The blaring train that pulled into Hudson’s Amtrak station whistled perfectly in key with Bing and Ruth, pianist David Moore’s minimalist ambient ensemble. It provided a fitting invocation to Basilica Soundscape, across the street… you don’t get much more site-specific.
Last weekend’s Basilica Soundscape, the sixth annual festival, marked a cross-disciplinary merging of visual art, spoken word, and musical performance at the 19th-century glue factory-turned performance space. Opened by former Hole and Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and her husband, Tony Stone, soon after they moved to Hudson to start a family, both the space and the festival have fast become an exploratory center for thoughtfully curated work at the vanguard of experimentation and confrontation.
Basilica Hudson isn’t the first or only reclaimed industrial space to become a center for art and culture. In 2010, the same year that Auf der Maur and Stone set up shop, Wilco made use of MASS MoCA’s sprawling lawn and labyrinthine galleries in order to curate Solid Sound, a festival wherein the band’s many side projects, friends and well-wishers could congregate for a family-friendly weekend of reasonably priced concessions, eclectic programming, and art across all mediums. (You’ll find my report on this year’s Solid Sound here.)
Both North Adams, MA, and Hudson, NY, have benefitted financially from becoming art centers: no longer regarded as podunk towns struggling with drugs and poverty, but rather as creative destinations for conscious seekers willing to stray off the beaten path. The same transformation of industrial spaces can now be seen even in cities like Houston, where the old Barbara Jordan Post Office has been transformed into a festival site since the massive Day for Night began in 2015, featuring big-name performers spanning genres, and temporary large-scale contemporary art installations echoing the sacred-space art typified by the nearby Rothko Chapel.
Hudson is, in many ways, a town of two artistic communities. The bougie antique collectors and bespoke bros whose businesses line Warren Street are in one bucket, while a younger community of creatives with more daring taste are in the other.
It’s mostly the latter group, made up of Hudson residents like filmmakers Zia Anger and performance artist turned record store owner Dan Bunny, who populate Basilica and its sister bar, the Half Moon, just down Front Street. Bolstered by such locals with an appetite for the creatively daring, Soundscape has earned a distinction from other festivals following its trend, living up to the term “anti-festival” once bestowed upon it by Billboard.
Unlike Day for Night, Soundscape hasn’t stressed about securing huge headliners to boost ticket sales. Unlike Solid Sound, their programming isn’t especially family friendly: noise, sludge, and other bouts of experimentation are featured prominently. Reclaimed industrial space aside, the only other similarity Soundscape has to Solid Sound might be an exclusive contract with Lagunitas Brewing Company – and with all beers priced at five dollars a pop, you heard no complaints. (Have you tried the Lagunitas sour?)
Despite the focus on folding multiple disciplines into its programming, Soundscape remains, as its name suggests, focused on the power of sounds. “The only true logic is sound,” poet Eileen Myles read from hew new book, Afterglow (a dog memoir), in Basilica’s North Hall on night one. “If you don’t know, listen.”
Afterglow swaps “god” for “dog” with nary a hint of blasphemy, transcending any of the overwrought sentimentality that might expected from words written in the first-person by an animal, in favor of deeper meditations on the nature of love, death, and consciousness.
Elsewhere, too, the fine line between the sacred and the profane was artfully explored. Naama Tsabar performed Untitled (Double Face) from her “Guitar Series” in the North Hall. “Two guitars are joint to form one instrument that has no back,” she explains on her website. “The act of multiplying serves almost as a handicap, one that imposes new movement and sound. It now takes two people to activate this musical instrument. When played, the sculpture imposes a hyper intimate relationship upon the musicians, facing one another, and holding the guitar between them. Every movement is felt and heard, with their backs to the crowd.”
Considered as part of night one’s arc, Tsabar’s performance reminded audiences that there is actionable intention behind noise, not passivity. It was an idea stretched to its limit by Camae Ayewa, who performs her experimental hybrid of slam poetry and confrontational electronic noise as Moor Mother. Demanding her audience come closer to the stage, deriding the crowd for not moving enough, and requesting that everyone hug a neighbor and tell them, “I’m happy that you exist,” the at-times grating white noise flowing into Ayewa’s melodies mirrored the sense of otherness she wears proudly as a performer.
