Synaptic Virginity, Lost

UNSOUND FESTIVAL | APRIL 1 – 10, 2011

With so many genres represented, it’s not possible to say anything coherent about the 2011 Unsound Festival, the annual conclave of experimental, electronic, and otherwise avant-garde music and ancillary media. In the embarrassment of auditory and extrasensory riches it offered, Unsound made one wish one had the 11 days required to attend every performance, talk, tour, and party. But alas, only a lucky few probably did.

Unsound Festival co-curator/performer Carlos Giffoni. Photo: Megan Ellis

To get a sense of the scope and scale of this year’s event, consider the following highlights: kickoff performances at ISSUE Project Room including an international collaboration between Polish electronic artist Dawid Szczesny, U.S.-based harpist Shelley Burgon, and turntablist Maria Chavez; a tour of Columbia University’s Computer Music Center, wherein resides the 1959 vintage RCA Mark II Synthesizer; a talk by sound artist Stephen Vitiello about his “A Bell for Every Minute” installation at the High Line; a screening of F. W. Murnau’s horror classic Nosferatu to a live performance by the Norwegian “acoustic doom” composer Svarte Greiner and Polish/German percussionist Paul Wirkus; performances by Sinfonietta Cracovia of music by Henryk Górecki, composer of the Holocaust-themed Third Symphony, and “Music for Solaris” by Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason, marking the 50th anniversary of Stanislaw Lem’s legendary sci-fi novel; a talk by electronic pioneer Morton Subotnick on his seminal “Silver Apples of the Moon”; and a closing performance by dark-ambient pioneer Lustmord.

On April 9, I attended “Oceans of Noise” at Littlefield in Brooklyn, presented by No Fun Productions and ISSUE Project Room. This “extreme sounds” event was curated by Carlos Giffoni of No Fun, one of the festival’s organizers. Giffoni led off with the first of a series of half-hour sets in which the noise-uninitiated brain was exposed to entirely novel sonic concepts. Giffoni’s jumbled analog synthesizer output was characterized by a wide variety of “modular manipulations”; Szczesny followed with more percussive, if similarly blandish, noise. Germany’s Marcus Schmickler (a k a Pluramon) followed with the evening’s most appalling (in a good way), if not most appealing, set. Sitting at a laptop, Schmickler proceeded to ramp up a dense wall of textured noise that kept getting louder, yet not, in an endless auditory illusion analogous to an Escher staircase. This itself was probably not coincidental to Schmickler’s introduction of the paradoxical Shepard tone, which seems to descend but doesn’t, into the tonic structure of his newest work. Schmickler’s aggressive sonic assault included piercing, high-frequency screeches that caused the kind of acute, penetrating pain one imagines is sought by fans of extreme noise; for others, professional-grade earplugs would be mandatory. Schmickler’s performance was a departure from such melodic compositions as the conventional, Shepard-tone-incorporating “Risset Brain Hammer” on his latest release on Mego, Palace of Marvels [queered pitch]; rather it was definitive, überkraft extreme noise. Schmickler was followed by Polish electronician Robert Piotrowicz with American/Taiwanian violinist Spencer Yeh! in a mesmerizing collaboration that commenced with Yeh! massaging the bridge end of the fingerboard, creating a sound approximating whispering flutter. As the performance progressed, Yeh! played with two bows, producing a series of strange noises enhanced by Piotrowicz’s knob-and-switch manipulations, while Piotrowicz crafted his own distorted “keyboard-” and soundpad-generated noise. The effect was elational, in part because the audience was able to see the music being made, something the synthesizer and laptop performers were unable to show. Russia’s CoH followed, an imposing, engaged (and often smiling) operator performing disco-DNA’d, almost danceable, rhythmic waves of sample-like beats. This, following Schmickler’s high-IQ 3-D chessmanship, and Piotrowicz and Yeh!’s anarchic acoustic/electric duophony, was frankly pedestrian. The set closed with Instant Coffee, by which time I was (regrets) sampling subway noise.

A few relevant asides: Noise performed live may be preferable to noise recorded, but artifacts intrude in a live setting. On the upside, ambience is much better achieved in the club environment, where industrial speakers present these sounds as they are meant to be heard. With instrumental performance (like Yeh! on violin), the visual observation of sounds being made is also experientially enhancing. On the downside, the inability to finely adjust the volume, leaving the audience at the tender mercies of the performer, is perilous, especially in the case of Schmickler, who approached the 140 dB considered to be immediately damaging to the human ear. And standing around in a dark room watching someone else standing alone in front of an electronic device for 30 minutes may define the latest example of technologically determined time vaporization. Adjourning to the bar between sets was a dazed relief.

Unsound didn’t feature everyone in today’s exploding scene, as it hardly could. The Stone was missed as a venue, as were Brooklyn’s prolific Elliott Sharp and Czech violinist Iva Bittová. And it bears notice that the program’s type was unreadably minute. But these points are themselves minute, given the Festival’s panoramic perspectives, international cast, and diverse schools of sound. Overall, Unsound offered a comprehensive survey of some of the most innovative music on the planet today, and the opportunity to hear some new “unsound” under the sun. The 2011 event will be a hard act to follow.

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