Unsound 2014: Peripheries and Playpens - By Volume

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Unsound 2014: Peripheries and Playpens

Tayyab examines Unsound 2014’s experimental nature.

Author: on October 30, 2014
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(Read Part I & Part II)

Unsound’s Kraków 2014 festival took place in the Polish city in mid-October, based on their concept of The Dream (referring to nocturnal ethereality as well as the current state of art consumerism we all propagate). The festival explored these ideas with talks, panels, presentations, film screenings and of course live music events, scores and clubnights. Dealing with the experimental fringes for the most part with techno as a solid foundation, events took place at a host of venues used for varying purposes and there was always something on show. One way to think about the contributions of the festival is analysing how well it explored its theme of The Dream. Alternatively, the experimental nature of the festival could be fleshed out. Experimentation can mean exploring new ground or returning to existing concepts with a new approach – both of these carry connotations of risk, a risk of the unknown. Along with these trials and tests on the bill stood plenty of commissioned collaborations and flagship acts for certain scenes, and Unsound’s task was to strike an amiable balance. Well, balance for an entity that champions these forays into the unknown.

In their preview for Unsound, Juno Plus noted Unsound’s knack for showcasing movements on the ascent, before their larger breakout. This year, the Berlin-based Janus crew were present, bringing their collective vision outside of Germany for only a second time. Their vision of music is as radical as it is intuitive. It is genreless by way of combining so many influences, as DJs and producers, Lotic and M.E.S.H, threw down solo sets as headliners for their showcase. The former channelled the broken glass party aesthetic, interpolating Beyoncé and Que from his Damsel in Distress mix earlier this year, switching from his own key productions to bounce music, filling the floor. As soon as M.E.S.H stepped up, dancers evaporated. I don’t know why, it’s a myth – his take on grime was brutalist, brash and exhilarating and had the room packed out again by the end. KABLAM’s idea of a warm-up was to go straight in with the Jersey club and ballroom, and later DJ HVAD blew minds with indefinable collages that seemed to ram hardcore dance and Jersey into I-don’t-know-what. One thing about the crew that stands out is their mixing style – they don’t look for cues from tracks’ beats-per-minute for smooth transitions, as is the norm for plenty of house and techno. Instead they think about the mood cultivated and propelled by the club, and as someone exposed to and born outside of these genres , I’m new to the limitations they’ve set in place. This aspect made for far more interesting listening and dancing than most events I’ve been to.

Janus have previously discussed how music has been made for the space it’s played in since the beginning, so seeing them take theirs on the road resulted in some interesting reactions from the crowd. The audience that stayed had no idea about how this music borne of manufactured culture should be danced to, and this contextless presentation meant all the physical engagement with the music was completely honest – people danced in every which way they knew. Lotic has also talked about how queer and black people are making the most interesting music (to him, in America) and it’s largely because they’re always “on the outside of what’s happening,” as marginalised people. I was glad to see this group of people – M.E.S.H is a white man, KABLAM is a woman, Lotic is black, gay man and DJ HVAD, a part-Danish, part-Punjabi male, was wearing traditional South Asian dress. And lo, the diverse bunch put together what was the highlight of my Unsound experience. They all went back-to-back on the decks later in the night too, dropping edits of mainstream tracks and rebelling against the general festival’s upturned nose. Total Freedom was supposed to be part of that showcase but had to appear at the closing party instead, and his sets constructed of his own re-edits is very much tuned to the Janus mission. With techno on either side of him, I’m not so sure that the majority of Unsound was into it as Lil Durk was met with indifference from almost everyone.

This phenomenon of throwing previous knowledge out the window to connect with what Janus were doing leads onto a case where attendees had to engage art on the artists’ terms. Take Desolation Angels, the evening of performances that featured Stine Janvin Motland and Pharmakon supporting Swans. After boarding a free bus signposted as “Ladder to God”, I arrived at the colossal exhibition space well outside of the city. In this giant, empty industrial hall, Motland delivered her opening set of clicking and gargling vocal sounds without ever actually appearing on the stage. This transpired to the bemusement of many, and to my own amusement as I felt a strange pang of righteous retribution, as if I was in on this lesson teaching everyone what happens when you have your cake and eat it. Pharmakon’s appearance saw her remain fully focused on her task, well in her zone as she banged and breathed into sheet metal. She’d loop the noises before hovering an inch away from people within the crowd, locking eyes with them and screaming through the microphone directly into their faces. It was utterly mesmerising and quite terrifying.

