Most music festivals come with a star-studded lineup of artists from a given genre or comfort-fitted institutional brand. Mostly Mozart. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Coachella. You nearly always know what you’re in for, and while performances may be stimulating, entertainment is the prime directive—not intellectual provocation or futurist enlightenment. Unsound is different. Over the past 16 years, the Krakow-based festival has evolved into something so much greater than the sum of its components, as thoughtful and impressive as those are. You may come for the shows, but you leave with a refreshed awareness of the world, its terrors, pleasures, and possibilities.
And questions. Lots of questions.
“What does it mean to be present in a world of media saturation, where reality can be virtual or augmented, intelligence made artificial? How should we exist in an age of self display, anxiety, cryptocurrencies, robotic technologies, data harvesting, discriminative algorithms, disinformation, social media bots, and conspiracy theories? How does one understand nature, when it exists as a place to be visited rather than lived in? How are communities formed and broken via social media? How do we engage deeply in a world of surfaces? And, when necessary, how do we disengage? How do we try to change the status quo, when so much of our lives feel directed by the technological tools at our disposal?”
The heady rhetorical statement above comes from a kind of manifesto exploring the theme of this year’s festival: Presence. “You try not to make them too precise, because you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner with programming,” explained Mat Schulz, the Australian writer who co-founded Unsound with its executive director, Gosia Plysa. He noted a shift away from “darker” themes in recent years: “It’s important to bring the spirit of optimism and color into the festival. Especially when so much of the world is dark right now. Politically, it’s important the festival embody this spirit of positivity, which I feel you experience when you’re at the festival.”
There were many ways to get to that over the course of a week (Oct. 7-14), in close to 20 mostly adapted locations spread across the Central European cultural capital, whose recorded history extends back to the 10th century. Performances straddled and blurred lines between minimalism, electronic music (in all its variants, from ambient soundscapes to strobe-lit techno), hip-hop, jazz, folk traditions real and imaginary, sheer improvisation, and contemporary classical. Composer tributes included an 85th-birthday celebration for New York’s venerable Phill Niblock and a memorial concert for Iceland’s late Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose bond with the festival was so strong that in 2016 he blew off the Academy Awards to gig at Unsound’s Australian offshoot in Adelaide.
You could tap into panels investigating such topics as swarm production, the history of MIDI, apocalyptic tourism, and “Love and Sex with Robots: A View from the Future”; a film series; and interactive installations. You could sample Ephemera, Unsound’s curatorial perfume, with scents based on “musical resonances and reverberations.” Mostly I connected with how the festival manifests a unique psychogeography through its assortment of sometimes unusual yet meaningful venues, scattered along ancient cobbled streets and in ballrooms of abandoned hotels, in museum basements and 250-year-old synagogues. These were sonic meccas for a wristband tribe of underground music fans who, if not local, seemed mostly to have traveled from Germany or the UK. Many took styling tips from Ramones and Lou Reed album covers. Black was the new black, now and forever. Any New Yorker of a certain vintage could readily identify, and not only because Brooklyn Brewery was a (low-key) sponsor.
Opening night oscillated in the majestic Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, an opulent 1893 show palace whose baroque flourishes would please fans of the Paris Opera. Instead of arias, though, the audience gripped tightly for a thrilling headliner’s set from Tim Hecker, joined by the gagaku court musicians of Konoyo Ensemble, and Kara-Lis Coverdale, Hecker’s fellow Canadian sound artist, on keyboards.
The Japanese musicians, and their percussive tradition, helped to inspire a more venue-appropriate theatrical premise for Hecker’s performance, drawn at least in part from his recent album Konoyo. Some improvised lighting design and a few well-positioned ornamental elements created rich shadowplay behind a transparent scrim, lending ritual mystery to a stately drift that grew at once more dramatic and extreme as the performance got louder, drones pushing the ear’s pain boundaries in ways that suggested the all-enveloping volume of La Monte Young’s Eternal Theater.
Operating at a much higher beats-per-minute frequency, the Italian duo of drummer Andrea Belfi and tape wizard Valerio Tricoli put on the best of several different sets I caught over two nights at Manggha, a modern, Japanese-themed museum. The Manggha stage served up an assortment of electronic artists, including Queens-based composer and performer Eartheater and Polish drummer Miłosz Pękala, whose performances were accompanied by instagram-friendly optics, whether simple shadowplay or trippy video projections. Belfi’s incisive and energetic drumming energized the collaboration, setting off Tricoli’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes vertiginous live-tape improvisations with hypnotic sizzle. The next night, in the same space, East Coast jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements, fronted by poet/rapper Moor Mother, anchored fierce protest music in muscular bass grooves and blazing trumpet that rarely relented.
On another night, New York-based composer Lea Bertucci made the most of her high-vaulted headspace, looping her alto saxophone from the altar stage of the Temple Synagogue, a Moorish-style sanctuary in the city’s old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, which dates to the early 1860s. The spartan wooden pews encouraged a certain devotional posture for listening to those swooping resonances, complemented, complicated and reconfigured through Bertucci’s machinery at hand. The title of her album, Metal Aether, offers an apt description of the effect, the abiding sonic textures suggestive of a chiaroscuro drizzle of notes and smears.
The concert’s headliner was Todd Barton and the Kesh Ensemble, featuring music and poetry the composer made with the visionary author Ursula K. LeGuin, in the invented language of the imaginary Kesh. Recorded in 1985 as a companion to the novel Always Coming Home and re-released this year, the music had its first European live performance in Krakow. The premiere presented some gorgeous voices – including Agata Harz and Katarzyna Smoluk-Moczydłowska of the legendary ‘90s Polish folk ensemble Księżyc – accompanied by Barton on keyboard, their lilting cadences entrancing even for those not well-versed in the particular context of LeGuin’s creative speculative anthropology. Fans of the New York bassist and composer William Parker might have heard a kinship with his more folklore-based concepts, and a shared interest in Native American cultural sources.
By far the most unusual of Unsound’s venues was the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a half-hour outside Krakow. The site dates to the mid-13th century and, while mining ceased in 1993, abides as a tourist hot spot and, surprisingly, a concert hall – albeit carved out of raw earth hundreds of feet down – with a full bar and restaurant. Managing acoustics in such a space is a challenge but Unsound made it clean and crisp, as Colombian-born, Berlin-based composer Lucrecia Dalt opened for headliners Terry and Gyan Riley.
Dalt’s set evoked futuristic dreamscapes amid color-streaked ambient drift and rhythmic tremors. Terry Riley, an invigorated 83 years old, joined his guitarist son Gyan Riley for an improvised set loosely drawn from their new live duo album Way Out Yonder (on the elder Riley’s Sri Moonshine Music label). Approaches shifted from piece to piece, as Terry sang over drones generated from his iPad and the swirl of Gyan’s guitar, and played piano, moving from raga vibes to a jazzier sweep. The longer pieces had an upbeat spring, Gyan’s sturdy vamping evoked a kind of all-American pastoralism, like a top-down convertible cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway.
After the show, the once-and-future Poppy Nogood expressed his love for touring and these free-handed, no-fuss performances. The show marked his first-ever appearance in Poland, but perhaps the composer won’t have to travel as far for the next installment of Unsound, whose New York satellite edition is scheduled for Spring 2019.
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.