anatomy of a surprise / how unsound is perfecting the art of the music festival

++ by scott simpson of culture chaser

unsound top

there are a number of great festivals around, but none have come as close to perfecting the art of the music festival as unsound has. twelve years in and unsound still has more than a few tricks up its sleeves, including this year’s theme: surprise. a relatively simple one to be sure, but one that managed to astound, delight, and confound in equal measures. the premise was straightforward: organizers announced a select number of this year’s performers, the rest would be discovered as they came on stage and later announced through the festival’s social media channels. while this may come off as gimmicky on paper, it worked remarkably well in practice. but a theme is just a theme and does not a festival make. these are only some of the many reasons why this edition of unsound might have almost achieved perfection.

alessandro cortinitheir lineup isn’t a crutch

in a widely saturated festival market—with increasingly homogenized lineups—to depend on the strength of the artists you’re booking while ignoring other crucial elements of your event can be a kiss of death. sure, many people travel to see specific artists perform, but we live in an era where many attendees are there for the simple fact of being there to share a few snapshots and stories through instagram, snapchat, etc. thankfully this isn’t the case with the participants of unsound. even though weekly passes sold out within 10 minutes, with nary an artist name released, this was more a testament to the strength of previous years than the shareability factor of the festival. although when the first names were finally announced, they definitely didn’t disappoint; with the black madonna, nozinja, helena hauff, liturgy, holly herndon, visionist, amnesia scanner, andy stott, current 93, and tons more featured on the early line up. and as the days went on, you had the addition of lotic, prurient, king midas sound & fennesz, angel-ho, hot shotz (lorenzo senni and powell), rss boys, and a bevy of more acts that ranged from obscure to having mass appeal. the surprise acts alone would have made for a strong and attractive lineup, and the fact that unsound didn’t capitalize on them shows the level of confidence they have in their fans and their festival.

unsound 2

they understand the power of a good venue

venue is key for a number of reasons as it’s responsible for setting the mood of your event and can easily make or break it depending on the acoustics. unsound manages to accomplish both all while booking some of the most unusual venues i’ve ever seen. while there were a number of more “conventional” venues, such as the rotunda, a student cultural centre, and the auditorium of the manggha museum, others were truly original. first and foremost, the warszawa chamber of the wieliczka salt mine, located 125m underground, or the hotel forum, a soviet-era hotel that has been closed for more than a decade and has since been turned into something of a social club. while some argued that the sound at the hotel forum was at times too loud, the rest of the events in other venues had no such issues. and these venues included the beautiful tempel synagogue, the awesome underground nightclub szpitalna 1, the museum of municipal engineering, and the appropriately derelict cigarette factory stara fabryka tytoniu. you’d be hard-pressed to find another festival that has such an impressive array of unique venues in its arsenal.

elysia crampton - photo by anna spysz

they believe in their mission and stick to it

within the music industry, and particularly so in the electronic music scene, the word “experimental” has become almost taboo. even during the many panels, people were more than reticent to even utter the word. but experimental is central to unsound’s identity and mission, and the organizers definitely don’t shy away from the word or the concept. like emma explored in her review of berlin atonal, the very concept of experimental music is somewhat vague and has become the all-encompassing term used for any music not easily categorizable. but at unsound, experimental actually means experimental.

mantana roberts - photo by camille blake

there was john tilbury & robert piotrowicz’s homage to polish composer tomasz sikorski at the theatre hall of ice kraków—the second of the morning glory events—which involved british pianist tilbury using every possible part of his grand piano, from tapping the interior casing to plucking the strings themselves, while electroacoustic musician piotrowicz warped the sounds to resemble alien transmissions. it was beautifully weird, exhilaratingly new, and sometimes mind numbingly dull. but it was nothing like we’d seen before. the previous night saw bolivian/american artist elysia crampton perform a set at manggha that involved her reading portions of a paper she’s currently working on—an exploration of transgender visibility and the power in operating in darkness—spliced with jarring musical sample patchworks, that included everything from trap, r&b, latin music, and even a lil jon sample thrown in. reactions ranged from purely dismissive to enthusiastically enamoured, but nobody was left untouched. the tempel synagogue couldn’t have been a more perfect venue for matana robert’s performance of the third chapter in her twelve-part coin coin project, an exploration of black history, slavery, the current state of racial relations, and a panoply of other challenging ideas. backed by a translucent screen that projected stirring images— plantation workers, their pristine white owners, a frayed noose—which would be repeated in changing patterns throughout the performance, robert commanded attention with her combination of saxophone, fake scatting, chanting, and spoken word. every time she shouted “i was booooorn” it took on another level of meaning, becoming more affecting, more urgent, more chilling. it definitely wasn’t for everybody, as attested by the semi-constant stream of people trying to leave the synagogue silently, but those who remained will undoubtedly have difficulty forgetting this performance.
these weren’t simply exercises in experimentation for the sake of experimentation, they all had a sense of purpose and of being bigger than they even knew they were. even those that weren’t conventionally enjoyable were undeniably interesting and impossible to simply cast aside.

