Substrata Festival

Interview: Expressive drones from the other side, with Rafael Anton Irisarri

 
 

 A cross-country move can be unsettling, let alone a move that follows the unfortunate theft of an entire studio. It's enough to make anyone pack-up again, give-up even. But then there are some who use it to channel energy to be even more creative; who use it as an opportunity for deeper expression. 

Not only did Rafael finish up a festival on the other side of the country during this turbulent time, he's been quick to jump back in the studio and put his emotions to good use. A Fragile Geography is Rafael's latest full-length under the RAI moniker and his third for Lawrence English's Room 40 label; after his 2010 release The North Bend, and 2013's sublime, The Unintentional Sea

A Fragile Geography is a personal tribute to Raf's torment over the past few years, and when such emotion is channelled into ambient or drone music, it's often a daunting, heavily-drenched, noise affair. But you should know by now that RAI is a master of sound manipulation, and channeling this type of emotion is his craft. With pure intensity, comes fragility. With a wall of noise comes waterfalls of color. With detailed field recordings, comes subtle storylines. 

Empire Systems is the apex of the albums intensity, a heart-crushing crescendo that powers and rattles through your head as the minute details, static and textures bounce from sine to sine. Hiatus, channels a feeling of displacement, discern and uncomfortable ground. Persistence glimmers with hope across softly degrading melodies. Secretly Wishing For Rain, a love song from the depths of falling mountains, grey clouds and a deep haze. Some people need lyrics to convey emotion, and some just need a guitar, the patience and skill for manipulation, and the ear for fine-tuning acoustics. 

With such a momentous return and a story behind it, I sent a few questions Rafael's way to get to know a little more about the album, his approach and what inspired such sounds.

 
 

Hey Raf, how’s the new studio treating you? Is it finally complete or are you looking to improve it still?

RAI: It's going really well, thanks for asking! Very busy these days, working on tons of projects- from mastering for several labels on a regular basis to mixing and remixing other artists - all while trying to finish a new The Sight Below album. 14 hour days are becoming the norm around here. But that's a very good thing: busy means working, and working means not starving. Can't complain really!

In terms of adding/improving: there's always room for this area. A studio is never 100% “finished.” It's always in flux. I've gone through several iterations of my current setup, and I only opened for business back in February, so I've been changing things around every couple of months or so.

I still have a long list of gear to reacquire, as I've prioritize to more immediate mixing and mastering gear. Eventually I'd like to build a bigger room out here in the woods, just so that I can incorporate a lot of those composing aspects I used to have in my Seattle studio and be able to write music more effectively. A piano would be fantastic, I miss that part a lot.

 
 

How’s New York? A departure from your previous home, Seattle no doubt? I’m jealous you’re getting some defined seasons over there (being in LA now I’m missing it!) Do you see your new location inspiring your music going forward?

RAI: NY is a strange place. It's been quite the cultural adjustment. Finding descent coffee in the Northeast is quite challenging, for example. We were very spoiled in the Northwest (though I reckon LA has some seriously great places – lots of Seattle & Portland transplants there). My location at this very moment is rather nice. I live away from the city in a fairly wooded area, so it's very quiet and isolated in a nice way. When I first got here, it felt a bit strange going to bed at night and not hearing any city noises – we are constantly bombarded by it in urban environments. Out here, I can open a window in my studio, clap fairly loud and hear the reverberation carry through the forest. The scenery is rather beautiful, though I reckon the weather is horribly mercurial. I miss that even keel gloominess of the PNW weather.

Your new album, A Fragile Geography, is a personal affair by the sounds of it, no doubt influenced by your last two years and the difficult times you faced regarding the studio. I’m interested to know how your mood affects your music. Do you set out with these intentions to portray, or is it more on reflection that you start to see the experiences come to life in your music?

RAI: For the longest of time, music/s been a way to cope with my own frustrations and health issues. Depression can be a powerful ally when you channel it correctly. This new album is indeed a reflection of a period of my life. There's great beauty in sadness. One could say it mirrors the general anxiety we are currently living in the United States today. Some of my earlier works reflected on the notion of a decaying American dream. Almost 10 years later since my first release, and we are living in a very tense America, one where opportunities seem to be eroding more and more which each passing day. Sometimes I look at the world and the only sensible thing to do is make a bunch of noise and let it all out somehow.

Is your music always emotionally charged? The complexity behind your music would definitely make me assume so, but I also know you’re very much a scientist, as well as an artist (with regards to your studio, production, techniques etc). How do you balance the two? 