Ayewa kicked off a series of performances in Basilica’s main hall that focused on giving performers of color a prominent stage. The blisteringly loud, field music-sourced loops of Yves Tumor brought similar feelings of confrontation and paranoid discomfort to the fore using different tools. Performing in the rafters of the Main Hall later that evening, Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi played her droning, hypnotically enveloping songs music to rapt silence. The audience needn’t have known that her music soundtracked the revolution in early 2011 that led Tunisia to a period of open, democratic elections — in the context of the evening’s programming, such sounds resonated regardless of whether you could understand her lyrics.
Immediately after Mathlouthi’s performance, Tri-Angle Records-allied newcomer Josiah Wise took the main stage to perform his pagan gospel “adult lullabies” as serpentwithfeet. Standing out with a dyed goatee, pentagram tattoo on his forehead, and oversized nose ring, Wise aesthetically embodies every possibility of otherness. But it’s his voice – classically trained and church perfected, but applied to dark lyrics about ethers, the beauty in grief, and the scorn of a self-harming partner, over sparse electronics and keyboard – that brought the evening back home. The slow shift from Moor Mother’s sonically confrontational sound on that stage hours before to serpentwithfeet’s gorgeously enveloping songs felt intentional: a trajectory completed, a loving sense of resolve arrived at. “My mercy is in retrograde,” he sang at one point during the set, succinctly telegraphing his growing frustrations while remaining ever-aware of greater celestial realities.
Producer Jlin capped the first night of performances with heady, only mildly danceable electronic music. The Gary, IN, native makes tracks in the style of the revered, intricate and tough to dance to post-house Chicago genre known as “footwork.” But she chops up rhythms and themes with a far more compositional ear, subverting a genre invented in the interest of bringing people together with the goal of making music that’s far more cerebral than dancey.
“Different audiences definitely don’t bother me – from a dance club to a museum to a fashion show to a ballet, to a movie score,” Jlin told software and interface makers Ableton during a recent interview with musical collaborator Holly Herndon. “You know all these different audiences, we’re all in the same pot. I think when people don’t understand something they have to tag it, put a name on it, they have to label it. I understand reference, I get that, but what I’m saying is when you start separating the arts themselves and then you start putting differences…it’s fine, but at the same time you’ve created this divide. Sometimes it is OK if you don’t understand something, it’s OK to leave it nameless, that’s fine.”
All performances were complimented by the large-scale artwork of Marianne Vitale, whose giant aluminum paper plane sculptures lined the ceilings of Basilica’s Main Hall. Her collapsing parachutes, meanwhile, formed a backdrop for both the North Hall and Main Hall stages, their pale pink color activated when the stage was lit. Vitale’s decision to implement military stock into the stage design, particularly, looked subversive and powerful. These deployed parachutes, literally a life-saving instrument in moments of chaos, were folded into performances equally harrowing and beautiful.
Brooklyn-based artist Taeyoon Choi led a protest sign-making workshop outside, creating a thematic continuity between the first evening’s focus on giving a platform to marginalized voices and the second evening’s focus on artists who subvert expectations of what protest looks and sounds like.
British journalist-turned-musician Vivien Goldman, who was Bob Marley’s first U.K. publicist and has deep ties to the popularization of reggae, opened the evening with a set of groovy, feel-good dub. Watching a 63-year-old white woman so faithfully channel this vibe was simultaneously disarming and embracing.
As the evening went on, a trifecta of groups that lean heavily on philosophy and matters of our capitalist media zeitgeist formed yet another elegant narrative. D.C.’s Priests got the Main Hall wiggling with anarchist punk from our nation’s capitol — full of songs that asked us to examine our consumption patterns with lyrics like “I used to think I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds” and “It feels good to buy something you can’t afford.” Drummer Danielle read spoken word from her diary after one song; “Pink White House,” performed in front of those pale pink parachutes, further contributed to the energy of feminine reclamation that dominated Soundscape.
“As part of the creative class, we all have to continually make the choice to be responsible with how we’re doing our work,” Priests frontwoman Katie Alice Greer told me earlier this year, “so that we’re not contributing further to these people who try to own everything that we produce.”
