Unsound 2014: On Ephemera - By Volume

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Unsound 2014: On Ephemera

Tayyab links scent to sound.

Author: on October 28, 2014
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Originally appearing at Unsound New York earlier in 2014, Ephemera was an installation exploring relationships between scent and sound. The Kraków instance of Ephemera married the sounds of Tim Hecker, Ben Frost and Steve Goodman (also known as Kode9) with three scents they’d inspired. Geza Schoen actualised the sounds as smells with intent to represent drone, noise and bass respectively. Schoen’s reinterpretations of audio, the scents Drone, Noise and Bass, were then passed back to the musicians to fully flesh-out and craft music adapted for an installation-style vehicle of the explorations. Piotr Jakubowicz constructed visual components to further represent and distil the three sensations, while Marcel Weber (MFO) and Manuel Sepulveda (Optigram) also contributed with their own visual interpretations. The objective was to cultivate an area between senses, an experience inseparable from both scent and sound, yet exclusive to neither, highlighting the bond between them.

The sound artists involved all provided a written passage introducing their approach to the project – none of them seemed to think of senses as signals completely distinct from each other. Ben Frost’s piece channelling Noise was drawn from his “olfactory memory” whilst Tim Hecker referred to his work as, “the smell of music that has somehow gone on too long.” Steve Goodman was fully opposed to the distinctness of senses as their primary attribute. For him, relationships between scent and sound are natural, suggesting that most people subconsciously suppress connections between senses. It strikes me that all senses are fed into this centralised system for processing them, with our brain as the processor, in order to inform us on our environment and experiences – a shared goal with which its success relies upon as many contributions of as many senses as possible. One is conscious of their senses, but one often operates without a handle on the focal point of the system; we often feel our mind is us, rather than a part of us, hence our inclination towards processing senses as disparate branches.

Each room of Drone, Noise and Bass featured a visual aspect assembled by Jakubowicz, tailored to the tones of their environment. Hecker’s drawn-out strings partnered a lattice of spheres and braces between them, something akin to a diagram of atomic structure. In an otherwise lightless space, they would flare and flash up before fading away disappearing amidst inflating and exhaling orchestration. Were they moving? Was I moving? Drone smelled vaguely familiar (perhaps of vague familiarity), sweet but far from sickening. The scent’s impatient lilts spurred my attempts to place it, something that brought me both disconcertment and joy. Noise was a searing explosion of impact, heavy-handed in sound, orbiting a monolithic, mech-like chassis. Its scent triggered days in the East: impromptu market vendors’ rugs rolled out onto the streets of Madinah under authorities’ noses – a fluid blend of maroons and browns. It turned out that Bass smelled like Old Spice. That said, I can’t say if my nose is as accurate as my ears or other senses. A bolt-shaped assemblage hung from above, seemingly dancing around Goodman’s broken glass sounds and low frequency inflections.

Weber’s video sequences of crystalline shards floating in the cosmos bounced off of each wall in a scentless room. Sandwiched between Noise and Bass was Sepulveda’s line-driven canvas artworks. Both intermediary spaces acted as cleanses for audio-visual and olfactory palettes as jars of coffee beans purged lingering essences. It was perhaps inadvertent then, that being in those rooms and hearing the neighbours’ rackets bleed in helped me come to realise that, like senses, no memory or experience is distinct.

Droplets of memories leak into one another, colouring recollections with stains that can never really be uncoloured. As soon as an experience transpires, however fleeting, it is transliterated into memory, dream and other realities. There can no longer be a guarantee that the experience existed the way it did in the primary reality that one assumes. The reality is no less valid, nor are any others such as dream and memory. The ones that shape our character, and the way in which they do so, are not necessarily active decisions.

I’m inclined to agree with Goodman’s insistence that the interrelation of the senses (whether they detract from each other or resonate with each other notwithstanding) is the more intuitive and intrinsic way to model sensations. As a firm believer in the interconnectedness of all things, I’d even infer that talk of one smell is surely talk of the other smells not mentioned. And as I describe Ephemera, I surely describe myself too.