RAI: Yes, it's definitely driven by it when it comes to my own productions. Of course, when it comes to other people's music, then my focus is a clinical one. I'm doing technical work, creative still, but more focused on problem solving and making small improvements to the material I'm working on.

 
 

Whenever I listen to your music it sounds harmonious and refined, yet I can imagine given your guitar usage in much of your music, there’s some serious manipulations and tricks hidden behind what is a very simple end sound? Can you explain some of the processes or techniques used on the record? 

RAI: Yeah, there's a lot of different things going on the album. Lots of heavy processing of source material. For example, the very final piece on the album, “Secretly Wishing For Rain,” was a sketch I recorded in my Seattle studio early in 2014. Just a piano improv. Sometimes I would sit on the piano and just play, from the heart, no click track, no backing tracks, no specific tempo – just whatever I'd be feeling at the time and record it. Well, since I lost all my recordings, this one should have been lost along with the rest. I just happened to have recorded it as well on my phone's voice memo. So as I was transferring files into a new phone, I discovered it. I then took the source material, processed it in the studio here in NY and composed a piece with that source material. It was a very low quality recording, so it took some time to shape it into form. After I had written the piece, my friend Julia Kent played a few cello lines on top, which then I used as source material and created many layers with her playing, which ended on the final recorded version of the song.

Are there any surprise instruments or samples on the record which might not be distinguishable to the normal listener?

RAI: One of my favorite sounds on “Empire System” is a recording of one of the biggest organs in all of Europe. I was field recording in Cologne back in 2013 and captured a Catholic sung mass. As a recovering Catholic, it was fascinating to hear this familiar ritual in a completely foreign language, German in this case, and still be able to follow it (12 years a catholic school boy). Anyway, I took a section where the organ played solo and was playing very sustained notes, so I put in my sampler later on and used it as one of the layers.

 
 

I’m sure lots of people will be surprised just how much guitar and its many manipulations plays a central role in your productions. Why is that? 

RAI: I started to play guitar when I was a teenager. It's a very powerful instrument, very versatile – you can play very aggressive music, or very melodic music with it. It's punk, it's rock, it's classical, it's ambient, all in one. For the longest of time, I wanted my guitar to not sound like a guitar, but more like a synth – I can play it with a bow and get cello-like sounds from it, I can use some very light picks and a volume pedal and make it sound like some very nice Enoesque pads. As time has passed, and I've gotten older (and dumber), I've started to see the guitar in the same way one would see a module in an Eurorack – strictly a sound device. I can sound design with a guitar and a few effect pedals, record it, then load into a sampler and then continue processing in my laptop, to the point it is no longer recognizable as a guitar. It's become something else, something new, unique and very much my own. Where most people would see a limitation, I see endless sonic possibilities.

Are there any instruments you don’t play and wish you could master one day? 

RAI: I would have loved to be born with a velvety voice and be able to sing. The human voice is such a fascinating instrument.

Lawrence English mastered your album and helped on a few tracks. What’s the thought process behind getting someone else to master your record (when you’re fully capable to do so?)

RAI: This may come as a shock, but I NEVER master my own music. I relish having another person listen to it with fresh ears and opine, then have a conversation on HOW it should sound. Lawrence is somebody I trust, like his aesthetic and he knows my music very well. This is very important, possibly more important than any equipment. I wouldn't want the same person that worked on the latest EDM atrocity touching my work, no matter how good they might be as an engineer or how much gear they've got – without a real connection to the music, it means absolutely nothing. It's one of the reasons why I refuse to mix or master music I do not genuinely enjoy.

Are you still learning? If so, what or who is your inspiration? Is it just through self-experimentation or are you always seeking out further knowledge when it comes to production, mastering etc?

RAI. Of course, one should never stop learning and been inquisitive. I learn a lot from my peers, my colleagues, etc. In Seattle I had a huge community of people surrounding me, many artists, etc. Here, I was expecting to be VERY isolated when I moved out here, BUT, as it turned out, I'm extremely lucky: I live now close to two other amazing engineers, Dietrich Shonemann (who cut AFG to vinyl), and Taylor Deupree (who's also an amazing artist on his own right as well, as running the 12k label). We are always hanging and exchanging ideas, discussing, testing and comparing gear, or simply just chilling out. It's nice to have a community, even when you live in the middle of nowhere.

Outside of music, what else inspires you?

