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Festival Report: Unsound New York
Zachary Lipez , December 12th, 2023 12:35

Zachary Lipez heads to the pay-what-you-want New York incarnation of Unsound for three nights of music from the likes of Moor Mother, The Caretaker, Robin Fox, Raphael Roginski, Martyna Basta and more. Photos by Lawrence Sumulong / © Lincoln Center

Over its 20 years of operation, the usually Krakow-based Unsound festival has made its name with the promotion of what its own website proclaims “leftfield” music. In the case of Unsound New York 2023, the leftfield in question was held in the decidedly centrefield venue of the Lincoln centre for the Performing Arts. The Lincoln Centre is an urban renewal project begun in the mid-1950s and completed in 1969 around the time when it occurred to NYC that maybe not every square foot of the city should be determined by the whims of Robert Moses and/or scions of the Rockefeller dynasty, and wouldn’t usually slum as a baseball field metaphor at all. Pure skybox, Lincoln centre is, if it’s going to be sullied by sports at all.

Unsound New York, to its great credit, avoided the designation entirety by making the festival free on the first night, and then pay-what-you-can for the rest. The kindness/utility of this can’t be overstated. Billy Woods has famously rapped about not wanting to go see Nas perform at Carnegie Hall, yet those bars might have been delivered differently if he, and everyone else, had been on Nas’ guest list. Unsound made that theoretical a reality (if one rates Armand Hammer as highly as one rates Nas, which one might). For the cost of a subway ride and whatever psychic toll is required to be the sort of person able to reserve tickets in advance, any fan of far out sounds could attend the Unsound shows, be exposed to music that they’d normally have to fly to Europe (or have to travel whole Brooklyn blocks) to hear, sit just a few aisles behind the owners of Sacred Bones or the rapper Fatboi Sharif, and eat M&Ms in the dark just like a Rockefeller.

Lincoln Centre is a sprawling piece of land (technically a campus if the security guards asking people not to smoke were to be believed) and Unsound took full advantage of the ample space, with each night’s performance presumably booked in the setting which would serve the music best. For the most part, the gambit was successful.

Night one, with Raphael Roginski following Martyna Basta, was held in the David Rubenstein Atrium, a spacious, high ceilinged lobby to a building that succeeds at being “green” by the novel dint of simply not existing above the atrium itself. (There might be an invisible tower on top. Not being an architect, I couldn’t say.) With its open air design; replete with vines, streams of water, stone, and a barista station, the space has the air of an ancient, hanging garden community centre. In that vein, the audience for Roginski and Basta was an affable collection of students, bearded men in the sort of knit striped cap that imply a high level of musicianship, and more than a smattering of the endangered silver foxes and felines of Upper West Side bohemia.

Regardless of the koffee klatch atmosphere, the audience was attentive and enthusiastic for both performers. Basta, a Polish composer whose albums of shimmer n’ haunt suggest field recordings recovered from Elysium, opened the night with all the bang a festival largely devoted to sublimity might allow. It takes an astounding degree of control/charisma to make a hushed art without a needing to ask a crowd, some of who were just there because the usual streaming of classical music in basement had been cancelled, and none of whom had paid to be there, to shut the fuck up. Even the hanging greenery seemed to be paying attention.

Raphael Roginski is an experimental guitarist whose jazz background, citing of John Fahey as an early influence, and use of a Gibson leads many to throw the term “blues” around when probably they shouldn’t. If Roginski’s non-chardal picking and butterfly wing affecting gesture-towards-strumming is the blues then so is everything composed on strings that’s ever come out of South Asia or the Middle East. Which maybe it is, but that’s not an argument I’m willing to have. So, fuck it, let’s say Roginski is some sort of blues and keep it moving. I think he sounds like a silver mine being dug. My wife says his playing sounds like the way our cats’ eyes look.

Roginski played a set that felt short only because it could have gone on and on. For all I know, it’s still going. Occasionally he rolled out a flurry of metallic punctuation, just to remind the audience that transcendence ain’t the same as daydreaming. At one point, I did notice someone checking their watch. But it was a really nice watch and I imagine they were thinking how lucky they were to own such a beautiful watch, how lucky they were to be alive to hear such beautiful music, and wanted to note the exact time these two strokes of luck converged.

When Roginski was finished, he stood in front of the high ceilinged, descending fauna and hawked from his box of CDs.

Night two was held in the decidedly plush environs of the Alice Tully Hall. The evening opened with the audio-visualist Robin Fox performing his Triptych laser sound show, which consists of him playing bracingly likable near-techno lacerated with high budget folding-table-noise, while projecting an awe/migraine-aura-inducing array of space age visuals. At times the light show, akin to dimensional doors opening and closing, reminded the viewer of what heaven must look like. And at times the captured mist and engorged cloud mongering conjured up the Ryan Davis lyric about how “black light will find the jizz.” I blame the time of the season more than the artist for my not being able to help wondering what it would be like watching Vatican Shadow perform the Trans-Siberian Orchestra The Ghosts of Christmas Eve extravaganza.

