I am synesthetic. I have known this — abstractly — since I was four. And now, twenty years later, I was tasked with covering the New York edition of Unsound Festival.
Since its American inauguration in 2010, Unsound has made a point of taking over the city’s cultural scene, and this year’s edition — presented by Fundacja Tone and Polish Cultural Institute New York — returns with a full, jaw-dropping roster of performers and thinkers, stacking the week’s events with musicians ranging from Italian American electronic music innovator Suzanne Ciani to the “Lancastrian experimental venture” Demdike Stare, seeming to scale the entire length of electronic music’s lifetime in under a week.
Placed alongside the performers and various discussions was the Ephemera “synesthetic” installation by Geza Schoen, a somewhat main attraction and thematic summation of the festival. Consisting of audio, visual, and olfactory compositions, Ephemera took up a small space within the East Village/Lower East Side (AVA) Gallery, with a sort of bench sandwiched between two glowing, clothed walls. I checked it out on Monday evening, the proposed pre-opening of the festival. The “sense experience” that day — the quality, if you will — was “Bass,” extracted from a soundbite provided by Kode9. It smelled brown, dark brown, coming in the shape of a sort of jagged, stone-like, constantly-shifting clot. Matching the soundbite’s use of field recordings — which consisted of what seemed to be jangling keys — was at times golden and at other times red, the colors lightly accenting the throbbing bassline.
The performances throughout the week projected an equally sensory-enveloping nature, all coming with some sort of visual aid in tow, whether it be a performative A/V set or curated lighting as seen with the Ephemera installation. Each visual accompaniment seemed to be an extension not only of the performers, but also of the music: the visual aids, mostly edited on the spot, consisted of a series of archival or pre-existing ideas and structures, interwoven to build the piece that the audience would then observe and experience. And as the fest went on, I became very focused on the looming, unintentional theme of the festival: sense as material.
The following is an account of my interactions with Unsound (via a $1.86 memo book) and its interrogation of the sensory.
Some of the more notable sensory performances happened on the first night (Wednesday), when I saw the Barcelona post-rave act EVOL and Australian composer Oren Ambarchi perform diverse, body-assaulting sets. The event space — ISSUE Project Room, founded in 2003 by the late Suzanne Fiol — was extremely fitting for the performers and could have hosted the entire festival.
EVOL’s set was immediate, daggering. As the audience sat waiting as the lights lowered, an aggressive and full beam of modular synth shot across the room with seemingly no warning. The rave-inspired wailing itself seemed to take up a specific space in the room, as if there were a tangible density and width to the rave chord’s white, bristling body. Splitting and molding to the space of the room, various harmonic arrangements occurred, peddling on clock-like polyrhythms. Strobe lights were soon introduced, burning through my closed eyes. Each shift coincided with a swift, disorienting flash, modulations in aural shape and placement reminiscent of Philip Glass at his most erratic. The streaks of sound, which locked into blasts of light, caused my vision to waver, my eyelids fluttering to shield; I jerked awake with my left temple in acute pain, as the tones simmered into a single drone, fizzling out as the lights were lifted.
Oren Ambarchi’s run-through of his now famed 32-minute opus “Knots” was a far less physically-arresting set for the audience, but watching Ambarchi — who was joined by Joe Talia (drummer), Crys Cole (contact mics, spring), James Rushford (pianist), and a quintet of string players from Krakow’s Sinfonietta Cracovia — wield a room full of instruments clearly made the performance physical for him. The piece began with near-silence, as Cole performed what could be described as an electro-acoustic solo. It soon built into autumnal sweeps of strings and energetic jazz-fusion drumming that pushed the piece into an intense, exhilarating live performance. As evidenced by single-note guitar playing followed by knob-twiddling and pedal-tapping, the instruments themselves and the set parameters of their tonal range were clearly just starting points, the varied textures consolidating into scapes with which Ambarchi played through his electronic setup. Before long, the individual instruments fused into a collective drone, seething over the Talia’s axis-shifting, motorik-inforced patterns, the individual instruments acting simply as source material for something beautiful and sublime, the metabolism of the things surrounding Ambarchi as just another way to reach beyond.
