Pyre Festival

Sasha Frere-Jones on Unsound New York 2019

Unsound Festival. Knockdown Center, Queens, New York, 2019. Photo: Zach Lichtstrahl.

WHAT IS A MUSIC FESTIVAL? Is it like a label, an overarching and visible marker of taste? Is it like group therapy, a way to guide and protect fellow souls? Is it a big money laundering scheme? The Kraków-based, internationally present Unsound offers some answers.

Amazon is trying to artwash its hegemonic skid marks by funding a new festival called Intersect, slated to launch in Las Vegas this December with Beck, Kacey Musgraves, and dozens of other acts. Coachella soldiers on in the California desert every April, providing ever-shifting backdrops for TikTok tutorials and impromptu influencer photo shoots. Most of the high-visibility gatherings of this sort pivot on the presence of a big pop act, but there are select American festivals that do the opposite— that is, favor the improvisers, wanderers, and melters. Basilica Soundscape in Hudson, New York, and Big Ears in Knoxville,Tennessee, for example, consistently feature smaller and less easily categorized performers. The festival that has most consistently nourished and inspired me is the aforementioned Unsound, whose most recent edition took place in Queens last month.

Unsound kicked off in Kraków, its geographic hub, in 2003. In the last fifteen years, the event has also hosted concerts in New York, Toronto, London, and Adelaide, as well as in eleven locations in post-Soviet states like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. This year, the Kraków engagement lasted for a week in October. Executive director Gosia Płysa explained the situation when I saw her and artistic director Mat Schulz in New York last month.

“Since we established our foundation in 2008, our main supporter has been the city of Kraków, which has donated to every edition of Unsound since,” said Płysa. “In New York, we’re also supported by the Polish government, through the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Polish Cultural Institute. In Kraków, public funding makes Unsound possible, as only a bit more than 35 percent of the overall budget comes from ticket sales. The remaining 10 percent comes from commercial sponsorship.”

A ticket to the Kraków edition is worth saving up for. The main electronic music shows, or those that still flirt with dance music, go down in the ground floor of the abandoned Soviet-era Hotel Forum, as beautiful and brutal a building as I’ve seen. (Think red carpet and dark modernist wooden slats and inexplicable glass ceiling florets.) The other events happen in museums, churches, and salt mines. Raphael Rogiński’s 2015 appearance at the Manggha museum, a channeling of kora harmonics and methodology through a Gibson semi-hollow electric guitar, still loops in my memory. As delicate and analog as that remarkable performance was, Unsound has found its voice by booking acts that are both loud and electronically unhinged, verging on medically inadvisable.

“I love that Unsound has genuinely idiosyncratic programming,” musician Tim Hecker recounted by phone from his home in Montreal. “I have trouble with digital utopianism and that kind of brain-dead optimism you find in some media arts festivals and Silicon Valley events. Unsound has a critical relationship to all of that, a darker kind of approach that I think is necessary.”

Knockdown Center. Queens, New York, 2019. Photo: Zach Lichtstrahl.

Kraków is not easily replaced by any other city. Parts of the old Jewish quarter date back to the 1300s, and the buildings that ring the neighborhood have a pleasantly 1855 Manchester vibe. Then come the Soviet buildings, the concrete alligator clips and vented sluices. One Kraków feature that New York can match, however, is the city’s industrial revolution modality, and Queens’s Knockdown Center is a perfect venue candidate. A former glass factory built in 1911, Knockdown has the vaulted arches and brick collar that make you think “Steam engines, bb.”

The main room had to absorb most of the performances you’d normally find in the ballroom of Hotel Forum, while a smaller eastward chamber in Knockdown (called “Texas” for reasons I could not uncover) housed the acts you’d find in one of the Forum conference rooms. Although there was a lot of red light and haze, Knockdown is fairly airy and was unable to induce the same kind of pleasant claustrophobia as would a long night at Forum.

A three-act run in the main room did a reasonably good job at summarizing the festival’s Kraków feeling. Caterina Barbieri played a set that drew from her 2019 Ecstatic Computation album: Chords slowly arpeggiated and broke into pieces that floated in reverb, where they cohered around others of their kind, as if minimalism and dance music had been flattened together between zircon plates and flooded with light. Eventually, Barbieri sang—or at least threw her head back and held a microphone above her, I think singing? Or critiquing singing? I was woozy with pleasure and didn’t have a particular take on what was or wasn’t happening.

