Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Unsound NYC... Carl Craig soundtracking Andy Warhol, MVO Trio, Levon Vincent, Shake, Mike Huckaby and Petre Inspirescu

Hello everyone-
I’ve been a very bad blogerrr these past few months. With the craziness of work it’s been tough to get back on the word-generating hobby horse. That said, I wanted to share the below review I pulled together of the Unsound Festival which was held here in NYC this past winter. Originally this was meant for RA but as time slipped it got to be too late so instead I've posted it here for anyone interested. Hope you enjoy it. I promise that right after this a record wrap up is coming along with a very worthwhile guest mix y’all need to check out!


UNSOUND 2010...

From February 4th to 14th, 2010 New York City hosted the first North American edition of the Unsound Music Festival. Launched in Poland in 2003, the festival which aims to host “music and sound art that involves experimentation and risk”, has served as a platform for unconventional musicians from all over the world to perform for global audiences. For this first American edition, the Unsound team partnered with several NYC promoters and cultural institutions to host daily sound art exhibits, concerts and parties throughout the entire two-week running time. During this period I was fortunate enough to be able to attend three events, each of which proved to be unique relative to the standard DJ and Live Performances which form the bread-and-butter of the city’s electronic music scene.

My first Unsound experience was at the festival’s Warhol Program at Lincoln Center where two classic Warhol short-films were screened along to live performances by NSI and Carl Craig. First to play this evening were Berliners NSI, comprised of Max Loderbauer and Finnish techno producer Sasu Ripatti. The latter was actually sitting in for founding member Tobias Freund, who was sadly not able to attend after his passport was lost in the mail prior to this event. Playing along to Warhol’s film of couples in passionate embrace, NSI’s soundtrack managed to accentuate the impact of the film and elevate the feelings communicated by the images. During a scene where an older, potentially married, couple are kissing, the music was slow and melodic, communicating feelings of love and care evident from the relation between the on-screen participants. Later, during a scene showing a passionate kiss between a white woman and a black man, the music was devoid of melody, instead full of the anxious throb of modular synths on overdrive. At the time these films were made in the 1960s this would have been a controversial scene, likely unsettling to a wider audience, which is perhaps why NSI chose to use such ‘unnerving’ sounds during this segment. Unfortunately, the NSI performance was not as seamless as expected, with equipment issues forcing the performance to be interrupted for several minutes. Nevertheless, the overall results were certainly impressive, with the soundtrack accentuating the emotional impact of the film.

After the European duo left the stage, Carl Craig took his spot behind a stack of synthesizers, a mixer and a laptop for his soundtrack performance to Andy Warhol’s film “Blow Job”. Taking a different approach from NSI, Carl’s composition was almost entirely devoid of melody or major shifts in style, instead, focusing entirely on a modulating drone which was occasionally accompanied by a heavy 4-4 kick and a few well-placed bleeps and clicks. Despite this minimal sound palette, the music managed to convey the feelings being experienced by the on-stage participant- the sounds becoming louder and more rhythmic overtime. The result was turning an awkward experience, even more awkward and tense. Throughout the entire performance the crowd would move between deadly-focused silence and awkward, self-conscious laughs. At the end of the film, Carl stood up with a huge smile to loud applause, and suddenly, it was as if all the accumulated tension in the room was released- somewhat of a strange analogy to what occurred on the film. While C2’s performance had been awkward and at times disturbing, nobody in the room could deny that it had been a powerful experience for everyone fortunate enough to witness it. While the Warhol program only finished at midnight, unfortunate scheduling meant that I had missed the Newworldaquarium and Legowelt performances happening across town at the Bunker party in Brooklyn. Slightly dismayed, I headed home for the evening.

The following morning all feelings of disappointment at missing out on the Bunker were quickly forgotten as I began counting down the hours anxiously for the US debut of the Moritz Von Oswald trio that evening. The group’s “Vertical Ascent” album had been a fantastic blend of improvised percussion and abstract textures, and the thought of catching an exclusive, live ‘jam session’ was definitely a riveting prospect.

