and club music. On paper, the work by the Berlin-based Finnish duo sounds interesting, but for all their high-concepts the execution is just more “deconstructed club music” with pounding low end and pitched down vocal samples. The crowd seemed to be into it, at least.
All three of the dance floors, as well as the “Secret Lodge” in the basement, were oriented in very traditional ways: the audience aimed at the stage. I’m consistently disappointed to the ubiquity of the stage. Dancefloors can easily lend themselves to alternate configurations. We’re here to dance and listen to music, why do we have to all look at some third-wave screensaver while doing it? Who cares what a DJ or performer is up to?
This should also be true of the other performances, especially given the variety of venues. I could have done with some more atypical formations, less audiences aimed at the stage. Installations, such as Chris Watson’s Foris, are one of the few instances where the relationship between the work and the audience can deviate somewhat. Editing together surround-sound recordings of various forests from around the globe, the multi-channel work was enjoyable, but the addition of scent as part of the Ephemera project felt tacked on. After a week of Krakow’s low air quality, the fog in the installation just felt like an unnecessary essential oil diffusion. Mirosław Bałka’s a, e, i, o, u. made a more positive impression. An archival sound piece featuring dogs howling and barking in the dark corridor of an abandoned train warehouse managed to play with our senses in a much more organic and productive way.
Despite these minor criticisms, I was very impressed with the variety and quality of the programming, the stunning venues, thought-provoking workshops, and the sense of community engendered by the festival. I have no doubt that UNSOUND is not just another event in an increasingly crowded field, but truly important to the culture. I hope to return in the future, and look forward to seeing how they continue to grow and evolve.