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Unsound Festival New York Freaked Us Out

Unsound Festival New York opened officially last night at Lincoln Center. It’s America’s second take on the Polish festival Unsound, a week of concerts, panels and sound laboratories curated vaguely around everything experimental, famously bridging minimal composition, death metal and UK bass. Last night focused on the first of these, culminating in a commissioned piece by Australia’s Ben Frost, Iceland’s Daníel Bjarnason and Poland’s Royal Orchestra Sinfonietta Cracovia and featuring film manipulations by Brian Eno and Nick Robertson.

Before any of that was a video, a regular video, of a super sparse performance in Poland, fifteen or so musicians playing single notes not in unison, one pluck here another pluck there. The camera looms over a single clarinet player, we watch her collect her breath and belt a G flat or whatever it is, cut to two violins and let’s see what they do. Film preserves these moments impossibly, a zoomed-in perspective of an orchestra the live audience could never experience: hairstyle analysis on the guy in a pink v-neck, the particular way the harpist silences her strings, the conductor's wink—that was a big one—and the stillness in the drummers face through her concluding solo. And so before anyone real hits the stage, you're on the lookout for individual artistry.

It was an intimacy totally shattered by the arrival of the 29 strings of Sinfonietta Cracovia, whose performances of Krzysztof Penderecki and Steve Reich compositions preceded the big Frost-Bjarnason collaboration. The flesh and blood orchestra wore all black, an enormous mob led by concertmaster Robert Kabara, who played the violin too so no one on stage was standing. They’d play these huge all-string pieces, everyone nailing the same note together, a sea of bows stabbing the air above in general unison. There was a huge screen overhead and we’re watching birds fly backwards and slow motion zooms on hypercities made from cubes cut out of cubes, and it was really terrifying. Then four or five songs in, they did Steve Reich’s “Duet for Two Violins and String Ensemble,” and on screen there was a big red round thing we’re falling into like a wax stamp or something on the ceiling or an upside down starfish. I swear I've never felt so calm in New York.

The big piece of the night, the highlight collaboration was called "We don't need other worlds. We need mirrors”—Music For Solaris. There’s this growing tension between the orchestra on stage and the massive screen hanging over them, sound and image constantly intruding on one another, and you have to make a choice where to focus. What starts off as a fascination in the way Ben Frost’s bare ankles looked between his black jeans and black shoes quickly shifts up to the Eno-Robertson film. Here’s what happened: it was the face of a concerned man aging slowly in reverse, whose beard was receding into his own face as he became a boy, looking happier then, smiling by the end. Through an uncomfortable geometric morphing, stretching and fracturing the image, everything shifts to a closeup of a Bruegel painting of skaters on a frozen pond. If we look down at the music it’s slow and deliberate, Bjarnason conducting the orchestra from his piano, occasionally contributing a few notes. Frost is on an electric guitar fed through his computer, so it doesn’t sound like a guitar but rather a constant wash of ambient tone. That’s enough, look up again: the skaters have morphed into the face of a bleeding woman and back again, framed from further away now. We see a black bird flying above that maybe wasn’t there before. Fracture everything to a golden pitcher on a leather chair and back again, now we see hunters on a hill, the whole picture.

It’s worth pointing out that all this has taken half an hour. The orchestra isn’t doing much, often pausing for six minutes of rest or so for Frost to strum his not-guitar. You think about those 29 string players waiting around, you think about what they're thinking. Then screen fades to the boy again, growing older now, aging the normal way, transforming faster than before, at his greatest age himself fracturing into a series of purple squares. It was a funny video, hard not to watch, everything changing into something else. Watching that old man, watching people dying and skating around gets you thinking. You learn more as you get older, things that make the world seem worse. Pair that with the painting, progressing from happy scene to horrible (and it's not even a scary painting, but it sure felt like it), zoom-outs standing for the process of careful reflection, of looking back at everything and examining the whole of experience. It's hard to know when you're happiest, before you see the hunters on the hill or after, when you're a boy or when you've had a whole life, maybe when you're dead and you're just a bunch of purple squares. If this is a concert review, this is where I say I loved it.

Unsound Festival New York Freaked Us Out