Unsound Festival Review: Demdike Stare and Michael England’s Haunting ‘Concealed’

It was fitting that the Unsound Festival’sThe Long Tone” concert was held at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn on Friday, as the evening was more akin to a religious experience, a narcotic intoxication, or a sexual awakening, than a mere music show. With the audience settled into the church’s wooden pews, the concert commenced with musician Jakub Ziolek, from Poland, performing under the name Stara Rzeka, playing what he calls “magical brutalism.” From the onset, the concert offered a visceral experience– music you feel as much as hear. Like the sound that emanates from Tibetan singing bowls, Stara Rzeka’s loud, low droning sounds, played on the electric guitar, but thoroughly warped by several effects pedals, moved through me in waves and circles, filling my body with seemingly mystical vibrations. In the darkened space, he was not visible, and my eyes fixated on a large mosaic of an angel on the wall of the second floor balcony. Being the only thing illuminated in the vaulted space, with arms outstretched, it seemed to be beckoning us to to join her in the cosmos– an invitation, in my music-intoxicated state, I was ready to accept.

Phil Niblock at the Unsound Festival

Phil Niblock at the Unsound Festival (Photo courtesy Bart Babinski)

The next performer was New York’s own Phill Niblock, with Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris on violin. Now in his 80’s, Mr. Niblock is considered a highly influential minimalist composer. Since the 70’s, he has been director of Experimental Intermedia, a foundation for avant-garde music which has hosted over a thousand concerts since its inception. While continuing in a similar vein as Stara Rzeka, his sounds were much more dense and multilayered. Somehow they were also more brutal– at once harsh and relaxing. Paired with his performance were his own visuals, a projected film of minimal macro-scenes– the movement of water, plants dripping with dew, bees collecting pollen. In hyper-close up, the imagery often verged on the hypnotically abstract–the only movement often coming from subtle shifts in shadows and highlights. Their dull, mesmerizing continuity made even the smallest change thrilling, and echoed the raw, sometimes harsh, cyclical beauty of both nature and his music.

The last act of the evening was British duo Miles Whitaker and Sean Canty of Demdike Stare, known for their dark, ambient compositions which include strains of post punk, dark drum and bass, and post-industrial techno sounds. With orchestration by Danny Norbury, and accompaniment by a quintet of string players from Sinfonietta Cracovia, they performed “Concealed,” a piece commissioned specifically for this year’s Unsound Festival The music and accompanying visuals by Michael English were decidedly more structured than the preceding piece, offering less room for the imagination, but a more concrete and enchanting narrative.

Demdike Stare at the Unsound Festival

Demdike Stare at the Unsound Festival (Photo courtesy Bart Babinski)

The film began with dancers moving against a white background, plumes of red emanating out behind them, like dye released in water, possibly a nod to Italian classic horror filmmaker Dario Argento’s beloved giallo film “Susperia.”  From there on, it moved increasingly toward the creepy.  A Saddam Hussein look-alike performed arcane physical rituals after emerging from a bunker porthole in the middle of a barren, post-nuclear landscape, a butoh dancer moved slowly in contorted poses, rust formed, and rocks cracked in seconds, before culminating in a nightmarish, frenetic montage of imagery recalling the Brothers Quay or Luis Buñuel, but even more grotesque. With its dreamlike, austere, almost gothic quality, the film perfectly reflected and complimented the overall musical tone of the evening.  It, like the evening’s musical performances seemed less designed to entertain, than to haunt both our waking psyches and our dreams.

Unsound is presented by: Fundacja Tone and the Polish Cultural Institute New York