Caterina Barbieri. Performance view, Knockdown Center, Queens, New York, 2019. Photo: Zach Lichtstrahl.

Tim Hecker, also on Unsound’s bill, has made two albums with the Japanese gagaku musicians Motonori Miura, Fumiya Otonashi, and Takuya Koketsu, now often referred to as the Konoyo Ensemble: Konoyo (2018) and Anoyo (2019). At Knockdown, their group was missing drummer Otonashi, who had lost a crucial travel document and was stranded in Mexico. Miura and Koketsu both played reed instruments and sang; Hecker manipulated those signals and processed them. All of the elements common to Unsound acts were present: digital filtering, high volume, lack of traditional song form, and a slightly mournful tendency. With their keening, Hecker and friends sounded like an iced-out funeral band. Having two vibrant live performers interacting with Hecker’s drones worked better here than in previous Konoyo Ensemble shows. There was a genuinely suspenseful arc to each long vocal line (drones in their own way), often indistinguishable from the sounds of the players’ reed instruments. Hecker described the practice of overload that some laptop musicians can lapse into as an “arms race with yourself,” wherein you succumb to the temptation to pinevery track going into the mixer and distortion becomes the text itself. Not so in Queens. Theirs was a small, broken band of congregants trailing into the dunes, lost but not without faith.

The last act of this triptych, though not of the night, was the Bug, known also as Kevin Martin. Along with vocalist Miss Red, Martin performed a waterlogged, high-intensity version of Jamaican dancehall by blasting out all of the genre’s syncopation and springiness and reducing everything to either sub-bass, kick drums, or synth bass lines. This is music with every palpable edge sanded off and pumped with oil. Grooves didn’t stay in place long enough for dancing, and the sense of overload mostly immobilized me. Even though it was frustrating, I still think this kind of experiment is necessary, and part of Unsound’s remit.

The Bug. Performance view, Knockdown Center, Queens, New York, 2019. Photo: Zach Lichtstrahl.

As for what festivals can do, the very first show told us the most. On the night before Knockdown’s Saturday show, Unsound and Blank Forms presented the elusive Polish band Księżyc at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Chelsea. The ensemble rarely performs anywhere, least of all America; whatever combination of resources, hard work, and connectedness made this happen is exactly the magic festivals need.

Księżyc coalesced in the early ’90s around singers Katarzyna Smoluk and Agata Harz, who adapted material and strategies from folk songs of Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and other countries along the Eastern European seam. Combined with Robert Niziński’s clarinet and Remigiusz Mazur Hanaj’s accordion, the group created a sound that doesn’t quite track any American acts you know, though there are heavy doses of Meredith Monk in their material. In the span of almost thirty years, they’ve made only two albums. Their 2015 “comeback” album, Rabbit Eclipse, added composer Paweł Romańczuk to the lineup. These five people appeared at the church to absolutely stretch my reality.

Katarzyna Smoluk and Agata Harz of Księżyc. Performance view, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, New York, 2019. Photo: Samy Yvonne.

Księżyc’s material, strung together in a seventy-two-minute suite, was taken from both Rabbit Eclipse and their self-titled debut, released in 1996. (Two albums! That’s it!) The performance resembled slow theater as much as music. Nothing happened quickly, and there were very few loud or dissonant sounds. Electronic crackles and textures appeared at moments, but almost every noise was the product of a voice or an instrument. Uncanny and otherworldly music does not necessarily require technology, especially now that we don’t find machines particularly futuristic. What’s more mundane than a laptop? Smoluk and Harz each performed with their own vocal microphones and shared one mic that picked up the reverberations of their interactions with water, rustling paper, and preschool books that reproduce cow and cat sounds. Their singing, like contrails, extended above and across the stage, going somewhere, but from where, who knows? In the middle of the show, Smoluk and Harz went into the nave and bounced an enormous white balloon back and forth, mostly not hitting anybody or anything else. Later, Harz trailed a bunch of small electric bulbs through the aisle with no explanation. There was no talking of any kind, at any point. While minimalism became a springboard for modes of repetition with Unsound’s dance-adjacent acts, here it functioned as a means of slowing down time, a call to breathe deeper and listen. This show from 2016 will give you a good idea of what Księżyc does. If nothing else, Rabbit Eclipse should become a staple for the American underground and side channel. Pray that somebody with the resources to do so brings Księżyc back.