Now in its third year, the Basilica Soundscape Festival in Hudson, acts as a serene and idyllic rebuke to festival fatigue. Run by Brandon Stosuy of Pitchfork in association with Leg Up! Management, it combines visual and performance art with bands ranging from the cavernously loud (Swans, Deafheaven, White Lung, Tim Hecker) to pin-drop quiet (Emily Reo, Michael Chapman, Julia Holter). There is something interesting happening in every room, at all times, and yet the mood remains pervasively casual, relaxed — part community theater, part commune. “I hope once everyone gets up to Hudson for Basilica, we all just sorta stay there til we grow old and die together,” Stosuy tweeted in advance of the event, and his warm, inclusive, wonderfully homemade-feeling festival is a paean to this mentality.
The space, a drafty warehouse outfitted to resemble a cathedral, allowed ample space for daydreaming, and the vibe was particularly encouraging for this headspace on Friday. A half moon rose above the building as ’70s cult folkie Michael Chapman played solo to a small, appreciative throng. Wandering outside, to the food trucks and pop-up stores, I noted all the odd, old things tucked away in corners — a broken, unplayable upright piano, a KitchenAid mixer. In the rotating exhibit space, I happened upon a disturbing mise-en-scene — a group of women, bandaged and blindfolded, trembled and convulsed in place while the speakers blared Tuvan throat singing. Some viewers passed by them to flip through records; some stopped mid-bite of French fry and stared, transfixed; some made quiet jokes and moved on.
“Could there be less light onstage, and more of a relaxed, evening vibe?” asked Julia Holter, who took the main stage later that night. It was a little hard to imagine how that could be possible. But Holter, singing with a throaty, warm voice and playing iridescent, alien-sounding chord changes on her keyboard, dialed in even closer on the festival’s low-key, mysterious spirit. She sang a reworked version of “Ne Me Quitte Te Pas” (which she rendered as “Down in Italy”) that summarized her power: She is a murmurer and a mistranslator, a one-woman portal to the numinous and strange.
She also said “I know you’re excited for the gamelan ensemble after me,” and there was not a hint of irony in her voice or the whoops that followed: This was that kind of crowd. Gamelan Dharma Sara, the traditional Balinese outfit that has established itself at the forefront of a highly specific niche in New York City, took up the floor of the main room and unleashed a cleansing, battering, multicolored hail of sound. It was the perfect sound for the space: ringing, resonant, multi-layered and hypnotic. You could let it follow you from room to room.
Other set ups didn’t fare as well in the room. Richard Reed Parry’s Songs for Heart and Breath, a set of chamber works in which the performers play in time to their own heartbeats, felt tentative and confused in the wide space. It was nearly swallowed up by the ambient chatter of the crowd, prompting Parry to ask the audience — apologetically, solicitously — to quiet down. No one was called a fucking hillbilly, but it was a vibe-killer nonetheless.
Tim Hecker’s music, meanwhile, filled up the room but also got a little lost in the acoustics, which were big and soupy. The sound he made was enormous, pulsing, nearly sentient, and standing in its obliterating path was enough. Swans were similarly massive and monolithic, but their set was nearly identical to the one they played months earlier at Bowery Ballroom, and their ritualistic buildup has a faintly formulaic scent to it. Deafheaven, another headliner act, filled the room with their sensuous, light-streaked take on black metal, frontman George Clarke’s snake-like Axl movements and big gestures like a kabuki art-house take on a rock frontman. It was exhilarating, and also one of the more conventional “festival” moments of the weekend.
For both nights, the grace notes were the most memorable: Emily Reo’s processed voice wafting out from the secondary room was like eavesdropping on mermaid choir practice. Guardian Alien, whose superhuman drummer Greg Fox once played in the transcendental metal outfit Liturgy, blew minds. Fox plays the double kick in spasmodic, sensual ripples, shaping a brutal sound into something positively gorgeous. Atop his rolls, keyboards and off-key vocals droned, but it was secondary activity — Greg Fox is virtuosic and sensitive enough to listen to all by himself. It was a joy when he reappeared, between Deafheaven and Swans, to play an extended solo: He appeared above us, on a balcony overlooking the stage, like a deus ex machina.
Majical Cloudz, meanwhile, performed in darkness, with only Devon Welsh’s signature white t-shirt and his dark eyebrows visible. “We’re leaving the lights off because it’s nice to sit in the dark sometimes,” he said. His songs, outpourings of primal grief and ecstatic love set to only drum machine and synths, are wrenching to experience alone and healing to experience in a crowd. He inspired the loosest borders between audience and performer all weekend. When he quipped, “we’re better when you can’t see us very well.” “You’re very handsome,” a woman cried. He grinned. “I appreciate that. I wasn’t looking for…” He paused and grinned again. “Thank you.”
It was a good space to reconnect. It was a good space to be alone. At one point, during the massive primeval roar that is the buildup of the Swans show, I sat in the almost empty second room, looking up at the chipped white brick and the wood-beam ceiling. There, the roar was oddly soothing. On Friday, during Tim Hecker’s set, I spotted a man sitting blissfully in lotus pose, eyes lightly shut and fingers turned up into delicate mudras. Toward the front, an older couple made out ferociously standing amid a group of people. Both approaches made sense.