Photo By: Bart Babinski

Unsound Festival 2014 Review: Amplifying the Silences

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 04.07.14 in News

Claude Debussy once defined music as “the space between the notes,” and, in some ways, a variation on that notion could serve as a good shorthand for the Unsound Festival, which was presented by Fundacja Tone and the Polish Cultural Institute and which completed the fourth installment of its New York edition on Sunday. If Debussy was talking, at least in part, about the benefits that come from controlling silence, Unsound was more about amplifying those silences repeatedly until they reached a deafening roar. As its name implies, most of the week’s performers were fixated on finding new ways to turn sound inside out, delivering pieces that capitalized on sustained tones that revealed texture and contour not so much by changing shape as by lingering long enough for the listener to notice new ridges and dips. Most of the music was mesmerizing — haunting, elegiac pieces that were colored with deep shadow and radiated an unnerving, and often exhilarating, sense of menace.

The best of these was the British duo Demdike Stare, who performed their commissioned work “Concealed” backed by a quintet of string players from the Polish ensemble Sinfonietta Cracovia at Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church on Friday. The church, with its vaulted ceilings and wrought-iron candelabras, was an appropriate setting for music this imposing. The group juxtaposed deep, cavernous digital rumbling with a sweeping, lyrical orchestral melody, making music that felt alternately disconsolate and threatening. Some segments hinted at the snakelike melodies of Middle Eastern music, the strings slowly winding across deep, compressor-like rumbles. Other moments were more fractious: one section late in the piece centered around tripping piano and the chest-collapsing wallop of a bass drum. Though theirs was the week’s most obviously melodic performance — due largely to the heartsick minor-key string arrangements — it was also the most unsettling. Each movement was accompanied by a short film by the artist Michael England that matched its ominous mood. In one, a dancer contorted her body into a series of weird, wraithlike shapes. In another, two solemn men in military uniforms hunkered down in a low-lit cavern rearranged coronation spoons in a giant box of earth as if they were participating in some forgotten cult ritual. The net effect felt something like a seance, hopeful and terrifying all at once.

Oren Ambarchi. Photo By Bart Babinski

Oren Ambarchi. Photo By Bart Babinski

That dark mood was matched by the performers at Sunday’s showcase for the Polish label Bocian Records, all of whom delivered music that felt like one long shiver. Kapital began quietly, with a whisper of piano as delicate and discomfiting as the tip of a feather across the back of the neck. It gained shape as it grew louder, and was gradually joined by a collage of clipped, static-ruined voices that sounded like a CB transmission from the afterlife. James Rushford & Joe Talia created a mood of sustained unease: long, aching drones circled by slow, sorrowful violin. Earlier in the week, the Spanish group EVOL operated in similarly-bleak terrain. Their set began with a single note that gradually, queasily distended until it was obliterated by a sudden blast of depth-charge percussion. Midway through the performance, a man dressed in a bunny costume walked zombielike from one end of the stage to the other, heightening the nightmarish mood.

Other performers were more direct, and more physical. Oren Ambarchi’s Wednesday night performance of “Knots,” also backed by the Sinfonietta Cracovia, was a non-stop hail of percussion and power. Over frenetic, ricochet drumming, Ambarchi wrested long, tense notes from his guitar, unwinding them like embalming gauze and pulling them taut. At one point, sound was submerged in shrieking feedback, a frenzied release after a long period of mounting anxiety. It was a gripping, almost violent performance; if the rest of the week’s music felt mournful, Ambarchi’s set was marvelously high-strung and bracingly immediate. The same could be said of Phil Niblock, whose Friday set featured great, toothy chords that lunged and loomed like stabbing notes from an ancient pipe organ.

Suzanne Ciani. Photo By Bart Babinski

Suzanne Ciani. Photo By Bart Babinski

There were also moments that felt beautifully controlled. Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani, performing with DJ Andy Votel and Demdike Stare’s Sean Canty, found accidental melodies in repeating patterns, with pinpricks of electronics clustering like dots in a pointillist painting. Ciani’s sharp, blinking tones felt almost extraterrestrial, tiny balls of sound that skittered giddily across Votel and Canty’s icy sheets of sound. Other artists expanded their range to engage a host of senses. At the opening-night art exhibit “Ephemera,” the Berlin artist Geza Schoen created a trio of fragrances to complement music made by Ben Frost, Tim Hecker and Steve Goodman (Frost’s music, apparently, smells much like patchouli). And at his Sunday afternoon performance, the New York musician Ben Vida rigged 30 chairs with vibrating cushions known as SubPacs, which vibrated in time with his brightly-colored compositions. It was a fitting addition; at a festival dedicated to finding new approaches to composition, and to creating music that often physically unnerves, it’s only natural artists this restless would soon grow tired of merely engaging the ears.