Sound Mind and Body

Michael Wilson at the Unsound Festival in New York

Left: The crowd at Public Assembly in Williamsburg. Right: Sound artist Alan Howarth. (All photos: Jude Broughan)

“IF YOU’RE FROM NEW YORK, you’ll know this one.” As the image of an eye patch–sporting Kurt Russell flashed across twin screens behind the stage at West Village destination Le Poisson Rouge, the speaker struck up a portentous synth line and the audience burst into nostalgic applause. But the portly, middle-aged guy behind the keyboard wasn’t just playing to the crowd; the tense theme from 1981 cult actioner Escape from New York is one of his own compositions. Alan Howarth, performing here last Friday evening under the banner of the Unsound Festival New York, is something of an icon to fans of electronic movie sound tracks and effects: His résumé is peppered with Hollywood titles from Poltergeist to Raiders of the Lost Ark, John Carpenter projects like Escape and Halloween featuring prominently among them.

“Most of this music’s just been sitting around for thirty years,” Howarth admitted cheerfully, reveling in the attention it was now receiving and clearly overjoyed to find himself out of the studio and in front of some appreciative listeners. Harald Grosskopf, drummer for 1970s German space-rockers Ash Ra Tempel and author of 1979’s Synthesist album (described by the organizers as “the nexus of Krautrock, Kosmische, and New Age”—and who am I to argue?), was in similarly high sprits. Taking the stage after Howarth, he got rather more of a workout, bobbing and weaving behind his stand-up kit while adopting a range of orgasmic/tortured facial expressions. “This screen is to monitor my blood pressure,” he quipped, pointing to one of several nearby laptops. “It’s nothing to do with the music.”

After an hour or so of meandering but effortlessly enjoyable stuff, Grosskopf and friends made way for Emeralds, a young trio from Cleveland whose synth-heavy instrumental jams owe much to their senior colleagues’ pioneering work. Taking a noisier tack than their precursors and stirring a dose of youthful energy into the mix, the band succeeded in updating their chosen form and, perhaps more attuned to the expectations of a modern audience, laid off the between-song banter. A final set saw the group team up with Howarth to unveil a new collaborative piece, purportedly based on the latter’s visit to the Great Pyramid of Giza. “I rented it out for two hours,” he boasted. “Cost me $8,000.” Apparently derived from frequencies detected in the King’s Chamber, the project promised much. “I warn you guys,” quoth Howarth, “this music’s gonna be pretty powerful.” But, as is so often the case with supergroups, the result was less than the sum of its storied parts.

Left: Emeralds. Right: Void ov Voices at Abrons Arts Center.

Over at Williamsburg’s Public Assembly, Bass Mutations, Unsound’s concession to the clubbing contingent, was still gathering pace. My companion and I arrived in time to catch the end of a crisp set by Lithuania’s Eleven Tigers in the front space, and the conclusion of a dubbier performance by Badawi in the dark, heaving back room. Next up were Manchester’s Lone and spirited Brooklynites Sepalcure, the locals blessed with an unflagging energy that had us wondering whether the duo’s music was really their only fuel. Still, the continued popularity of the form gathered here under the umbrella of “bass music” (Simon Reynolds once dubbed it “the hardcore continuum”) was in no doubt; 2011’s event was at least as packed as 2010’s.

For Saturday afternoon, something more sedate—a discussion between writer Andy Battaglia and British “dark ambient” musician Lustmord (aka Brian Williams). The latter was candid about his limitations (“I have no musical ability, skill, or education”) and readily discussed his day job as a sound designer on Hollywood movies. (“When they want weird shit, they call me. The sound of babies crying in hell? That took about twenty minutes.”) He provided samples of these projects, demonstrating the difference between the sound of a real anvil (a gentle clink) and a director’s ideal of the same (a thunderous, echoing clang). He also played an extract from his first-ever recording, an industrial stomp made using “a couple of bricks and a hammer,” and bemoaned a disconnect between his own aims and the perceptions of his audience. “I just want to create a place. You people always choose to go somewhere dark. I don’t specialize in darkness.”

The same claim could hardly have been made by Void ov Voices, who took the stage at the Abrons Arts Center on Sunday afternoon dressed in a black, hooded robe and began a deep-throated vocalization somewhere between a chant and a roar. “Summer Fun” it wasn’t. Bellowing and gesticulating from behind a table decked out, altarlike, with a row of flickering candles, this performer succeeded unequivocally in claiming something back for the godless.