“In fact it seemed that the mist was cold to the eyes but warm to the touch, as if sight and touch were two different ways of feeling the same sense.”

– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

The Kraków installation of Ephemera conveyed the theme of collaborative senses quite well. Certainly on an internal level, the scents, sounds and structures embraced each other smoothly, though ‘drone’, ‘noise’ and ‘bass’ motifs never quite came off as focal points. It did seem as if the visual aspects overpowered the others at Ephemera; there wasn’t really a choice not to hear or smell the surroundings, however directing eyes towards Jakubowicz’ structures was an implicit choice almost always opted for. Both Goodman’s and Frost’s pieces were drawn from their own memories whilst Hecker explored a situation that may or may not have happened in an unspecified reality. It all fed into Unsound’s concept of The Dream, with memories and dreams considered to be other forms of reality. This tied in with Jayne Gackenbach’s position on how realities can blur into each other, and how none are more or less valid than others, as they all form part of who the subject is.

Following on from the themes explored by the installation, the paradigms of Ephemera may be applied to Unsound Festival itself: the senses can be matched to Unsound’s various branches and routes of creative engagement in their programme, and perhaps an overarching experience can be gleaned from the coalescence of these few aspects. Interactivity and audience engagement were highest at parties and installations whilst events such as the Andy Battaglia-led panel on sound in the art world seemed too static and sterile. (Some of what was discussed there, such as Ben Vida’s work with transforming sound into various media, shared close proximity with this idea of collaborative senses.) Unsound put on talks, presentations, panels, Q&As, screenings, matinee and evening gigs, intimate clubnights and big room throwdowns. Some senses are better for helping convey certain aspects of experiences than others, but with all these routes of expression, I expected Unsound to have enough senses to formulate a visceral experience.

A large portion of the music on show at Unsound could be filed as either dark techno or trance-inducing experimental, ambient and improv. As huge a span as those umbrella terms have, the festival seemed to flex a select few muscles on the musical spectrum. Sure, they match up well with the concept of The Dream, but they could be attached to previous Unsound themes too (e.g. Horror and Interference), and as such don’t contribute to a unique and singular experience. That said, Unsound did book some artists whose visions parallel that of Ephemera: Total Freedom, Lotic and the Janus crew successfully subverted genre constructs in their performances as did the Young Echo collective, whose segues into, between and beyond grime, house, bass and other sonics stencilled out that “Bristol sound”, which is not wholly genre-conformative. Commissioned audio-visual pieces such as Piotr Kurek’s bubbling and banal rescoring of Janusz Majewski’s absurdist short film Rondo and Paul Clipson’s projections in tandem with Grouper’s set are examples of a more straightforward adherence to the Ephemera mission – audio-visual performances have gained much popularity in recent years in electronic circles. Some acts were more subtle – Księżyc served their Slavic folk experimentations with self-aware, ritual-like performance art as engaging stage personas, and on the other hand Jenny Hval and Susanna’s Meshes of Voice explored the intra-dynamics within one particular sense: sound. So the Ephemera effect was present at Unsound outside of its own installation two-fold: some acts provoked multiple senses to cultivate a cross-sensory experience, whilst other artists such as Janus did away with boundaries between senses (in this case, genres) to induce an an all-encompassing, holistic adventure.

Unsound had way too much going on and was too surreal to actually convey an idea of a more honest “Kraków experience”, yet its integration with the city is more than commendable and was formative of a broader experience. The overarching sensation that I can be sure each act contributed to is one of jadedness – there was a lot to experience, and crucially those experiences came from many routes and sources. Unsound’s all-angled approach made for an intense and fatiguing sensory overload, as magnificent as everything was. The nature of other festivals that focus on sound, for example, may mean that the other senses are rested so the ears can handle a bit more. Unsound went and delivered through all routes, all senses, whether they were talks and installations or live gigs and DJ sets, feeding into an overarching ordeal. Sure, by the end I was utterly overwhelmed but no other festival I’ve ever been to has managed to paint such vivid memories, a direct result of Unsound’s way of catering towards as many senses as reasonably possible.

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