I don’t have any jokey references for Osmium, the supergroup (consisting of cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, the noisenik/soundniks Sam Slater and James Ginzburg, and Rully Shabara of the Indonesian heavy metal gods, Senyawa) who, after a twenty minute (!) intermission, closed the evening. Trancey and thunderous, the band patiently built off each other while seemingly (and infectiously) having the time of their lives. There was a moment when, as a fan of his advanced vocal techniques, I wished Shabara’s vocals were louder. Then I realized that his high, echoing, and whooshingly acrobatic yawps were making up nearly half the actual sound. If, by the end, the band’s tribalistic impulses lead inevitably to the washing machine thumpa thumpa which all noise genius jam sessions must eventually end as, that was cool too. While undoubtedly many in the audience had washing machines in their buildings, sometimes you don’t feel like cooking at home.

With Sunday taken off so everyone could get right with Jesus, the Unsound finale was held on Monday, at the David Geffen Hall, a theatre notable for its astounding sound quality, it’s otherwise heavy vibe of high school assembly, and its teeny weeny seats that were clearly designed as stress tests for even the small people who populated the island of Manhattan in 1962.

If Unsound is about the leftfield, Moor Mother had a home field advantage and seemed to revel in it; albeit somewhat bemusedly. Putting on a full scale production of her excellent 2021 album, Black Encyclopaedia Of The Air, the poet/rapper/producer was joined by a veritable salon of forward-pushers, aesthetes, and cultural dissidents. As Samvel Krajian’s images of protest and street geography projected above, Mexico’s premier tap dancer, Melissa Almaguer, provided rhythmic ballast alongside drummer Tcheser Holmes. Downstage, the choreographer Kayla Farrish navigated kitty corner to Zubeyda Muzeyyen (aka DJ Haram). Scattered amongst the four – with Moor Mother front and centre, alternating between Spalding Gray-esque spiritual guiding-while-sitting and frenetic pacing – was Mourning [A] BLKstar’s always compelling Kyle Kidd, the legendary Lonnie Holley (on keyboards and vocals), and Luke Stewart, Aquiles Navarro, and Keir Neuringer (all, along with drummer Holmes, members of Irreversible Entanglements) on bass, trumpet and saxophone respectively. Before the performance was over, the rappers Loijj, Billy Woods, and Elucid (the latter two making a special guest appearance as Armand Hammer) would join Moor Mother, each adding their voice to what was essentially – in its weight and implicit understanding of just how low a punk/society might get – a Greek Chorus; always the tried and true medium for letting the gods know that their hubris hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The band’s mantras, with which Moor Mother opened both the set and Black Encyclopedia Of The Air, were evocative, though they made the listener hunger for what we want most from a writer as killer as Moor Mother; bars and incantations. Then we got exactly that. Moor Mother lunged through her verses, quoted Amri Baraka, brought out her guests, and kept the chit chat to the cheerily austere.

Moor Mother referencing the devil’s hooves to an audience who definitely owned as many Mayhem records as they did Albert Aylers was funny (to me). Armand Hammer referencing Love & Rockets amidst Bauhaus architecture was also funny (to me). Sure, the “Love & Rockets” referenced was the comic book and maybe the architecture was some other shit (again, I’m not a building guy), but Unsound is no place for pedants.

That the band’s feeling-its-way-forward brand of jazz only broke out in full song song (’Free Love’, from Irreversible Entanglements’ Protect Your Light LP) once Moor Mother left the stage can be taken as a wink at convention or an acknowledgement of the tensions built into the performance and the context in which it was performed.

The Caretaker, TikTok’s favourite hauntologist, began his show with some charming patter, some unnecessary caveats (“Don’t worry if you don’t like it”), and a lip synched rendition of Motörhead covering ‘Heroes’, while the names and images of dead friends and DIY stalwarts blinked behind him. From there, he played the hits (as it were); the David Geffen Hall sound system doing strange justice to his music by making every 78 crackle sound like torrential rain. I sat in the darkness, thinking about reverie and grief, The Singing Detective, my dead parents, and whether I’d ever be able to eat the M&Ms I’d purchased before the show. As I wanted it to be, taken as a whole, the performance was gorgeous, emotionally devastating, and dull, just like life before memory gets a hold of it.

There were occasional interludes of him lip synching another standard, reading a book on stage, and showing a home movie of what may have been him visiting NYC as a child or may have been some strangers looking nonplussed as their family unit decayed on holiday. At one point I got annoyed at scenes from The Shining being projected, feeling as if it was too on the nose; I didn’t not pay to be there so I could see art about art about memory! Give me the source! But then I decided the clips worked as a clawing back of the art, back into the territory of entertainment (i.e. art), from those who would consider it as academia; an addendum to a Mark Fisher essay. Then I was back on board. Watching endless clips of dancehall scenes was both moving (in conjunction with the music) and distancing; hearing Caretaker in New York sharpened the divide between how our two empires process memory. As though to drive that complexifying home, when Mark E. Smith’s name appeared superimposed over the Twin Towers, almost as an addendum to Moor Mother quoting from Somebody Blew Up America, unintentionally retrofitted for the idealistic-in-hobby-if-not-always-in-politics audience, I felt a laughter from a far off place.