Focused and introspective: two characteristics that rarely define the average music listener, or even the average person. In the present and contemporary world of technological advancement and industrial ambience, we're bombarded on all sides with both distractions and noise, the latter of which we do our best to impulsively tune out, and the former of which draws us in like a siren song, diverting our attention from more subtle or cerebral pleasures. Who hears the waves of traffic down below or the hum of the air conditioner when we're preoccupied by the luminous displays of our modern electronics?
In a lecture entitled, "The Rising Broadband Noise Syndrome," Australian composer and curator, Lawrence English, remarks, "Noise has played a focal role for us in securing an existence to our liking. Today, though, we're almost deaf to the levels of noise that we create." Substrata 1.1 was the inaugural edition of a concerted effort by curator and creative director, Rafael Anton Irisarri, to bring noise, subtlety and aural immersion to the forefront. Featuring an international lineup of artists who defy any concrete classification, the two performance days were an engrossing dedication to musical detail and sounds often overlooked. Ironically, this homage to minutiae maintained a distinct feeling of representing something greater than itself.
That feeling of transcendence began with the Chapel Performance Space, as well as the building it's located in, the Good Shepherd Center. Located north of downtown Seattle in a residential area of the Wallingford neighborhood, there is an immediate contrast, before one even enters the building, between it and many of the city's more rambunctious music venues. It was isolated and serene—you can actually hear your steps as you walk the tree-lined streets leading up to the venue.
The Chapel Performance Space is located on the fourth floor of the Good Shepherd Center and looks just as you might imagine a "chapel performance space" would, minus any pews. Moderately sized stained glass windows dot the left and right walls of the 60-by-60-foot room, while four evenly placed wooden pillars with rectangular indentations reach their way up to the ceiling, 28 feet high. The hardwood floors are the final touch in ensuring that no sound is lost or goes unheard. If there is an ideal sort of venue meant to inspire contemplation, this one certainly qualifies.
And yet the venue is only part of the story in that regard. Canadian improvisational artist Crys Cole began Day 1 with a modest demonstration of how an all-encompassing musical atmosphere can be created with minimal equipment and processing. Australia's Oren Ambarchi followed with arguably the most striking performance of the evening, utilizing guitar and effects to generate a cacophony of different frequencies that physically impacted the seated audience. Ambient and modern classical artist Eluvium, AKA Matthew Cooper, produced an engaging mixture of ambient guitar work and piano playing, performing several tracks from his albums, including "Taken" from 2005's Talk Amongst the Trees, while Portland, Oregon-based multimedia artist and musician Marcus Fischer concluded the evening with an ambient performance suitably complemented by a colorful visual backdrop of grass blade and green-leaf close-ups.
Michigan-born Benoît Pioulard, AKA Thomas Meluch, led the second day of performances with a marked departure from the contemporary folk leanings of his formal albums. His drone-centered performance was thematically fitting, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention my slight disappointment at the absence of any of his more vocal pieces. Following Benoît Pioulard was a breathtaking performance from German composer and pianist Nils Frahm, who garnered the only true standing ovation of either day. His style of repetitious piano improvisation immediately impressed, and was not entirely dissimilar from the techniques utilized by minimal composers, both past and present. I3O, a live trio ensemble spearheaded by Rafael Anton Irisarri, and featuring pianist, Kelly Wyse and metal drummer, Phil Petrocelli, supplied a performance that was a curious mix of sporadic percussion and piano notes, shrouded by ambient uncertainty.
Biosphere, AKA Geir Jenssen, topped off Day 2 by thoroughly living up to all expectations, creating a sonically detailed, experimental and immersive listening experience. As the sun dipped below the horizon and the various sounds and natural samples enveloped and circumscribed the room, a good portion of the audience had leaned forward or closed their eyes in order to become fully engaged. The performance, alongside those from Nils Frahm and Oren Ambarchi, was easily one of the program's most memorable.
If there was a downside to Substrata 1.1, it was that some of the more ambient performances seemed to blend in to one another, to the point where I don't know if I would able to identify some of the tracks if I happened to come across them on my own. However, one could just as easily argue that such an impression was entirely predictable. After all, wasn't the point of Substrata 1.1 to call attention to the sounds we unconsciously ignore, even if only for a moment?