As I trekked through the spitting rain in my search for Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room, I couldn’t help but think about how appropriate the nights bill was to accompany such an activity and setting. Julia Kent’s sweeping cello music, Jenny Hval’s foreboding intellectualisms and Julia Holter’s lush ambient inflected pop music each seemed an appropriate accompaniment for getting lost in the rain in an area that’s a bit sketchier than you’re used to. That’s not to say that Issue Project Room is off the beaten path–my sense of direction just isn’t what it should be. When I finally arrived at the ornate space for the opening night of Unsound Festival’s annual New York event, it became clear that these sets would be much more special than just appropriate accompaniment.
I wandered in just as Julia Kent was starting her set and her brand of ambient music set the tone for what would be a mesmerizing night. Though her entire set consisted simply looped cello over sparse beats, she was able to create some absolutely huge sounds out of this setup. Though minimal in nature, the sounds were large and sweeping, filling the space in a way that only ambient music has the ability to do. The majority of the crowd was seated, pondering the performance in folding chairs, and while I’m generally not the biggest proponent of seated shows, it certainly seemed to be the ideal way to take in Kent’s set. Sit down, zone out, absorb the swelling strings. It was an ideal start to the night to say the least.
Norway’s Jenny Hval took to the stage next. There’s really no pithy way that I can describe her set, but it was outstanding to say the least. Though the setup was limited to two guitars and a drums, she made some incredibly complex sounds. Though the setup might suggest it, these weren’t straightforward rock songs. Hval instead coaxed out of her instrument dense atmospherics and topped it off with her unique vocals that swept the dynamic range from gloriously melodic to a menacing sing-speak. Much of the material seemed drawn from her 2011 album Viscera, and the sexually charged lyrics therein took an even more impressive presence in a live setting. If Julia Kent’s onstage persona was mild and understated, Hval shocked and awed. It comes as no surprise that she comes from an art school background because that set, and this music seems of an intrinsically higher intellectual value than the music that her spare setup suggest.
Continuing the theme of minimal setups was the nights headliner Julia Holter who’s entire setup consisted of a piano and vocals. I’ve seen Holter once before accompanied by a drummer and cellist, and while that may have allowed her to stay closer to the studio arrangements of Ekstasis, the more minimal setup allowed the beauty of the the melodies to shine through above all. Stripped of the massive harmonies, tracks like “Marienbad” became even more haunting, “Moni Mon Amie” even more welcoming, “In The Same Room” even more beautiful. It’s rare that you’re treated to a whole set of songs reinterpreted in from their album versions, and this one was certainly worth it. It almost felt like this was the way that these songs were meant to be heard, as astounding as they are on record. It was captivating for the entirety of her all too short set.
In a world where we’re overrun by swaths of music on a daily basis, it’s rare to be able to take the time and appreciate it in a stripped down context, but last night, in this first event of Unsound Festival, that’s what we were allowed to do. It was something entirely moving, which is increasingly rare to be able to say after a series of sets of live music on a Wednesday night.