RAI: Visual art is always inspiring. I'm naturally drawn to minimalist painters, and as it turn out, I live now very close to the Dia: Beacon museum, which is absolutely amazing and awe inspiring. Beautiful building with possibly the largest collection of minimalist art in the world. I also find inspiration in films, books, and history.

You’re working on a secret ASIP  remix project at the moment, can you tell us how you approach remixes? Do you decide whether it’s an RAI/The Sight Below remix beforehand, or do you see what happens in the process? What defines the style?

RAI: Well, first and foremost, I must enjoy the music, or at the very least, find something, maybe if it's one element, that captivates my attention in order for me to commit to doing a remix. A remix, in my opinion, must hold the same weight as any other of my songs, sound just like any other of my own tracks, have that sonic footprint.

In regards to how I decide which musical persona: that's fairly simple, sometimes I hear something and just know, “oh, this would be a great little motif for a TSB” track. It's something that happens organically, so unless somebody actually requests a specific remix, I'll pretty much just let the process play out.

Speaking of remixes, your Unfurled Remix EP was a momentous occasion and I’m the proud owner of a copy. Can you tell us a little bit about how that was conceived and the decision to not make a digital download available?

RAI: Well, first off, thank you VERY much for the support and plonking down some serious dough for that, so much appreciated! The track itself was the last TSB song I produced at my studio in Seattle. When all this crap went down last year, Ghostly were the first people to call me up. They were like “What can we do to help?” I'll never forget, so grateful for that...Anyway, as we were discussing perks for the fundraiser they were doing, I thought this might be a good track to release and have some remixes, as I happened to have the stems for it on my laptop, possibly one of the very few things left. I asked a few friends/colleagues I like and they were all like, yeah, of course I'm on board. They all put some serious thought to it too, and all the tracks came out superb.

I really wanted to make it special and unique, so early own we decided not to make it available digitally or elsewhere, just on that specific vinyl. It's an ACTUAL Ghostly official release, with it's own catalog number, so it's canon. It's the rarest Ghostly release ever, with just 40 copies made. I'm very happy with how it came out and again, couldn't be more grateful to everyone involved in making this happen for me.

 
 

Who would you love to remix and how would you approach it? (past and present?)

RAI: From a technical standpoint: I'd love to get my hands on an original Phil Spector session or anything off the St. Pepper sessions. From a personal standpoint: I'd of course love to remix (or work in any capacity really) with Slowdive (above).

You’re a big fan of drone (#dronelife!) and seem to be amazingly knowledgable on the genre. How did you get into it?

RAI: Listening to drone music is like enjoying eating a pomegranate. You have to dig through, but it rewards in the end. It's a sonic ecosystem which requires a certain degree of time commitment – generally all things ambient aren't expressed necessarily as the usual 3 1/2 minute song. A truly acquired taste - usually only gained through a personal epiphany enabled by patience - it doesn't necessarily provide instant gratification to the casual listener.

 
 

What do you think makes a good drone record? Attention to detail? Melody? Depth? 

RAI: Ambient music is a deceptively simple style – it seems as if anyone can do it at home, therefore easy to dismiss as pedantic or amateurish. And that may be true to a certain extent – it's not hard to do at all from a few technical perspectives. The important part is not so much about the ease to make, the sound quality or the performance of the musician but rather the content itself: is it distinct? Is it expressive? Is it memorable? This is why X piece of music can be a masterpiece and Y or Z total rubbish. In my view, I find a piece like “Not Yet Remembered” by Harold Budd and Brian Eno memorable, significant and impactful. I can't say the same about most music heard on commercial radio, dance clubs or elsewhere over the last couple decades. Then again, it's all in the eye of the beholder...

For anyone new to this style, who would you recommend listening to?

RAI: I'd just say, browse through my curatorial CV on my website, www.irisarri.org. Anything I've book for Substrata Festival (2011 – 2015) is a good starting point – it's a diverse ecosystem of all things minimalistic and gorgeous.

A Fragile Geography is available now on Bandcamp in digital and vinyl formats.

~

Listen to Rafael's contribution to Markus Guentner's upcoming album, Theia, below.

 
 

Substrata 1.5 - The Final Immersion

 
 

The esteemed Substrata festival has come to a close after an epic, final weekend in Seattle. Rafael Anton Irisarri’s yearly ambient/experimental festival, which has been pushing some of the best music to grace this style, and the many (both unknown and known) associated artists, labels and projects, was highly regarded from all corners of the world, and as a result will leave a big hole in the ambient community.

