things we learned at unsound toronto

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who says a music festival can’t also be a learning experience? the team at luminato partnered up with the incomparable boutique electronic music festival, unsound, (based in krakow, poland) to bring the critically acclaimed event to toronto, its second north american pilgrimage in new york last year. this in itself was a lesson; as someone who is decidedly critical of toronto’s treatment of dance music culture and the scene that goes with it, it was already a welcome surprise that the city was hosting an event that seemed worlds away from its usual field. in fact, the entire weekend brought something fortuitous, musically and otherwise. here are some things we learned at unsound toronto.

expect the unexpected

no matter what you knew about unsound festival or the hearn generating plant, there’s no way you were expecting this. words escaped me for a solid five minutes until i found them again and the rest of the weekend was spent telling anyone who would listen, “this is the coolest venue i’ve ever been to.” despite a long commute to the location itself, the venue more than made up for any shortcomings: the cavernous expanse is found, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere just off cherry beach in toronto. an abandoned power plant turned event venue, it retains all of its post-industrial charm with construction vehicles, puddles, dirt floors, dripping ceilings, and row after row of rusted metal beams. it was by far the most unique venue i’ve ever been to. slowly panning floodlights, coloured lamps, secret walkways, and patches of grass rendered the venue even more captivating, and overall it was an incredibly immersive festival experience.

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keep a low profile

while most electronic music festivals draw their crowd with big name headliners, unsound took a different approach. like montreal’s mutek festival, unsound chooses a strong, consistent curation over big ticket artists. a curated line up makes for a curated crowd, and unsound had both in spades. niche headliners like atom™, robert henke, ben frost, christina sealey, morton subotnick, and helena hauff might not be the most well-known, but they share a common thread of talent and a musical style that’s more cerebral than celebratory.

make it beautiful

maybe this seems obvious, but concerts and music festivals are just as much about aesthetic as anything else, and if there’s anything i’ve learned from unsound, it is this: make it beautiful, and they will come. my experience started with tim hecker’s ephemera show — languid, droning experimental performed in a lightly perfumed room so filled with smoke that it forced you to immerse yourself in the music. stars of the lid and kensington ensemble took us on a journey through ambient classical, so pretty it could have been a lullaby. robert henke’s imagination went wild with a self-engineered audio-visual experience called lumière II, a show where music and light intertwine. morton subotnick’s modular synth show (below) transcended, while ben frost’s haunting live performance transformed. visually and musically, unsound was, well, unparalleled.

morton subotnick

quality over quantity

the week prior to unsound, i attended bestival on toronto island. safe to say that bestival and unsound were worlds away, both aesthetically and musically. bestival boasted five different stages with monstrous design and millions of dollars worth of props and set pieces shipped over from the UK. unsound featured a solitary stage backed by one large screen, and a smaller side room with no frills. bestival’s theatrics were more of a distraction than anything, and unsound far won out where music was concerned. it didn’t feel like unsound had anything to prove; magic was created by good sound, interesting performances, and compelling visuals, not by props, lasers, and pyrotechnics. everything was pulled off with effortless maturity. visuals were striking and representative, even the set times were well planned. it just went to show that you don’t need smoke and mirrors if the music is good.

live, live, live

although i hate to be the kind of journalist that says points out how much better live performances are than DJ sets, in this case it can’t not be mentioned. although i’m normally a huge fan of both helena hauff and christina sealey (both were at the top of my list for the weekend’s sets), i was let down by their DJ sets if only in comparison to the tone of the rest of the weekend. the night’s live performances got into your soul and latched on. there was something about seeing a small orchestra or a modular synth set up or two guys in hooded suits pounding away on the drums that was very special, like the performance couldn’t be experienced the same way again by the very nature of it being live. the DJ sets, while danceable and fun, felt a bit vague and disconnected. the general consensus from the crowd was that it lacked a strong narrative element; we never really found the right energy to get lost in the music.

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techno is for everyone

especially for a toronto festival, the turn out at unsound was surprising. one of the best lessons i learned here is that techno is indeed for everyone. everyone — young, old, and everyone in between — came out for this festival, and the brilliant thing was that you didn’t have to be into the all night sweatbox rave scene to enjoy yourself. unsound is bringing techno back as the everyman’s music, and the set up made it a welcome spot for all.

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