Unsound is cultural critique disguised as a festival

Toronto's second annual Unsound tested the limits of listeners and an expansive environment.

June 14, 2016

Photos: Jonathan Castellino

There might be no better soundtrack to the messy cultural politics of festival season in Toronto than the two-day exploratory music festival Unsound.

Fitting with minimalist tradition, the festival’s name situates its artists along the periphery of sound itself, which is perhaps as “outsider” as you can get in the world of music. But for all of its countercultural aspirations, is Unsound really all that separate?

Robert Fink’s book Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music As Cultural Practice can provide some insight. Fink makes the bold argument that rather than operating as a countercultural movement, minimalist music is inherently tied to capitalism and is symptomatic of a culture of repetition, where we are constantly “fashioning and regulating our lived selves through manifold experiences of repetition.”

Fink astutely connects the minimalist form, whether it’s the desire-driven disco beats of Donna Summer or the pulse patterns of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, to advertising, as both share their roots in the post-war climate of the 1960s and are even governed by the same principles.

The second edition of Unsound Toronto at this year’s Luminato Festival proves to be a great testing ground for Fink’s theory — and not just because the centrepiece of this year’s fest is a giant fucking disco ball. There’s no better example of desire-formation-through-repetition than the way Luminato has gradually opened the Hearn Generating Station up to the public for the past three years. First as an invite-only gala, then for last year’s Unsound, and finally, putting their entire 16 day festival in that one space.

The decommissioned power plant on Toronto’s waterfront has been a passion project for Luminato’s Artistic Director Jörn Weisbrodt, who is convinced it can become another great cultural institution like the MoMA or the Tate Modern. What better way to bring the city on board with this vision than to introduce them to it? Open its doors to the public, let them touch it, see it, and experience some of its great potential. Now the Hearn is now the cultural institution Toronto didn’t know it had or needed, and it’s only through our being invited there repeatedly that we could become engaged participants in Weisbrodt’s dream.

Thinking about Unsound within our culture of repetition is important beyond Luminato itself. Toronto, along with many other major metropolitan areas worldwide, is undergoing a so-called “festivalization.” Curators Gosia Plysa and Mat Schulz have brought Unsound all over the world, hosting festivals in New York, London, their home base of Krakow, and now Toronto.

SUNN O))) (Vine by Katie Lee)

In Music/City, author Jonathan R. Wynn points to the growing number of cities investing in the business of festivals over the construction of new galleries, museums or sports arenas. He argues that “festivalization offers a repeatable, adaptable, and potentially more responsive cultural form.” Though they might be transitory in nature, festivals are big business, and Luminato is no exception with a budget of over $10 million in 2015, and nearly half of that being covered by federal, provincial and municipal grants.

Festivals aren’t just money pits for your tax dollars, either. Luminato’s economic impact on the city since 2007 has been nearly 50 times their budget. It’s no surprise then that our summers here in Toronto are punctuated with a major music festival happening almost every weekend.

In Fink’s words, minimalist music “provide[s] an echo of [capitalism]’s deafening roar, an echo of our common predicament, at a volume we can actually hear.” So contextualizing Unsound within this culture of repetition, rather than outside of it as its name begs us to do, is not a dig or attempt to undermine it, but rather a way to suggest that out of all the festivals in Toronto, Unsound is best situated for subversion, calling attention to “our current predicament” rather than simply aiding in perpetuating it.

Closed eyes and strobe lights in the crowd during Roly Porter (Instagram video by Michael Rancic)

Festival opener (and closer) Kara-Lis Coverdale was an appropriate choice to be the first to test the limits of the Hearn’s expanses. It’s hard to untangle feelings about Coverdale’s set from the visual of dry ice cloud that billowed in front of her, and the focused beam of light that cut through it all. She commanded a kind of reverence with melodies that resisted resolution, peeking through the processed organs and choral arrangements.

The one performance that was unquestionably best at implicating everyone in the room with a deafening roar belongs to SUNN O))). Driven by their wall of amps, the drone metal titans turned the entire audience into tuning forks, all buzzing and vibrating as one thanks to the band’s assaultive guitar drones. That suffocating, anxiety-inducing resonance, which was more feeling than sound, may as well have been a manifestation of our collective capitalist unease.

Dark ambient ruler Roly Porter was similarly adept at making audience members painfully aware of their own subjectivity with the help of light artist MFO. Toward the end of his set, the screen behind Porter which had been used to project frozen tundras and blizzards asked the audience to close their eyes “for this next part.” The flashing strobes onstage were set off in many directions, creating a light show through audience members’ own eyelids, resulting in a patterned, technicolour wonder.

Though the rest of Unsound’s lineup weren’t nearly as coercive, they still provoked great reactions from audiences, as Porter’s own Tri Angle Records labelmates Lotic and Evian Christ found via their own strong showings. Lotic’s set in the Hearn’s side room was met with huge praise, and was easily a highlight of the first night. There was a clear structure to his set that tempered the energy of his cold and confrontational originals with twisted takes on club favourites. Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” came to the surface around the midpoint of the set, though in typical Lotic fashion it sounded like a trap party happening at the bottom of a chasm.

Tim Hecker

Though Tim Hecker had size and spectacle going for him, his set felt like a very serious affair compared to the stupid fun and revelry that followed thanks to the Unsound-commissioned Hot Shotz (Powell and Lorenzo Senni). Last year there was a clear spatial divide between artists of experimental and club origins, pitting the expansive main stage acts against the more intimate and sweaty side room, but this year was much less defined in those terms, and better off for it. As club-focused as the side room was, it wasn’t without surprises, like the brain-scrambling sonics of Amnesia Scanner, or the khene-wielding Waclaw Zimpel.

The late addition of Chicago’s RP Boo to the bill led to rather serendipitous back-to-back performances of him and footwork futurist Jlin. Clad in all black and Adidas trainers, RP Boo was dressed for the polyrhythmic workout he ran the crowd through, while Jlin explored the furthest reaches of footwork, showing how malleable its sounds and ideas are while referencing its rich history (and Boo’s by extension) with a few Godzilla shrieks of her own.

Unlike any other festival in Toronto, Unsound, and Luminato by extension, promotes mindful awareness of the capitalist underpinnings of our reality in a meaningful way that’s visceral, immediate, and thought-provoking. Their savvy, vital programming draws attention to this ever-present yet unspoken condition, which is an act of subversion in and of itself, and hopefully one we can expect to return for many years to come.

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