Arriving at Poisson Rouge at midnight, Moritz Von Oswald, Max Loderbauer and Sasu Rippatti were diligently setting up their gear on stage while the house DJ was dropping old school Jamaican dub tunes. To my great surprise, Carl Craig and Francois K were also on stage setting up equipment: were they just lending friends a helping hand or would they be jumping in the mix as players themselves? As the lights dimmed it became apparent that the audience tonight would be lucky enough to witness something fairly historic- an improvised performance of the Moritz Von Oswald trio accompanied by two other dance music legends. With Craig on a modular synth and Francois K behind the mixing desk, this was definitely going to be a total trip. What followed was a hypnotic, undulating jam session which sounded like the equivalent of an entirely new MVO album. Nothing was familiar or predictable, and although at times the sounds were almost grating or uncomfortable, the group would quickly recover to explore new and exciting grooves. While this type of music would not seem to be the kind of thing that could trigger dancing or screaming, during the more intense passages the crowd would certainly cheer and jump, with the players responding with fervor as Sasu pounded his high hats harder or Francois cut the bass only to bring it back louder. After the 1-hour performance Moritz thanked the crowd for coming out and his dear friends Carl and Francois for joining in the performance. Passing the mic to Carl, the Detroit native announced that the group had had a pretty good session at Fabric…but that this had been ‘the best one yet’. With the crowd clearly elated, the group pushed things even further by playing a brief encore to close out the concert portion of the night. As the last sound textures faded out, Levon Vincent popped up behind two turntables and began dropping old school house tunes. His mix would be full of Strictly Rhythm and Nu Groove classics expertly mixed alongside Underground Quality gems. On any other evening it would have probably been the highlight of the night, however, on a night like this it merely proved to be the cherry on top of a very special sundae.

Taking a hiatus from Unsound events for a week, I decided to close out the festival by attending the Bunker’s second Unsound party. Arriving at the infamous Brooklyn venue around midnight on a cold winter night, I was extremely excited for the talent-packed lineup. The front room would be hosting Detroit legends Anthony “Shake” Shakir and Mike Huckaby while the back room would be jumping to the sounds of Romanian techno visionary Petre Inspirescu and Underground Quality’s DJ Qu. Popping into the bar area with high expectations, I was initially dismayed to find a slightly empty room and sound-system lacking the capacity to fill the large space. The $30 cover at the door had deterred all but the most die-hard fans which resulted in a highly motivated crowd, albeit smaller than usual for the Bunker. Nevertheless, the music in the front room was still of excellent quality with Shake and Mike tag-teaming and dropping vintage disco, italo, house and techno records all night.

The back room was a very different affair… dark and loud, the crowd was already jumping and shaking to DJ Qu’s deep house tunes as we found our spot on the floor. The Underground Quality man proved himself to be an adept selector, expertly reading the crowd and keeping the mood positive and full of excitement. Finally, as his set reached an energetic peak he handed over the controls to Petre Inspirescu.

Beginning with a groovy selection of abstract techno, the Romanian DJ quickly proved to everyone present that the hype surrounding his DJ skills was certainly merited. In my many years of attending parties, I have seen very few DJs as incredibly smooth on vinyl as Petre. However, not only were the Romanian’s technical skills incredibly on-point, his selection was particularly elegant- wrapping a dense spider-web of house and techno grooves around the audience that was impossible to escape. And so the night quickly and rapidly faded into day as the crowd remained firmly hypnotized for hours by the effortless layering and teasing of grooves. Sometimes deep, sometimes outright funky, everything blended together and apart at the perfect time. If there were unique traits that I would use to describe Petre’s style of DJ’ing it would be patience and subtlety- an approach that relies much more on intrigue and surprise than build-ups or big tunes.

As I stepped into the first rays of light of a bitter winter morning I felt deeply satisfied with my Unsound experience. While this had only been the first North American incarnation of the festival, the level of production and quality of events offered had made it seem as if the promoters had been doing this in NYC for years. In a city with such a rich history of art and dance music, I can only hope that Unsound chooses to return for several more years to continue impressing US audiences with their unique selection of cutting edge music and art.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Nice write up. Just a quick note that it was Sasu Ripatti who filled in for Tobias Freund, not Samuli Kemppi.

  3. Thanks for the comment Steve! I have corrected it in the post.