In the past few years, the Unsound Festival has become a must-attend event for any New Yorker invested in left-of-center and experimental music. Begun in 2003 in Kraków, Poland, by writer Mat Schulz, the New York outpost was established in 2010. Through the savvy channels of European governmental funding, Unsound manages to invite a number of acts from Northern and Central Europe who would otherwise not have the financial backing to travel to the States, to perform alongside Americans working within similar musical idioms and styles. The festival leans towards the more pop-oriented side of musical experimentation; even at its toughest, the music at Unsound always seems to maintain a solid melodic and rhythmic structure. In fact, there is a strong focus on electronic dance music in the festival programming; this year also marks Unsound’s third collaboration with the Bunker, one of New York’s most highly regarded underground dance music clubs. Save for the one night organized by the Bunker’s Bryan Kasenic, this year’s festival (stretching from April 18 to 22) was curated by Schulz, along with music journalist Andy Battaglia and ISSUE Project Room curator Lawrence Kumpf, and hosted at a number of partner institutions including (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Goethe-Institut, ISSUE Project Room, Lincoln Center, and Glasslands Gallery, among others.
As in prior years, the festival was organized into tightly themed evenings of performances, with interviews and panel discussions held during the daytime hours, providing historical and technical insights into the festival’s musical offerings. The festival opened on Wednesday at ISSUE Project Room with a trio of artists, each distinctive in their derivations of pop and rock formulae. Julia Kent, an accomplished cellist and member of Antony and the Johnsons, performed a series of elegaic solo pieces in that unremarkable minimalist style reserved for documentary film soundtracks. Kent’s grandiosity sharply contrasted with the starkness of Norwegian singer/songwriter Jenny Hval. Backed by a duo of multi-instrumentalists, the spare yet heavy arrangements recalled early PJ Harvey, when she stripped rock and blues down to its almost naked core. However, Hval only maintained this appearance without translating any real feeling through the music; the precision of her delivery would have been better matched with icy electronics than the warmer tones of acoustic drums and guitar.
The star of the evening was Los Angeleno Julia Holter, whose 2011 album Tragedy topped many best-of lists. On record, Holter freely embellishes her fragile songs with electronics and interesting production. Live, however, she chooses much simpler means; at ISSUE, she played solo at the piano, a decision which made the simple beauty of her songwriting evident.
Among Kent, Hval, and Holter there was an interesting interplay between rawness and studio-based refinement, which carried across the remainder of the festival to far different ends. While this isn’t the same exact binary between nature and culture that Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests with his terms “the raw” and “the cooked,” the comparison of a natural delivery versus a more contrived one is fitting. This does not imply that one must refute technology: Although Holter chose to perform without it at Unsound, she freely uses it at other times. Rather, when using technology, the artist must find a bit of nature within it; this method seemed to be at the root of the successful musical experiments at Unsound this year.
On the second night of Unsound, Peaking Lights performed a selection of songs from their critically acclaimed 2011 record 936 and the upcoming Lucifer (out June 19 on Mexican Summer) at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. The band, the husband-and-wife duo of Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis, mines inspirations from dub, acid house, Detroit techno, and krautrock. They not only pirate certain sonic textures from their influences but, more importantly, the practice of hijacking electronics, purposely misusing them to take these instruments and their sounds into unexpected directions. Coyes and Dunis revel in DIY electronics and outmoded technology; they have created their own electronic hybrids, wiring together old keyboards and oscillators, and they create the loops for their tracks on cassette tape. The result imparts a distinct warmth not only because of the use of analog equipment but also because among the wires and the circuitry one can still feel the presence of the human hand. At Lincoln Center, this human quality was more than present; their unorthodox, brazenly lo-fi set-up (keyboard, vocals, and dual-cassette deck with effects) in the most orthodox of settings meant the band struggled with sound issues, mostly from an unforgiving sound system that peaked at a rather low volume, and an environment more corporate-lobby than club. Despite these difficulties, Peaking Lights managed to perform a decent set; the newer material, far more dub-influenced and focused, seemed to fare well in this rocky sonic terrain, entrancing the audience with its low-frequency pulses and cavernous melodies.