I was lucky enough to attend the past three years, making the journey up from Portland to immerse myself over the long weekend of evening shows. This year was no different, but ultimately very different in meaning. Being the last show, many friends made the trip from across America to show their support and catch the last edition, and it was the first time I got to meet some of them after speaking on email for years. It was a community - a gathering of likeminded friends, more than a festival. We didn’t need to hang out the entire weekend, but we still made the time to grab a beer, a slice of pizza, or go record shopping, then sit and enjoy some beautiful music. 

The opening night always seemed to be one of my favourites at Substrata, and 1.5 opened with Tara Jane O’Neil’s murky drones and angelic voice. Rauelsson surprised many with his experimental approach to the piano, harmonica, xylophone, a tape recorder and audience participation - echoes of "Nils Frahm live" heard throughout conversations after, and the epitome of Rafael’s curation - he was one of the lesser known artist's on the bill, but will undoubtedly be one of the remembered. bvdub then closed the evening with his immersive soundscapes and some haunting visuals from Leo Mayberry. Inverted silhouettes, inspired from many of Brock’s album artwork, crossed with slowly descending cats and intense fire-scapes framing the euphoria and concentration emitting from Brock’s on-stage presence. 

The Friday night opened with a 7ft Gold Harp alongside Mary Lattimore, plucking and looping, twinkling notes, shimmering around the Chapel space. The highly anticipated Lubomyr Melnyk then took the stage, and began by explaining how scientists had got it wrong - sound, was much more than waves, and he was about to prove it to you.  Two pieces of “Continuous Music” in, and Lubomyr preceded a final third piece with a story of a windmill. The story was transferred to his magical fingers and throughout what seemed like a 45 minute spell (it was a little long), page-by-page came to life throughout an entrancing piano master-class. It was then the turn of 12k’s Taylor Deupree to close. More stunning visuals, triggered live by Marcus Fischer, accompanied the descending sunset, with Taylor's intrinsic meddling of the many synths, patches and unknown mechanics laid on the floor in-front of him, showing us a world of delicate sounds you’d likely find hidden amongst the undergrowth on a warm sunny day. 

Melodic drones and the warming sounds of both Tiny Vipers and Panabrite teased the highly anticipated Rachel Grimes, where she would be accompanied on stage by Substrata Alumni, Loscil. With Scott’s laptop turned towards the audience, Rachel poised stern behind the grand piano, and the summer heat finally getting to most of us, the stage was set for the most dramatic show of the weekend. The warmth and undertones resonating from Loscil, complimenting the stark beauty of Rachel’s Piano that we’ve heard on many of their collaborations. It could’ve been the finale to end all finales, but that was left to the legendary Shuttle 358 and his graceful return to music after many long lost years - Paul Clipson’s stunning visuals resonating from 16mm film, complimenting the shimmering beauty resonating from Shuttle 358; the perfect drones to signal another legendary weekend in Seattle, and the celebrated end for one of the most important festivals to ever grace the ambient, modern-classical and experimental community. 

~

You can read about a little Crate Digging trip I took whilst at Substrata with bvdub and Mike Cadoo here , and features on previous Substrata Festivals 1.3 (preview), 1.4 and 1.5 (preview). Please note, the lack of photos for this post was on purpose - I decided to keep my attention focused on the music this year.

 
 

Spotlight on Substrata 1.5 - the final edition

This years ambient pilgrimage to Seattle will thankfully happen after festival curator Rafael Anton Irisarri pulled out all of the stops from the other side of the country. 

After a painful year in which his entire studio was stolen prior to his move to New York, the annual intimate sound and visual art weekend was at risk of never seeing a fifth edition. But after months of hard-work, Rafael has managed to pull together one of the best line-ups yet, all for what seems to be the final Substrata.

The curatorial once again sees Rafael mix-up the bigger names of ambient and experimental music alongside local artists and well-respected yet perhaps lesser-known musicians. Out of the five editions, I'm yet to be familiar with every-single artist on the lineup, so once again I'm going to take a dive into what's in-store for what's set to be a very special fifth and final edition to the Pacific North West's (and probably one of the world's best) small festivals dedicated to this type of music. 

A very limited amount of tickets are available for the weekend at Substratafestival.com

Arovane

With ASIPV003 set to be released in a few months time, Uwe's release alongside Hior Chronik titled In-between, will mark a very special occasion for ASIP. It will be our first dedicated artist release, and it will also see Uwe move away from his more recognised IDM style, into ambient music. Perfect timing, as Uwe is set to play a rare and exclusive ambient set for Substrata, hopefully echoing some of the approaches we'll witness on the album, alongside "entirely new material based on field recordings, treated with granular synthesis and electroacoustic/computeracoustic sounds".