shackleton - anna spysz

but they don’t forget to make the people dance

while unsound is an exploration of all things experimental, it’s also a celebration of electronic and club music. the early half of the week is dedicated to the more cerebral side of the lineup, but it’s important to be able to let loose after days and evenings filled with experimental projects, industry panels, artist talks, and workshops. this is where the “refraction” party at szpitalna 1—featuring an amazing 6-hour set by detroit’s aaron “fit” siegel—and the hotel forum parties came in. we witnessed the world premiere of hot shotz, the unsound-commissioned project by lorenzo senni and powell, richie hawtin and kode9 also took the stage here to play (not so) surprise sets. surgeon & starlight delighted with their couldn’t-be-more-perfect collaborative set on the same night as holly herndon (who brought along collaborator colin self) and astounded with their stunning live set, a highlight of the night and festival. and while i may not have been particularly moved by shackleton’s set with nisennenmondai—i don’t feel like he allowed the japanese band to properly shine, employing them instead as set pieces—others clearly did as they drew one of the largest crowds of the festival. room 2 offered a nice respite to the main room’s mostly techno and house lineup, with a bouncy footwork set by rp boo, uniiqu3 serving up pure bombast for an insanely fun hour, and nidia minaj switching gears every few minutes for the most idiosyncratic set of the night. the first surprise of the final sold out forum show, techno duo shxcxchcxsh, set out to ease participants into the night, offering a slowly building and mutating set, which, while effective, also veered a bit on the dull side after the initial intrigue. the same cannot be said for two of the night’s highlights: a visceral and pumelling performance by london producer visionist, and a good set by aurora halal, who kept things crisp, clean, and most importantly, danceable.

yves de mey - photo by camille blake

they don’t ignore other genres

experimental doesn’t always mean electronic, and unsound make sure to book enough acts that fall somewhere in the rock-progressive-noise-electronic spectrum. after a lovely minimal techno set by yves de mey, which unfortunately peaked a little too soon, the audience was quickly whipped into submission by a brutal and rapturous set by us noise artist prurient. it scared away some attendees, but for most his was one of the better sets of festival. if you stripped away the layers of distortion and noise, you found beautifully melodic compositions that made you sway and thrash, sometimes simultaneously. meanwhile, after a change of venue to the museum of municipal engineering, current 93 delighted some and bored others with his blend of folk storytelling, bluesy rock, and more straightforward guitar rock, but he was nonetheless entertaining, offering funny quips in between gulps of wine straight from the bottle. his accompanying band, including members of these new puritans and comus, were faultless throughout. afterwards, a surprise set by the rss boys seemed to confuse most in attendance. after having seen them whip the crowd into a frenzy in the smaller room of the hearn generating station during unsound toronto, i knew this was most likely due to the venue and timeslot, but i still believe they performed admirably for a crowd that was clearly waiting for the night’s headliner, health. the american electro-industrial band took no prisoners as they blended their earlier material with songs off their new album death magic, a perfect blend of noise rock and synth punk. the museum was once again the setting for two heavy hitters on the next night. first, nine inch nails keyboardist alessandro cortini presented an ambient set alongside his own visuals, a highly effective introduction to his many side-projects and a great way to start the evening. he was followed by controversial american black metal band liturgy, who managed to convince me that i might be into black metal after all. anybody who’s ever witnessed the drumming prowess of greg fox can’t help but stand in awe of his dexterity and swiftness.