The specter of dub remained a presence at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Friday night, with the inspired pairing of Berlin minimal-electronic music producer Pole (né Stefan Betke) and Sun Araw, the sunny psychedelic project of Los Angeles native Cameron Stallones. Both brought the studio to the stage—Betke’s was state-of-the-art and digital, while Sun Araw’s was far more ramshackle and analog. Their results were far different, though both shared a heritage and a feeling. Tucked behind a mixing board and laptop, Betke built wave upon wave of pops, clicks, gurgles, and bass tones, creating a richly textured but deeply abstract form of dub, producing ecstatic dancefloor crescendoes with far subtler means. Although using digital interfaces, Betke is able to develop a rather warm and human palette of sounds, reminiscent of fellow countrymen Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars. Sun Araw—performing as a quartet—reveled in their handmade aesthetic, festooning the stage with a banner fit for a family barbecue or car dealership, and with a live video feed (courtesy of an outmoded camcorder) of the performance projected onto the stage. Equally antique electronic drums and keyboards were matched with guitars and vocals saturated with delay, casting an overall haze of nostalgia onto their performance. The beginning of the set began sparsely with plodding drums and bass, but managed to slowly build into impressive, tuneful songs. Although the set was not improvisational, it seemed that the performers grew more accustomed to their environment and instruments as it wore on. Towards the close, Sun Araw transformed, using only electronics to construct an unsynchronized, slurred form of acid house, reminiscent of Excepter’s intuitive use of electronics and dance-music idioms. Among these three acts—Peaking Lights, Pole, and Sun Araw—what was shared is not only the inspiration of dub, but more importantly the foregrounding of production (which is perhaps why they all look to dub for aesthetic guidance). Decidedly un-raw, and presenting vastly different levels of studio refinement, each was able to elicit human qualities from decidedly cold machinery.
As most of those invested in electronic music know, this is the exact challenge for much dance music: How does one use machines to create rhythms with which bodies will speak? The Bunker has served as the New York underground’s dancefloor since 2003 and tackled this same dilemma in their programming for Unsound. Presenting a seamless night of music through a high-quality four-channel system at Warsaw in Brooklyn, Bryan Kasenic brought together a wide assortment of artists working at the edges of dance music, including Laurel Halo, Ital, and Monolake. Halo’s set, although at times muddied by droney textures and simply too much sound, picked up at the close. Focusing on crystalline electronic textures and melancholy-drenched melodies, she channeled the sound of early ’90s Warp Records (specifically the Artificial Intelligence comps and Autechre), balancing an almost intellectual complexity with a human warmth. Laurel Halo’s set segued into Ital, the solo project of Daniel Martin-McCormick, who, although only occasionally brilliant on record, presents an incredibly precise, energetic, and enrapturing live set. Delivering extensive 20-minute workouts of some of his best tracks (“Ital’s Theme,” “Culture Clubs”), Ital is rather adept with the mixing board, transforming beats and basslines just enough to keep the mind interested but the body moving along. Working with a palette of sounds recognizable from the history of dance music, Martin-McCormick avoids being merely “retro,” as he increases the feverish intensity and even humanity of these sounds from his sheer physical presence alone, aggressively turning knobs and sliding levers on the mixing board.
The evening closed with Monolake, the Berlin-based minimal-techno project of Robert Henke, performing a set using the full capabilities of the four-channel sound system. Sounds darted across and around the space, while the subs rattled and subtly shook the floor. While this was not the premier club sound system, it managed to transform the music from a solely aural experience into a far more physical one.
Some would say that the beauty of dance music, in the right environment (and with the right speaker system), is that it is more than an aural experience of sound, but the experience of a physical space, of bodies in motion, in unison. An unintended counterpart to this experience at Unsound occurred the following week, when the Scottish organization Arika descended upon the Whitney to present their five-day program A survey is a process of listening as part of the performance component of the 2012 Whitney Biennial. While I attended only a handful of the performances and presentations, they all seemed to highlight the inherent sociality of sound as medium and the activity of listening. In fact, Arika’s broader goal was to offer “a performative survey of listening, as we managed to find it being used as a tool in different practices, disciplines, and communities in North America (music, poetry, film, philosophy, activism…)”. On Friday, May 4, Fluxus artist and composer Yasunao Tone presented his eight-channel piece Paramedia, which thrusts a swarm of sonic digital information at the listener. Incomprehensible, inhuman, resolutely unmusical, Tone’s work is the definition of immanence. You can only listen to the piece moment-by-moment—no expectation arises or is fulfilled; rather you are in a state of arrested listening. The result is a startlingly apperceptive experience, in which listeners become more conscious of their activity of listening than the piece itself. In the midst of this inwardly directed, meditative state, there is one key aspect missing—the social experience of listening. Glancing across the Whitney’s expansive fourth-floor gallery, I could see small interactions among audience members but could not even bear to understand them, let alone hear them. After the performance, I remarked to a sound artist friend that Paramedia was a thrilling yet incredibly asocial experience. He reminded me that Tone’s work is the sound of the machine. In his hands, the inhuman aspect of electronic music-making is taken to an absurd conclusion. However, it allowed me to understand what made the performances of Julia Holter, Pole, Sun Araw, Peaking Lights, Laurel Halo, and Ital at Unsound rewarding; amidst the mechanical pulses, switches, buttons, and computer patches, the human hand could still be heard.