Uwe has been releasing snippets of his studio work on his Soundcloud over the past few weeks, which might be the workings of what we can expect on the night. You can also listen to a couple of tracks from his upcoming ASIP release  here.

 
 

Taylor Deupree

Taylor Deupree runs the infamous 12k record label (home to Marcus Fischer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Marsen Jules and Simon Scott (of Slowdive fame) to name just a few. A producer in his own right, Taylor's responsible for a plethora of experimental and ambient albums over the years, and this intro could be a pretty massive rabbit-hole for anyone new to the name. 

Below, I've decided to showcase Taylor's Shoals, an album which might closely mimic the type of performance or sound we're likely to hear at Substrata. "After the first day in the studio, Deupree quickly realized that he was less interested in the traditional ways these instruments were played and more fascinated by the sounds of the surfaces of the 
instruments. And so he began to utilize their edges and undersides and find their flaws, such as broken strings. These instruments, played by scraping, tapping, or with an eBow, became the basis for long and meditative looping beds of sound".

 
 

Rachel Grimes

A pianist, composer and arranger, Rachel Grimes is someone I've come across regularly, but unforgivably failed to look further into. She has a wealth of experience working on film scores, commissions, and collaborations and has played at some of the worlds most diverse music festivals. 

Rachel's upcoming release on Temporary Residence is what may interest most of us. In collaboration with the likes of Loscil, Scott Moore, Kyle Crabtree (Shipping News), Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Jacob Duncan (Liberation Prophecy), and Helen Money, The Clearing represents "a wide spectrum of textures in strings, harp, piano, woodwinds, and percussion".

It'll be interesting to see who, and exactly what turns up on stage for Rachel's performance with such a variation of experience to choose from. 

 
 

Lubomyr Melnyk

Known for pioneering 'Continuous Piano Music' (and to some, as one of the worlds fastest pianists) the Ukrainian is a recent addition to the brilliant Erased Tapes label and a match-made in heaven for Substrata. I can't wait to sit back as the evening sun descends on the Chapel, and absorb the never-ending paintings that Lubomyr constructs. The video below should give you the best insight into what to expect. Rumour has it, he'll be leading an advanced piano-class on the Saturday of the festival.

 
 

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma

Known by name to me, but not with as much familiarity as I would've hoped, Jefre is another artist which has been floating on my periphery for quite some time. He is known to many for his work in bands such as Tarentel, the co-founder of the Root Strata label and has also partnered with Substrata veteran Grouper as Raum

The below video is taken from his February 2015 release, A Year With 13 Moons. Going by this album and his production roots, it sounds like we'll be treated to a wall of glorious and colorful sound come festival-time.

 
 

Tiny Vipers

Bringing it home for Seattle is local acoustic singer Tiny Vipers. Similarly to Jefre above, Jesy Fortino has also partnered up with Liz Harris (Grouper) on one production in the past, but is perhaps better known for her solo acoustic performances, often seen playing live across Seattle on Kexp, or at the infamous Triple Door. For her performance at this Substrata, Jesy is set to play all new music made for analog synthezisers & tapes, in a similar vibe to German music like Tangerine Dream or Popol Vuh.

Below, her 2009 album Life On Earth seems a good place to reflect on what's she's done before, but it sounds like we'll be treated to something completely new at the festival. 

 
 

Tara Jane O'Neil

With a release on Mississippi Records dating back to 2006 - an infamous record store and label here in Portland, we could ascertain what kind of sound Tara may have in-store for us. Fast-forward to 2014 and it's Tara's release on Kranky which might have peaked the ears of festival curator Rafael, but similar to the above Tiny Vipers, Substrata will pay witness to a newly commissioned ambient and drone set. 

 
 

Rauelsson

The beauty of this feature helps me get to grips with the type of music I can expect at Substrata, but as Rauelsson is likely to prove in a few months time, it will probably be the performance, not just music that becomes engrained in my memory.

A multi-instrumentalist, combining modern-classical with subtle electronics, it could be the type of performance I've witnessed from the likes of Nils Frahm and last years Evan Caminiti, judging by the below video and his latest release on Sonic Pieces (home to Otto A Totland).

My most anticipated performance of the festival for sure, we'll no doubt be welcomed with a stage-full of instruments for Rauelsson's return to the Pacific North West. 