When Swans surfaced, it was an endurance test more than anything else. Their loudness and drawn-out, operatic takes on their own material are one thing as hearsay and another as reality. I left two hours and twenty minutes into their performance and it doesn’t seem unreasonable that even now, a week later, Michael Gira’s limbs are still flailing and Thor Harris is picking up a new instrument every time he’s spotted behind the wall of amps. The reason I left early was because Jam City – of Night Slugs royalty – was about to debut his live set ahead of his second album. His first LP, Classical Curves, has had a huge impact on the grime landscape and many artists now see it as a vital influence on their work (acts ranging from other grime musicians like the Her Records crew to Kindness). I’m pretty sure Kindness has influenced Jam City too, as the two are said to be friends and well, Jam City’s live premiere involved him playing singer-songwriter with an untrained voice and an electric guitar. It all lay between the boundaries of shoegaze and chillwave, post-James Blake blog jams and R&B/funk. It didn’t go down well, and I can’t imagine Unsound were too impressed, having booked him for a Saturday headline slot that saw The Bug take to the stage immediately after. Live premières are a risk, but I don’t think these developments were expected at all.

Parts of experimentalism involve readdressing the things already taken as “known”. Lorenzo Senni performed at Manggha (an exceptional museum of Japanese art and technology), and it was highlight early in the week. Senni once found himself increasingly interested in the structure of trance music, specifically the build-ups. His own music is an extension of the exploration of that build-up, peeling away the “ornaments” around them and stretching, twisting and malforming them to create 2012’s Quantum Jelly. Live, he was happy to tease his audience with the constant imminent threat of the rollercoaster’s plunge, yet never plummeting into the expected. The same night saw techno duo N.M.O. subvert expectations by beginning their gig with a bleep test. Piotr Kurek revisited the absurdist short film Rondo with his own live score whilst Evian Christ continued his efforts to stretch the limits of bassy electronics, trance and dancehall. Other progressive highlights included Stian Westerhus’ unorthodox guitar playing, Rrose’s techno demolitions, Ripatti’s augmented footwork, TCF’s digital whirlwinds and the complete disregard for genres held by the Young Echo collective. Oh, and hearing Valerio Tricoli smash blocks and form horror soundscapes in the sleaziest club/bar I’ve been in – at around 5pm no less – was a new experience.

Collaborations can result in unexpected (and hopefully, good) sonic alloys and Unsound played catalyst for plenty of these. Some didn’t manage to capture that in-phase magic, as Suzanne Ciani & Neotantrik’s improvised ambience and Container’s pitting of drummers Kenneth Kapstad and Tomas Järmyr against each other turned out to be hit and miss. Others really stood out, such as avant-rockers Zs’ pairing with ex-Múm cellist Gyða Valtýsdóttir. They were riotous, going all free jazz and Sam Hillmer is the zaniest sax player I’ve ever seen. Percussion collective Remont Pomp teamed up with the Mikołaj Trzaska Ircha Clarinet Quartet for a performance that spanned moods sombre to playful, sincere and inquisitive, involving a table full of glass containers used as instruments. Carter Tutti Void were similar to Swans in terms of rigor, the differences of their structured improvisations being that Carter Tutti Void dealt with the electronic side of industrial and the trio looked up at each other just once during their hour. Mumdance and Novelist’s marriage of traditional and new grime weren’t so new to UK attendees such as myself but I was no less glad to see them go down a storm amongst the continental contingent. For me, one of the revelations was the Polish good cop/bad cop experimental jazz duo of Rafał Gorzycki and Sebastian Gruchot. Their show combined drums and chain rustling with violin, viola and electronics to form what they called psychological “methods”. There was the traditional “classic method”, the wild “chaotic method”, a string heavy “Indian method” and several others that lulled their audience into a bedazzled state.

