The preceding, End-themed edition of Unsound marked, in certain respects, a shift in the festival’s character. At one of the panels, the organisers themselves admitted – perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek –that they may simply need to take a break. The consensus among commentators was that a particular formula, which the Krakow-based festival has developed over recent years, was beginning to wear thin and the question of ‘what now?’ became pressing. Hence, 2013 saw a remodelling: the traditional-at-first-glance Unsound schedule (bespoke artist collaborations, commissioned projects, a cutting-edge label showcase, touches of classic avant-garde, club nights and a dose of metal) gained a more radical form.
The first unexpected move began in controversy but ended with a definite win: the widely discussed ban on photography and filming during events (almost entirely complied with), contributed to a more active listening experience. Witnessing a concert unmediated by electronic devices, along with near-consensus rule adherence, enhanced audience response to the music (at least for the more static shows; the strictly dance-oriented ones have always managed to engage the crowd). Instead of traditional documentation, the festival decided to publish drawings similar to courtroom sketches; quite unexpectedly, the audience – and even the artists themselves, as proven by illustrations from Mik Musik‘s Wojciech Kucharczyk – contributed equally in turn.
The musical content itself was at times refreshingly fearless, even though – as stated – the usual Unsound structure didn’t radically alter. Due to this year’s theme of Interference, noise enjoyed a strong representation (Mika Vainio, Anna Zaradny), as did the voguish dark-hued strain of electronic music (Regis, Samuel Kerridge and White Material label’s DJ Richard, Young Male and Galcher Lustwerk, whose performances at Hotel Forum resulted in a fierce techno-pogo to which I was, despite the seasonal ‘Unsound curse’ of fever and coughing, a willing participant).
One of the recurring themes of the festival was the observance of how artists most celebrated by today’s music media (e.g. Laurel Halo, with a techno-based set vastly different from prior recordings, or Tropic of Cancer sounding like a Cure tribute band) failed to provide live highlights. Conversely, and especially during the Hotel Forum club events, unexpected favourites emerged: the merciless technoise of RSS B0YS, or the dynamic, engaging techno of Stellar Om Source, who appears entirely comfortable with her new style. Polish music is currently enjoying a great moment, mirrored in an Unsound edition which focussed on local artists more than usual: among the highlights of the entire event, I’d count not only the internationally-acclaimed Stara Rzeka, but also the surreal soundplays of 8rolek and Lutto Lento, and the dark synth-spaces created by Wilhelm Bras.
This year’s edition was brimming with renowned acts, beginning with a rare staging of Robert Rich‘s Sleep Concert, through Earth‘s crawling doom monoliths, to Detroit techno veterans Underground Resistance, who interestingly applied an expository structure more typical of rock concerts to their performance. Charlemagne Palestine & Rhys Chatham‘s playfully ritualised collaboration at St. Catherine’s Church managed to polarise the audience: many left shortly after the beginning, while the rest stood enchanted.
Interference manifested itself not only in inter-genre osmosis, but also in general multi-disciplinarity. While Unsound has always keenly played on the liminal ground between the arts, this year those themes were stressed more than ever. The ultimate innovation (in festival terms) was a staging of Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ directed by Jan Klata; in the same noble Stary theatre, Dean Blunt‘s quasi-confessional solo performance also took place. Installations held in the Bunkier Sztuki gallery managed to become festival highlights. Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman’s project AUDINT, a multi-sensory experience delivered via wearable SubPacs, expanded on his published interest in sound-as-weapon. Richard Mosse‘s ‘The Enclave’, a 40-minute film shot using Kodak Aerochrome, a discontinued 16-mm infrared film often used for military purposes, within the conflict areas of DR Congo, was a challenge aimed at expanding the frame of war photography. Mosse’s footage and Ben Frost‘s field-recording-based soundtrack resulted in a hypnotic, unreal narration with an undercurrent of anxious awareness stemming from viewing an actual, albeit underreported war. Chris Watson‘s ‘Whispering in the Leaves’, a rainforest soundscape located in the picturesque Botanical Garden, was enjoyable – partly due to the lush surroundings – but lacked immersion.
Restoration under the sign of Interference proved to be successful, but the question of ‘what now?’ still remains – not only in relation to Unsound itself, but the wider notion of festivals per se and the currently-held ideals of musical progression. And yet, judging by this year’s bill, there may be no need for excessive worry, with fruitful ideas coming both from the tape/CD-R/internet underground and from long-established artists. As for the state of festivals, the continued focus on inter-disciplinarity is an interesting phenomenon to note, and one which may even result in a Convergence-themed edition next year.
Header image: Richard Mosse. Illustration by Elena Harris.