The minds behind Poland’s Unsound have a reputation for bringing together visionary artists working at the forefront of experimentalism. The line-ups of their annual Krakow festival are often inspired and always diverse, giving a platform to some of the strangest and most compelling music being made today. In recent years, there’s always a theme to the proceedings – terms like ‘horror’, ‘future shock’ and this year’s ‘flower power’ (an exploration of the spirit behind ’60s counter-culture and the apparent necessity of such an opposition today) provide a conceptual starting point to the artists involved, especially those who have been commissioned to create new works by the organisers.
The theme of last year’s festival was dislocation, and the three collaborative performances that have been shown again this week at the Barbican were centred around this notion. The night began with a blast of dizzying static noise; the first performance came from relatively unknown PC Music affiliate Felicita, accompanied by the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble, a traditional Polish dance troupe. If it sounds like an odd pairing, that’s because it was; a slightly mismatched meeting of cultural idioms made for a confusing performance with little direction. Considered separately, the elements were impressive – the gloriously weird music took the form of a suite of disparate productions, running from hyper-processed vocals, to sombre piano, to mutant avant-pop beats in the space of half an hour – but there was a distinct lack of cohesion between the sound and the dance. Whether this incoherence was an intentional play on the night’s theme of dislocation, or merely a flaw in the performance, is unclear.
Following that was a curious production from acclaimed ambient hauntologist James Leyland Kirby, also known as The Caretaker. Kirby strolled on stage accompanied by longtime visual collaborator Ivan Seal, only for them both to be seated in ornate armchairs while his music played in the background – a little disappointing, as the only elements of ‘performance’ here were the moments Kirby rose from his seat and mouthed the words to an obscured vocal melody into an old-style prop microphone. The soundtrack was typical Caretaker; thunderous rumblings, obscured noise and disembodied snatches of ‘30s ballroom-pop recordings filtered through the fog. The disorienting effects of the performance were no doubt the artist’s intention, his most recent work reportedly intended as an exploration of the process of dementia – a process that could potentially be seen as a ‘dislocation’ of the mind. Visuals were provided by former Aphex Twin collaborator Weirdcore, enhancing the sublime confusion with a psychedelic display of 3D-mapped projections that stole the limelight from the accompanying sound.
The evening’s zenith came in the final act, a collaborative audiovisual project from Liz Harris of Grouper and visual artist MFO commissioned for Unsound 2016. The material for the performance was formed during a residency in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, an isolated outpost to which the artists were relocated in accordance with the festival’s theme. The performance was made up of a few simple elements, but had a profound effect. With Harris off to one side, Marcel Weber’s exquisite cinematography was on full display, as long, meditative shots of the Russian Arctic, the city of Murmansk and it’s inhabitants were slowly faded into one another. Liz Harris worked in near-darkness to produce a dreamlike complement to the chillingly beautiful visuals, looping her vocal lines into a seraphic chorus that only needed some sparse guitar notes and chimes as accompaniment. This was a true collaboration, the two mediums working in harmony to create a unified aesthetic. The music evoked the humanity in what might otherwise be seen as a desolate environment, rendering in sound the emotional resonance implicit in the images. This final performance was a reminder that although dislocation may often result in disorientation and discord, it can also lead us to find in unfamiliar environments, something of ourselves.
Words: Matt Mullen
Featured Images: Tom Ham