dj richard - anna spysz

to burial or not to burial

by now you’ve heard all about this story, and alongside the accusations of satanism thrown at unsound due to its booking of current 93, it’s the story that permeated the festival’s narrative. to be fair, it’s an extremely good story though. let me set the scene: dj richard is just finishing up his beautiful 2-hour ambient set while revellers are descending into the depths of the wieliczka salt mine. the lights are lowered, the stage is empty, and everyone is still speculating as to who the two surprise artists are going to be. fennesz’s name comes up regularly, and we’re wondering if he’ll be performing first. but then the music starts, slowly, and the unmistakeable glitches and scratches of burial’s music are heard. everyone starts looking around quizzically at each other: is this for real? but burial has never performed live, nor has he ever shown any intentions of doing so. but it would make sense though, right? this is unsound. the theme is surprise. we are in a freaking salt mine. if burial were to play his first ever live set, this would be the place to do so. some people notice a hooded figure on the balcony found at the back of the room. but just as it all began, it was suddenly over after 30 minutes. everyone stands in disbelief, as fennesz takes to the front stage for his headlining set with king midas sound. the rest has been widely reported: hyperdub vehemently deny that burial was even in kraków, let alone performed at unsound. hyperdub boss steve goodman—aka kode9, who just so happened to play a set at the forum the very next night—is known for throwing in some burial in his set, so it was speculated that it was in fact him who played, which he also denied in a since-deleted tweet. and so the mystery continues, but given the fact this is the only surprise artist to not have been announced post-show and that festival employees signed NDAs, you’re all free to make your own assumptions.

rss boys - anna spysz

their organization is almost faultless

in no uncertain terms, unsound is definitely one of the better organized festivals i’ve had the pleasure of attending. everything is made seamless and pain-free: whatever information you can’t find on the website is transmitted through their social media accounts, or can be obtained by talking to one of the bevy of volunteers. and the volunteers themselves are some of the nicest and happiest volunteers i’ve ever encountered. some i spoke to didn’t even live in kraków but take a week off to volunteer every year, that’s how much they love the festival. and when the people working behind the scenes are happy, it inevitably permeates every other facet of the event. from transportation to the wieliczka salt mine and back, to the massive headquarters at the historical museum of kraków, and the comprehensive festival guide, nothing was left wanting. possibly my favourite aspect of unsound is the almost complete lack of overlap. events are staggered in a way that you can ostensibly catch every event on the schedule if all goes according to plan. and even the acts that do overlap, mostly at the hotel forum, they’re in adjacent rooms that are literally steps away, making it easy to hop back and forth and catch them all. whereas most festivals force you to make difficult logistical decisions leading up to, and during, the event, unsound has taken that burden out the equation altogether. this fact alone makes unsound worth the ticket price and the trip to kraków. but all the reasons listed above are what make unsound one of the best music festivals, hands down.

health - anna spysz

respect earns respect

unsound never panders to its attendees, nor does it feel the need to hold their hand along the way. they provide information, and let the audience decide for itself what it needs. and in return, unsound attendees are some of the most respectful festival-goers i’ve ever encountered. nobody watching a set through their smartphone screen, only a few quick surreptitious shots as to not disturb their neighbours. i never heard any loud chatter, even during bigger sets that didn’t necessarily require silence. and during those that did you could hear a pin drop. and best of all, attendees treated each other with respect, knowing full well we were all there on the same quest for musical discovery. every single person i spoke to, both locals and outsiders alike, all said a version of the same thing when asked why they return every year: there’s no other festival like it and they always discover something new, even if they might not like everything. people don’t come to party, although everybody undoubtedly does to a certain extent, but it isn’t a primary motivation. the very few that do, such as a trio of very drunk girls that disturbed everyone in a 2m radius during liturgy, are quickly informed to maybe take a backseat—ok informed by me, but still—and instead of reacting with entitlement, they semi-quietly made their way to the back for the rest of the set. i was surprised, almost shocked, and so grateful.

night vision - theresa baumgartner

what’s in a surprise?

as explored during the “shock & awe?” panel, it is very difficult—if not impossible—to truly shock an audience. and there is little value in shocking an audience for the sake of shock alone, there has to be purpose and meaning. while unsound’s goal was not to shock, but to surprise, i similarly wondered whether it was truly possible to surprise anymore. sure, you would only discover most of the artists as they came on stage, but it takes more than a half-secret lineup to keep people on their toes. but i believe that unsound has built a strong case for both itself and the idea of the surprise. again, i rolled my eyes a bit when this year’s theme was announced: it was just too easy. to actually and truly surprise is not an easy feat, but one that unsound managed to accomplish with aplomb. i was surprised by the quality and depth of the artists booked, by the truly impressive group of completely unique venues, by the passion and joy of everyone involved, and by the earnestness with which everything was done. but the biggest surprise was the willingness of the audience to go in blindly and simply enjoy the set, while being pleasantly surprised when they finally either recognized or discovered who performed.


++ all photos courtesy of unsound

yves de mey – camille blake
alessandro cortini – teresa baumgartner
venue photo – anna spysz
elysia crampton – anna spysz
mantana roberts – camille blake
shackleton – anna spysz
yves de mey 2 – camille blake
dj richard – anna spysz
rss boys – anna spysz
health – anna spysz
night visions – teresa baumgartner


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