Some of the talks and presentations formed part of Unsound’s attempt to flesh out tomorrow’s world. The TCF lecture mapping BitCoin’s blockchain paradigms to music distribution and archiving was especially interesting, largely because his ideas were tangible. Ánde Somby’s introduction to the Saami people, still living in north Norway, and their communal, looping songs to people, animals and nature – known as yoiking – opened new doors in my understanding of what music could be. Yoiks have no beginning or end, and are simply joined, and the chants performed were immediately entrancing. Russell Haswell turned up to his public interview with Resident Advisor drunk, and was fairly candid about it and his opinions on things. Growing up immersed in rave and hardcore simultaneously, he claims his noisy live shows are reactions against that which he finds repulsive (99% of music, apparently). It was a hilarious as well as irksome experience, and the nature of it felt mildly exploitative, which I was uncomfortable with. That said, he’d chosen his circumstances for the talk.

Sitting innocuously in the middle chunk of the programme was a presentation done in tandem with The Wire: “Nightmare Culture in English Industrial Music”. Wire contributor and author David Keenan was the presenter, and he retconned the mission of the talk as a “defence of industrial and noise” soon after beginning. Half of it explored the idea of the night as the counter-culture to the mainstream of the day, darkness inspiring dreams as a reaction to commercial pop. The other half was spent defending Whitehouse against unnamed assailants. Earlier this year, journalist Josh Hall self-published a commentary and on William Bennett and others’ irresponsible misappropriation and clouded relationships with fascism. I’m certain Keenan’s talk was a direct reaction to this. Keenan said “power electronics” was a reductive term pinned on them by others and that the Whitehouse album Buchenwald was meant to channel the horrors of the Holocaust as vividly as possible in order to show how bad the genocide was. He implied that any sort of twisting of that essence would be irresponsible, though I disagree. Presenting controversy without commenting on it is something I see as irresponsible, and rather than explicitly comment, some artists often cultivated this mysteriousness. Keenan also emphasised that Throbbing Gristle were not post-punk and that they succeeded where punk failed, as punk was commoditised. Keenan had plenty of grievances against the canonisation of the Sex Pistols and of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, citing the former’s frontman wearing a swastika and the latter’s supposedly perverse sampling. Crying out that other artists did bad things is never a defence and it was frustrating to sit in on the talk.

The crux of Josh Hall’s piece was to have a conversation about these issues and to make it transparent. Some of these discussions may have happened in a time before the internet and arguments made in rare, esoteric zines by those in the scene at the time don’t scale so well in a globalised world. Instead of reacting to the perceived attacks on industrial and noise in a transparent, insightful and open manner, Keenan opted to present his opinions to a small crowd of industry figures, taking no questions at the end. There’s a generation of people with questions surrounding Whitehouse, Cut Hands and others, but Keenan chose not to engage them. An article published online for all to see would make a more comprehensive case that everyone could understand and engage with, but instead a shadier route was taken where Keenan seemingly vied to influence the influencers. It feels like the avant electronic discourse is exclusive to the adult white male, and is western-centric by nature. That’s something I see as hugely problematic, and surely symptom of the patriarchal mainstream way of living that they were once poised to subvert. Whether Keenan’s presentation will ever surface is unknown to me, and whether the websites that hold significant influence will want to tackle these controversies is also hard to gauge. But pageviews be damned, this conversation needs to happen and forward-thinking platforms should enable it as progression hinges on understanding of the past.

Unsound wasn’t all experimental, as those steps forward are weighted with the bearing of the past. Revisiting and understanding less peripheral music helped reinforce new ideas whilst providing a breather for ears and brains that have surely taken a bit of a figurative battering. Polish techno stalwart Kucharczyk impressed the international crowd with solid selections, delivered early in the night at the Hotel Forum’s carpeted second room. The Hotel Forum was a strange venue, looming over the outer ring road. The main room was of short width and long length with a low ceiling – the lobby-cum-main stage didn’t feel at all festival-like. That said, for acts like The Bug, nothing was visible anyway thanks to the smoke machine. Everyone heard the raucous racket he and his various guests made, certainly since there was some sound bleed between room one and two.