Suzanne Ciani (a hero of mine) interrogated the senses in a different way on Thursday, when she performed in collaboration with the new musical-research duo Neotantrik (consisting of DJ/producer Andy Votel and Demdike Stare’s Sean Canty). The phrase “musical-research” is extremely indicative of what the audience were expected to take in: immediately musique concrète in nature, the piece foamed along for the better part of two hours, a glorious gauze of churning found and produced sounds. Ciani for me always represented the idea of sound being material, the idea of turning a wavering tone into something that resembles something in our actual lives. This idea was important for this set and for my connection to it. Famous for having created the Coke “pop-and-fizzle,” Ciani stands as a beautiful justification of the talents of the avant-garde: intellectual creating capital brand. Sean Canty and Adam Votel’s work is effectively the opposite — a decidedly semiological practice of pulling from pre-existing and pre-established bodies of music and repositioning them in new contexts — but the three came together wonderfully. Projected overhead was a series of romantic and sensually-focused images of women writhing in slow motion, couples caressing, limbs blurred and stirred. Bell tones, submerged vocals, and chants slushed around, creating warped nostalgic and generative moments.
Other highlights happened on Friday, when the First Unitarian Church held the “Long Tone” portion of the festival. Building off of the nights before, the use of cinema and aural design was even more present. Poland’s Stara Rzeka performed a spectral set of vacant guitar strokes swallowed by a sythy celestial haze. While I am typically skeptical of guitarists, there was a clear need and use here: gesture as both an anchor and an entry point. Phill Niblock’s droning minimalist arrangement came accompanied by equally minimalist cinema: slow-moving images of nature, the incidental specificity of it, played overhead, as a violinist stood off in the dark, feeding Niblock’s multimedia composition. And later, Demdike Stare, graced with the string players from the Sinfonietta Cracovia and filmmaker/visual performer Michael England, explored the lengths of the live cinematic experience — impressions of female body’s contorting and dancing, with combinations of scenes from other films breezing by, as Miles Whittaker and Canty countered and met the string players to create a tapestry of aural textures fitting for the distinctly body-focused imagery.
The rest of the fest was held up well too. Cameo Gallery’s Mutual Dreaming presented a multi-level club setting with the sounds of Willie Burn’s extended disco edits and Wilhelm Bras’s excited computer music bleeding into each other as we slid between the rooms, static A/V projections and wall scaling lights punctuating and enforcing the two moods. Formerly of Hype Williams, copeland displayed her penchant for live dub filtering and UK garage sounds, which I found to be limp after Wilhelm Bras’s neurotic, spastic use of hardware. Regardless, the theme of body and manipulation persisted as copeland swayed in a cloud of fog towering above a crowd who quickly descended into a sort of sexual heat elicited by the vibe. And then there was The Bunker, who have made a name in adventurous and cohesive parties hosted by the Wick. Conversations about Buñuel and later speculative realism settled underneath the kosmische sounds of Leisure Muffin, the vocal channeling ambience of Robert AA Lowe, and the digressive and shrouded live debut of Ital and Halal, the thread between them being a focus on the subdividing and doubling up of time. Porter Ricks performed largely new material that took up all of the large, stone cavern with crushing bassline and wandering rimshots — a black swaying, effervescent guillotine, purple sprites hanging about the edges.
New York obviously has an exciting art presence, but the range covered by this year’s Unsound Festival New York, as well as the unconscious emerging of a theme of adapting the sensual, made it feel like a very special event. The parsing of media forms and the churning out of structures from the personal overlaying each venue elicited reactions both genuine and physical, while the installation and overall visual aesthetic all dealt with ubiquitous memory, the indecipherable clot of events and feelings coming into focus by the performers’ restrained improvisation. The self-described “sense of aesthetic investigation” rang true night after night, making Unsound New York feel — as it was — like the scaling of music’s structural past and infinitely potential futures.
[Photos by Bart Babinski]