 
 

Mary Lattimore

We'll be treated to a dedicated Harp performance this year by Mary Lattimore, and just like last year's solo cellist, Julia Kent, I'm hoping for another educational yet encapsulating performance on an instrument I very rarely get to see live. 

Mary has 'performed, collaborated, and recorded with who’s who of the indie rock scene: Jarvis Cocker, Thurston Moore, Sharon Van Etten, Meg Baird, Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn, 
Ed Askew, Fursaxa and many others', 
and this is one of the many reasons I enjoy and respect this festival. I would never choose to go and see a Harp player playing solo, yet I'm pretty sure we'll experience something unforgettable and perhaps, my musical senses will broaden just that little bit further.

Below, Mary playing alongside Jeff Zeigler in a mesmorizing and hypnotic performance.

 
 

Panabrite

Another local Seattle musician with a healthy back-catalog. Norm Chambers' latest release Disintegrating Landscape is a 47-minute long journey, beginning with very obvious rattling field recordings and slowly evolving into an intensely varied electronic spectrum - from organic instruments, through to atmoshperic washes into bleeps and synthesizers. This kind of extended, probably improvised set, is perfect for the attentive audience at Substrata. 

 
 

The last two artists on the lineup, Paul Clipson and Leo Mayberry are set to provide the visuals to the weekend's performances. With such an intimate space, and an audience looking to exploit such detailed and immersive music, artists such as Paul and Leo play a critical role in the experience and the vision Rafael seeks.

Leo Mayberry's local experience has previously seen him take the role of Decibel Festival's Visual Coordinator alongside gigs in pretty much every local Seattle venue, and San Francisco's Paul Clipson has featured within the New York Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival to name just a few. 

 
 

Substrata 1.4 in review

 
 

This was my second year in a row making the trip up to Seattle for Rafael Anton Irisarri’s Substrata Festival, but this year, I approached it a little differently. Whereas last time I put together a festival preview and spent time looking into the artists’ involved, last year had afforded me enough trust in what Rafael would curate, and I put my OCD to one side. Apart from Markus Guentner and Mika Vainio, I wasn’t familiar with the other artists set to perform – and I felt pretty good about leaving it that way.

The festival was once again held at the beautiful Chapel Performance Space in the Wallingford District of Seattle, perfect for the hazy Seattle summer evenings and an intimate space for the attendees to immerse themselves in over the next three days.

 
 

Thursday night began with Gregg Kowalsky taking his performance close to the audience and echoing Raf’s purpose for the night: “The composer as both the outrider and map-maker in their simultaneous manifestation and guidance through geographic, abstract, cosmic, oneiric non-place”. Subtle cracks came to life through numerous tapes played back through the mics – a constant puppetry by Greg as he flicked between minimal analog hardware inputs and three portable tape-decks. Short and sweet, I couldn’t help but want more from Gregg’s creaky, intimate sounds.

New York City-based Julia Kent took to the stage and immediately changed the mood in the room. As the sun began to set, Julia settled down bare-footed with her cello and quickly began looping numerous string parts, conjuring up the presence of multiple instruments and compositions depicting the drama and emotion from an epic film. Gently acknowledging the crowds reaction to each short but sweet performance, Julia played through to a dramatic ending and remains one of my favourite acts from the festival.

There are no headliners at Substrata, but Markus Guentner was my biggest anticipation of the week. The ASIP contributor has long been a hero of mine and this was my first time seeing him live. With his modest set-up, including his notorious PC (Markus loves to sign off emails with “sent from a PC”) adorning an ASIP laptop sticker, Markus wasted no time getting stuck in to his beautifully textured Pop-ambient sound, progressing through layers of signature textures and recognisable elements. It was, as expected a pure joy to consume in this environment.

 
 

Friday played host to “the evolving field of electro-acoustic composition in it’s intersection with fringe pop, folk, improvisation and non-rock form” starting with Australian Sanso-Xtro. Her set began with random synth-stabs, never confirming to melody, rhythm or pattern and to be honest, it lost me entirely. But when she picked up her guitar and gently strummed home a repetitive melody peppered with tiny string flicks, (and what i’m sure most people would recognise as great guitar playing), she made amends and I began to enjoy her unorthodox and experimental approach.