Perc and Vessel also matched their (admittedly high) expectations quite directly, though Willie Burns went beyond the call of duty somewhat as his follow-up was late. Powell’s live première worked pretty well for anyone who just wanted to hear a bunch of new Powell tunes played out and Kassem Mosse was dependable as ever. Lena Willikens, Call Super and Objekt all stood out as deft selectors. The latter two were robbed two hours of their scheduled time due to unexpected complications shortly before the festival began – a venue left Unsound’s resource pool and they came up with a makeshift club that had to start opening for business part-way through Call Super and Objekt’s B2B. Jenny Hval & Susanna were faithful to their task and their backdrop of romantic paintings and sculptures in the museum setting worked in their favour. There was something strange, even refreshing, about how that performance had no support with just one artist on the bill. The only gig I found uninteresting was “nekropolo” punk band Nagrobki., who registered as too straightforward to hold my attention.

The ideas behind the installation of Ephemera – that scent and sound are linked in a way that they can collaborate to convey a specific energy – weren’t groundbreaking. The artists involved seemed to carry the attitude that conjoining senses is intuitive. Steve Goodman (Kode9) opined that most people repress this idea with an enforce opinion that senses are disparate. That ties in with a point Justin Luke of the Audio Visual Arts Gallery in New York made on a panel with Ben Vida and Andy Battaglia: referring to audio pieces as sound art is reductive for everyone working within the field, but it does introduce the idea as a tangible, canon thing for those unfamiliar with it all.

There were moments I found lacking within certain panels. “Sound as Transgression” was a mixed bag for me. The interesting ideas it put forth featured experimentalism as a form of “advanced market research” – the experimental things that take off are adopted into the mainstream, creating a tension until those on the periphery move onto the next thing. There was speculation as to whether the spaces for artists to transgress into that haven’t been co-opted by the mainstream are shrinking. Uwe Schmidt of AtomTM talked of his displeasure when others attached connotations to his art, forming fuzzy blueprints of movements that he ended up a part of as a result of timing and not much else. Writer Philip Sherburne posed that attitudes to trans people may be worse off than before, despite our perceived progress, with reference to Gamergate.

Sherburne also touched on male musicians’ adoption of female-sounding monikers and how PC Music and their affiliates are messing with our preconceptions when it comes to gender politics. There was an off-hand speculation as to whether GFOTY was an alias of a male artist even though she’s never really concealed her identity – she is open on social media, has performed live and, well, here she is interviewing Little Mix two years ago. This second-guessing of a woman’s gender credentials is another symptom of institutionalised misogyny and a patriarchy we are all subject to, even as we recognise and fight against it. One thing that irked be about the panel on transgression was talk of how music and religion are both forms of escape. As put forward here, religion as a standalone concept separate from other aspects of life is a fairly recent, western development – someone like myself, a Muslim, can’t identify with that at all as Islam is our entire way of life. The western-centrism of music discourse seems oblivious to its short-sightedness. Even the programme states “…drugs, dance, sex, religion and the physicality of sound.” The understanding of what faith is seems to be misconstrued and attributing it to a form of transgression is reductive if it is to be discussed in an abstract, non-specific sense.

With a multitude of largely white male panels and talks, and a heavily white male musical schedule, I can’t be sure how progressive and experimental Unsound is as an entity. The Kraków 2014 instance did pose various interesting questions – definitely more than it answered – and there were many artists paving way into new grounds. It’s the lack of self-awareness, the lack of its own limitations that calls into question the worth of all these experimentations. Unsound have a good foundation laid down, and the fact that half of my highlights were things I’d never heard of before attending is a brilliant, brilliant thing. The festival is highly impressive and is sure to please both those looking for pivotal, hallmark acts and those who expect entirely new landscapes, though that gap between principle and potential nags the mind. But when it comes down to it, the reality is there isn’t quite such a thing as living the dream.

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