Detroit’s Protomartyr began soon after in the North Hall with a blistering set of existential post-punk. Frontman Joe Casey, about a decade older than the rest of his band and wearing a well-pressed sportcoat, speak-sings directly into his microphone with the bottled-up fervor of a street preacher or a man on the precipice of insanity-induced homelessness. Next week they release Relatives in Descent, a blithely callous collection of poetic ramblings and anti-social bangers that begins with a timely screed wherein Casey intones:
In this age of blasting trumpets A paradise for fools Infinite wrath In the lowest deep a lower depth I don’t want to hear those vile trumpets anymore
Even among an eclectic gathering of artists outside of genres and disciplines, John Maus might be the strangest. The onetime member of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti returns to music after six years following the completion of his doctorate in political philosophy. His music is part new wave rave-up, part earnest post punk, and all manic exuberance. Maus runs in place, tugs at his button-down shirt collar, and writhes onstage with the urgency of an oracle or bard watching the flood waters rise from outside the acropolis, professing his alarm in earnest hope that the whole city will listen.
Filled with pop-culture references to He-Man, Star Trek, football, and Game Boys, Maus’ first LP in six years, Screen Memories, arrives next month at a time when pop iconography remains the best way to package big ideas to a large audience. Backstage at Basilica, Maus acknowledged that approach as deliberate, suggesting that our accelerating rate of cultural consumption is all-consuming to the point of tangible apocalypse.
“Then we reach other with how we read it at the point where it reaches its termination, when the acceleration is faster than sea, is faster than is allowed, just becomes that black hole,” he said. “And there is where the gist of the message insofar as I imagined it was, ‘repent!’”
“The idea, what sets me apart from the ‘technostics’ of Silicon Valley, is that the technostic more and more becomes the spirituality that holds sway, the ideology that holds sway,” he continued. “I don’t believe that the concept of life or time could be given its due from within time. I don’t think that history could ever be justified from a standpoint that’s historical. I don’t go in for any of that. I’m old fashioned: I think that time can only be explained by its end, from some standpoint outside of time, when everything that has a history of its own, and isn’t merely a setting for history, is credited with that history. That would involve some sort of end – some sort of end in the old-fashioned, mythological, messianic, eschatological sense.”
If things are nearing that logical conclusion, then to borrow a phrase from John Cale, maybe Basilica Soundscape presents us with music for a new society. Maus reminds us that the scientists who ushered in the greatest changes to our modern ways of thinking were artists and humanitarians, liberated from subscribing to any lone ideology or narrative about the human condition. Through this lens, Basilica Soundscape remains at the vanguard of experimental music and big ideas, expanding the breadth of intention that a festival can infuse into its programming.
“We’re just hairless apes that believe in tribal gods and kill each other, so listen to Google auto-complete, because just like we are more intelligent than a worm or an ant, they are more intelligent than us,” professed Maus. “That’s why it makes my skin crawl when the popular scientists talk about intelligence!”
“[Science] always makes these sorts of equivocations. They don’t see what’s right in front of them,” Maus explained. “The best scientists, the most revolutionary, were born and raised in the German Age of Enlightenment. They loved the humanities, they understood a place for philosophy. They weren’t straight-A students, but there was poetry in their education. Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, they were not kids who scored well on their SATs, you know? And they certainly didn’t believe that the discipline they were beholden to was somehow mutually exclusive with the humanities – which are totally useless now. The late night talk show host is joking, ‘What are you gonna do with your degree in art history, dumbass?! Why don’t you go study math and computers?’”
Maus’s perspective resonates with the vast majority of attendees at Basilica, creatives and deep thinkers who believe that listening is no passive experience, but almost a social science. Those willing to fully immerse themselves in artists’ visions undertook an actionable exercise, not just in understanding the narrative put forth by its curators, but also by applying that narrative to the world we live in.
There’s this notion that a weekend as experiential and immersive as Basilica Soundscape isn’t feasible or practical for our increasingly overpriced cities, where concerns for space and a questionable return on investment render the impact of its big ideas fleeting. But remembering that Sacred Bones Records – whose acts Blanck Mass and Zola Jesus headlined Soundscape – threw their tenth-anniversary shows at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse this spring is also a reminder that programming this ambitious can happen when those planning it take the time and find the space.
But Basilica Soundscape 2017 was also a reminder that the value of an off the beaten path event lies in its power to take the big ideas put into practice by its artists — ideas of identity in revolt, protest through noise, and existentialist concerns about our accelerating world — and bring them to parts of the country that have yet to consider their value.