Koen Holtkamp followed, sat stern behind his analog equipment to the right-side of the stage. I quickly fell into Koen’s subtle shifts and expansive ambience as he masterfully grew his sound to a cacophony of synths pounding through the speakers from all four corners. By the end of his set I felt like I was sat in the middle of a square room of TV screens, lit with brightly coloured circuit boards. It was a modest yet powerful performance.

Raf’s personal hero Carl Hultgren (from Windy & Carl) closed the Friday evening with an ever expanding wash of shoegaze. It was non-descript, yet perfect – I felt myself nodding off numerous times as he gently caressed his guitar into the ears of an audience lulled into every millimetre his fingers moved across the strings.

If the Saturday night from last-year was anything to go by, it seems like Rafael saves the more epic and immersive characters for the closing night. This was no different, as upon entry, the stage was adorned with hundreds of cables depicting an analog synth heaven- “the night’s performers are all sculptors of ambient sonic narrative created from the colluvium of sound’s rawest materials” and a night in which Raf decided to take up the position behind the mixing board – “Bring earplugs” he said.

 
 

Evan Caminiti stood at the front of the stage emotionless as he took to melding, mixing and plugging his world of wires. His pulsating electronics slowly evolved into beautiful landscapes – a feat I still struggle to understand when there’s no single laptop involved – my lack of understanding of analog hardware showing, but my appreciation for it growing, especially after performances like this.

Mika Vainio - one half of the minimal electronic duo Pan Sonic, upon closing all the blinds and turning off the lights, sat in the middle of the stage with just a single lamp shining on his analog synth set-up. Stern faced, the familiar stabs hit hard and I could tell Raf had raised the levels . Non-confirming yet rhythmic, Mika slowly but surely built his glitchy structures from nothingness into full-on head-ringing bangs of the purest, most appreciated sounds possible from the equipment at hand. A true master of his art, there were five seconds in-between beats at times, and I felt myself itching for it go on one more time, harder, louder and bigger as he aggressively plunged and stabbed synth cables, creating a raw and unforgettable musical experience.

Seattle based Mamiffer took to the stage to close Substrata 1.4 – the only use of the grand piano helmed by Faith Coloccia, with Aaron Turner taking the lead-presence on stage behind the guitar. Dark and intense, drones were soon shattering around the space with the subtle and quaint voice of Faith and her keys tinkering in the background; unplugged from the main output, i’m pretty sure this was on purpose to help create a sense of depth for the audience and to let the power of the guitar shine through.

A continuous piano and melody and a sweet looping voice were a stark contrast to the sheer strength coming from Aaron’s guitar, and whilst the first 10 minutes seemed a little unsettling, the next 15 or so absolutely blew my mind as Aaron slowly progressed his drones from high-pitched streaks into raw, bone-rattling depths of solid colour. The contrast worked beautifully and the progression was timed to perfection – injecting subtle tonal shifts as the piece grew higher, louder and bigger. Mamiffer’s performance was dark and poignant.

As I walked out of the space that night, I didn’t hear anyone say a thing. Nobody needed to talk about how good that was; how much better one artist was over another; or what they were doing next after the show. When you are immersed in the performances you see at Substrata, you are paying witness to music in its purest form – a vision that Raf pays very careful attention to crafting and a vision that has profound effects on those lucky enough to enjoy it in these settings. It’s not about the individual artists, it’s the overall experience you walk away with.

 
 
 
 

Spotlight on Substrata 1.3

After a successful round of funding, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s third Substrata Festival has announced it’s long anticipated line-up. Given many people contributed to this festival without even knowing any performers until now, is high praise for Rafael and his curation skills. But now we’ve got the names, I thought it’d be nice to take a little look into what’s in store.

Some familiar acts for sure, but also some relatively unknown artists that I could do with exploring a bit more and this is the perfect opportunity. I won’t go into too much detail about each of the artists and their background as you can find all of that on the Substrata line-up page. Just think of this as the tip of a very big trove of talented artists you can go away and explore, or even see live this July as part of Substrata.

Grouper

As most of you know by now, i’ve recently moved to Portland, Oregon and before coming here I was fully aware of one of it’s most notorious experimental artists, Liz Harris. I had hoped to see her billed somewhere local but haven’t seen even the slightest of mentions on paper yet, so it was a nice surprise to see her announced as part of Substrata 1.3. I’m no expert of the extensive Grouper back catalogue, but it boasts releases on Type (home of Biosphere) and Kranky (a home to many greats in the past including Loscil, Benoît Pioulard and Tim Hecker).

