Unsound Festival’s third annual run finds the meeting point of the electronic and classical avant-garde
Another year, another thousand-and-one music festivals—or at least that’s how it can seem when they saturate the landscape as thoroughly as they have for the past decade.
But the Unsound Festival, which is about to begin its third year in New York, marked itself out locally from the beginning by focusing more on sensibility than genre—one basically in line with the British avant-garde music magazine The Wire’s, heavy on electronic dance music but equally so in electroacoustic and modern classical. It’s a festival where D.J.s and orchestras are coequals, where subwoofer pressure is as important as composition.
“It's not purely an electronic festival, and it never really has been,” said Mat Schulz, an Australian expatriate to Poland who now heads up Unsound New York from its office in Brooklyn. “At the same time, it does definitely attract those people—almost half the program is ambitious forms of club music. But it's not the only thing the festival is.”
(As if to prove it, one of this year’s performers, Stefan Betke, a.k.a. avant-dub producer Pole, recently put together an hour-long mix, “Birth of Reggae Music,” for the festival’s website.)
Unsound was founded in Krakow in 2003. “In Krakow, probably half of the audience comes from other countries now,” said Schulz. “It's been good for people's perception of Poland.” In more recent years, the festivals have taken on a thematic cast: The 2010 Krakow event was dubbed “Horror,” which New York repeated the following April. Likewise, this week’s “Future Shock”-themed event takes off from the last October’s Unsound in Poland.
The program this week is typical of how Unsound works. Multimedia is a given for many of the performances, from Warsaw-based electronic jazz quartet Baaba scoring Polish animated classics at BAMcinématek (Wednesday, 7 p.m.) to How to Wreck a Nice Beach author Dave Tompkins’ reading-with-music “Sustained Decay: A Natural History of Bass Music in Miami” (Saturday at Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building, 3:15 p.m.). And, of course, there’s also a strong Eastern European flavor, as at the Friday-evening roundtable called “East of Berlin,” moderated by Capital contributor Daphne Carr and featuring Unsound organizer Gosia Plysa and musicians Kotra, Denis Kolokol, and Macio Moretti (Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building, 6 p.m.).
While Unsound’s focus is international, there’s a lot of local talent involved. The Bunker’s special edition (Friday at Warsaw, 10 p.m.) features Brooklynites Ital and Laurel Halo, while the Bass Mutations showcase (Saturday at IndieScreen, 11 p.m.) showcases post-dubstep darlings Sepalcure—Praveen Sharma and Travis Stewart—playing their third Unsound New York out of three. The 2010 edition hosted the duo’s first ever show.
“I have a lot of respect for how Mat does it,” said Sharma earlier this week on the phone. “He really he reaches out to people who know and are doing good things to New York. It's kind of a collection of these different crews and groups of people instead of one centralized group trying to do something. It's tough to throw a festival in New York and they do a good job of it. All the Unsound New Yorks we play feel like some sort of homecoming. A lot of friends and family are there, and it's a good thing for New York, so we're always really into it. It's become almost a tradition at this point.”
Stuart Argabright, a longtime NYC fixture (as Dominatrix, he made the 1984 dance classic “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight”) who contributed a video piece to last year’s Krakow event, will make two appearances onstage: in the band Black Rain (performing Saturday at Issue Project Room, 4 p.m.) and interviewed solo by Tompkins (Sunday at Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building, 1 p.m.).
“It's definitely the first show the group has done since probably 1997,” Argabright said. “We're doing a collaboration with the Ukrainian noise-tech artists Kotra. It’s actually an interesting mix. I'm not sure if I can typify it quite yet: I've got my pieces and he's got his pieces and we're going to work them together. I think it's going to work quite well, because I think the whole mentality was [that] I started to create [pieces], and he's going to be inhabiting them with his sometimes very spiky white noise and pink noise and grey noise creations—kind of creating scenes for him.”
“They let me do a Vocoder talk in Poland, and one at the New York Unsound right before the book came out,” said Tompkins, the author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach, which presents a history of the vocoder. “I had so much fun in Poland, seeing Cybotron for the first time. I made lots of teeth that night—‘making teeth’ is a way to [say] ‘smile.’”
Tompkins also enjoyed a Krakow performance by the British musician James Kirby’s dark-ambient project the Caretaker. “I keep thinking ‘The Crypt Keeper,’” Tompkins said with a laugh, referring to an old E.C. Comics antihero and mocking himself: “‘The Crypt Keeper killed it in Poland! You should have seen him!’”
Tompkins will be delivering an expanded version of the 20-minute talk on Miami bass he gave at this year’s Pop Conference, held in late March at N.Y.U. “I usually customize it for each locale, put in [local] history and stuff like that,” he said. “It [was] weird doing it in Krakow. Sometimes I don't realize a photograph of my stepbrother's '68 Camaro might not translate the way it might in the States. By the time I was in Düsseldorf I had to German the living shit out of it because the image of Michael Jordan and going to basketball camp and having this weird experience there probably wouldn't translate.”
Most of this week’s Unsound offerings won’t need too much translating, said Schulz.
“There's more of the kind of music that Unsound deals with in New York than there was three years ago. Because it's happened [twice] already, it's starting to become part of the city’s fabric in some way. But I feel like New York was very welcoming to the festival right from the start. We came here originally thinking that we would do a smaller project connected with Warhol films and live music. The response of the people who ended up being representative of the festival and cultural institutes involved, and funding bodies involved, [meant that] the idea expanded. I guess there was some kind of gap that Unsound fit into. It wasn't some kind of grand plan.”
Another thing the Unsound brain trust didn’t foresee was the increasing movement of modern classical music into the indie-etc. mainstream.
“I read an article about that in Pitchfork a few weeks ago,” said Schulz. “Certain types of music that appear on Unsound—and other festivals like Unsound that are dealing with more peripheral, more experimental forms of music—end up filtering through [and] affecting the kind of music that is more popular. In terms of classical music, or post-classical, or ambient music, I suppose that's one of the areas where that's happened, but it's not that surprising, in a way. On festivals like Unsound, we are trying to present what we expect to be the most innovative aspects of popular music’s outer edges.”
Does the New York festival attract many Polish tourists?
“We've got some,” said Schulz. “But it's hard for Polish people to do it. They would love to come, but it's not really possible for most people financially.”
Still, he said, “In terms of festivals at the moment there's a lot of really good festivals in Poland. Even within Krakow, [it] has really expanded in the last few years.”
That expansion will likely happen in New York as well, at least in terms of what Unsound presents. “In the Unsound Krakow, we have five or six sound and video installations this year,” said Schulz. “We haven't actually done it so much in New York, probably because we haven't had the time. But it's definitely something that would be great to do here as well, to expand that side of the festival.”
For now, Unsound has found a comfortable niche. “The last time in New York, they had Moritz Von Oswald and Carl Craig jamming down at Lincoln Center,” said Argabright. “Me and my friends and his wife went to that show. I was like, ‘You know, this is a nice, high-quality meeting of the minds here.’”
The 2012 New York Unsound Festival runs Wednesday, April 18, to Sunday, April 22. A full schedule is available on the Unsound website.