Unsound London

This report from Unsound London festival appeared on artforum.com:

“IS IT JUST ME? Lightning Bolt’s been doing it for, like, ten years,” a stranger sidles up, sensing a fellow-skeptic. I nod. “The shirtless thing, the masks,” he adds. My response is drowned out by waves of sonic interference. Out there in the spotlight, a balaclava-clad man stripped down to his waist is pounding away at some homemade drumlike instrument, while his bare-chested companion, a shaggy black wig covering up his face, is strumming on something resembling an elongated rocket. We’re being treated to sonic warfare by Poland’s noise rock band BNNT. Derivative or not, the act has got raw energy going for it, but on the fourth consecutive evening of Unsound London—designed to showcase new musical talent from Poland ahead of Unsound Festival Kraków (October 13–20)—I can be forgiven for feeling somewhat shell-shocked.

After New York and Adelaide, it’s London’s turn to host Unsound, a mobile new music festival based in Kraków, Poland, where it began ten years ago as a small, underground event. As with Unsound New York, which is taking a break this year following three editions, the festival organizers are working with bigger, high profile venues and institutions. There’s the BFI Southbank and the Barbican Center, for instance, as well as smaller and, for want of a better word, underground spaces in London, Corsica Studios and Café OTO, where I saw BNNT and its antics on the final night. With its concrete floors and haphazard vintage furniture, Café OTO is a bit of Berlin tucked away in a Dalston back alley. (Oto in Japanese fittingly means both “sound” and “noise.”) Since it opened its doors in 2008, the venue has become a mecca for experimental musicians of every ilk. This is where I learned from Terry Day, playing at one of the regular London Improvisers Orchestra sessions, that a balloon can yield up to four notes.

Unlike in Kraków, where the festival’s yearly editions have a catchy theme, from “Horror, the pleasure and fear of unease” in 2010 to this year’s “INTERFERENCE,” further afield the festival focuses on introducing new audiences to “advanced music” from Poland and the countries around it, anywhere east of Berlin. (Unsound London, however, jointly-organized with the Polish Cultural Institute, had a specifically Polish focus.) By pairing up emerging musicians such as Warsaw-based improviser Anna Zaradny with the British ambient dub duo and Unsound habitués Demdike Stare (who were accompanied by Sinfonietta Cracovia string players on the opening night at the BFI), artistic director Mat Schulz is hoping to foster collaborations between artists from those countries as well as create unexpected connections between different types and genres of music—a point of pride for Unsound.

Stara Rzeka’s Kuba Ziołek.

For Schulz, who moved to Kraków from Wagga Wagga in Australia, home to Unsound festival in a prior incarnation, Poland’s alternative music and festival scene has really taken off in the past decade. Instead of trying to emulate and copy their UK and US counterparts, Polish artists are increasingly developing their own sounds and turning to native traditions for inspiration. A case in point is the opening act at Cafe OTO that evening, the one-man-band Stara Rzeka (Old River), brainchild of acoustic guitarist Kuba Ziołek, whose debut album Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem got rave reviews from London-based magazine The Quietus. The artist himself prefers to call “magical brutalism” what critics single out as Slavic folk in the distinctive blend of influences, ranging from drone to black metal to krautrock. Polish musicians have their own, peculiar sense of humor, according to Schulz at least, when it comes to music. “How does humor express itself in music?” I ask him. Schulz is at pains to find an illustration. It seems you either get it or you don’t.


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