Liz’s sound is a mixture of ethereal, dreamy vocals and delicate guitars wrapped in warm reverb. Rarely does she stray too far from what she does best, it’s a unique sound that you’ll find many ambient lovers including in their sets as inspirations. Take 36’s or Loscil’s isolatedmixes for example. I’m looking forward to Grouper’s vocals wrapping around the audience of Seattle’s intimate Chapel Performance Space.

 
 

Kim Cascone

A bit of digging around reveals Kim Cascone is quite the sound designer. The Substrata line-up page details that Kim’s provided academic studies and developed a sound-art festival alongside his releases on 12K and Raster-Noton. I don’t know much of Kim’s stuff, but going through a few pieces now, it seems like an intimate gig at Substrata is going to be quite the audio experience. 

 
 

Jacaszek

Jacaszek is one of those artists that I really haven’t given any deserved attention to on his own. Michał is a regular feature in many ASIP mixes (Bulb’s and Rafael’s for example) and this live snippet gives us a taster of his live electro-acoustic work. His most famous piece is the track, ‘Lament’, cited by many as a big inspiration and a defining example of modern-classical or modern-acoustic music.

Jacaszek is planning to play Substrata alongside Kelly Wyse who recently provided some wonderful piano pieces on Loscil’s recent‘ Intervalo’ EP.

 
 

Christina Vantzou

I’m pretty excited to see Christina play at Substrata; she’s another artist who is relatively new to me. With releases on Ghostly and Kranky, her back catalogue, additional projects and her creds on the Substrata festival certainly portray her as one heck of a talent.

Below is a piece of her work alongside Adam Wiltzie (of A Winged Victory For The Sullen) as the duo, ‘The Dead Texan’. Enough said really.

 
 

Noveller

Sarah Lipstate sounds like another artist who is set to saturate the Seattle Chapel walls with reverb. “Lipstate summons a sonic palette so rich as to challenge the listener to conceive of how it’s housed in a single instrument manipulated by a solitary performer” as quoted from the Substrata site. I’m looking forward to hearing how that one plays out.

 
 

Ken Camden

For a man that plays in a rock-band, tracks like the below ‘Birthday’ paint a nice picture of this man’s talent and music taste. ‘Trance-induced moods’ just about sums this one up, alongside quotes such as”…the psychedelic meditations of 70’s krautrockers Popul Vuh and Ash Ra Tempel – producing a charming ambient”. Charming indeed, and after what looks to be a heavily experimental-focused festival, it’s going to be quite the release to hear Ken’s artfully crafted psychedelic pieces played live on stage.

 
 

Yagya

It was a nice surprise to see Yagya announced at Substrata this year. Many of you will know how much of a fan of Steini I am, and for years now I haven’t been anywhere close to seeing him live. I could post any number of Yagya tracks, those from Rigning, or the recently repressed Rhythm Of Snow, but instead i’ll go with an instrumental version of a track taken from his latest album, ‘The Inescapable Decay Of My Heart’. This album was met with mixed reviews after the addition of vocals to Steini’s signature sound, but there’s no doubting just how addictive his productions are when you listen to them at the core and I can’t wait to see what he does live.

 
 

Sean Curley

A local from Seattle, I haven’t heard Sean Curely’s productions before, so I’m hesitant to dig into his catalogue too much, as it’s always nice to hear an artist for the first time live. Described as “one of the Pacific Northwest’s most interesting guitarists” tracks like the below have certainly got me intrigued and excited.

 
 

Ethernet

Another Portland local, Tim has just released an album on the notorious Kranky that i’m yet to wrap my ears around. Going by the below however, it seems as though im missing out on something seriously special so im about to right that wrong. From what i’ve heard so far, Tim is queued up to be one of my favourites at the festival, crossing the ambient/dub-techno divide which suits me down to a T, and in which case i’ll be tracking him down for a beer or two in Portland to talk even more music!

 
 

The Sight Below

Last but by no means least, the Substrata curator himself, Rafael Anton Irisarri. I guess Rafael had to make a decision whether to play as RAI or as The Sight Below (or even alongside Benoît Pioulard as Orcas) but i’m pretty pleased i’ll get to see his more electronic, darker side as The Sight Below. Another artist with just too many favourites to choose from, but here’s one from the vaults with Rafael covering Joy Division’s ‘New Dawn Fades’.

 
 


You can read more on all of the artists featured here over at Substrata. And if you fancy joining me on what promises to be a very special week of music, tickets are also on sale now here.

If you need more of the same, try Rafael’s Substrata dedicated isolatedmix.