Unsound Adelaide is often called a festival-within-a-festival – a local edition of the fabled Polish event latterly held as part of Illuminate Adelaide.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2023, the multidisciplinary fest’s cutting-edge curation features acts from Eastern Europe to East Africa.
“I don’t think there are any duds in terms of the shows,” Mat Schulz, Unsound’s Co-Artistic Director, declares. “We’ve intentionally tried to programme artists who hadn’t been to Australia before. Quite a few of them are only doing the shows in Adelaide.”
The Australian Schulz, who grew up in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, started the flagship Unsound Festival in Kraków, Poland in 2003 – Kraków then “a peripheral city.”
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At the time, Schulz was known as a writer, publishing novels like 1997’s Zombie Field. “I moved to Kraków to write in the mid-’90s and that was the main thing I was doing here,” Schulz says over Zoom, still recovering from launching October’s Unsound Kraków 2023.
Schulz saw an opportunity to host music innovators in Kraków’s medieval cellar bars – in the same way that East Berlin became a hub for rave culture.
From the outset, Unsound was communal. “The original mission was to bring artists to Poland who hadn’t performed [here] before and also to put them alongside local artists and create this platform that was local, but also international.
“We also were very early on making use of the festival as a platform to create new work. So we weren’t just presenting work that artists already had, but we were commissioning work – and especially building cross-border collaborations between artists.”
At first, Schulz considered Unsound “a hobby,” he laughs. “It wasn’t ever meant to be the main thing in my life. But, over the years, it got bigger. Now there’s not very much time for writing. The festival occupies most of my life and mind.”
In 2006 Schulz would be joined by Małgorzata “Gosia” Płysa as Co-Director. Płysa had attended Unsound as a punter. Before long, the aspiring journalist was looking after artists, then handling PR.
“As it was a pretty small DIY initiative initially, I offered to help as a volunteer together with other friends – everyone was volunteering to put it together,” Płysa says. “I was studying journalism at the time and, apart from writing about music, it was great to be able to support live music shows happen. I didn’t realise at the time that it will become my full-time job soon!” She recommended the boutique fest expand – and inaugurated an NGO to run it, seeking funding from Kraków’s city council, “a big supporter of Unsound.”
Kraków has a rich cultural heritage, Płysa illuminates. “Kraków is a beautiful medieval town with its unique architecture and vibe – some believe it’s thanks to the powerful chakra stone hidden in the Wawel Castle. It makes it a perfect festival city.”
In the late ’80s Poland was the leading Soviet satellite to revolt – and the country endured socio-economic turmoil as it transitioned to a free market over the following decade. “Kraków then was pretty different,” Schulz recalls. “It’s quite gentrified now and it’s changed a lot. But that was in that period of a quite rapid transformation after the end of communism – which still is happening in some ways.
“But it was very intense in the first period that I was living here – which had an impact on the economy, society, culture, everything here.” Ironically, that vacuum enabled Unsound.
Kraków had “a strong tradition of jazz and classical music” in addition to theatre, Płysa says. Nevertheless, while a dance music scene boomed in the ’90s, the city didn’t have a contemporary counterculture. However, as Schulz notes, nothing like Unsound existed elsewhere in Europe either.
Unsound ventured from Central and Eastern Europe into The Caucasus and Central Asia, liaising with local partners. “Very early on with the festival, it was very mobile,” stresses Schulz.
They even brought Unsound to Minsk, Belarus, pre-political repressions. “It’s isolated now, obviously, but it was very isolated then, and so it had a big impact,” Schulz observes.
As significantly, Unsound has had sibling events in Western countries – Unsound New York was introduced in 2010. “There wasn’t really a festival like Unsound taking place there,” Schulz says.
Historically, Eastern Europe has been ‘Othered’ in the Western imagination. Since the close of the Cold War, it’s experienced predatory capitalism – neo-colonialism driving touristification.
Commercial music festival brands active in the region haven’t necessarily prioritised local talent. Yet Eastern European artists have expressed disquiet, too, at being marginalised in a music industry that privileges their Western, particularly Anglophone, peers even on platforms such as Bandcamp.
But Unsound has addressed imbalances. Symbolically, it presented Iceland’s Hildur Guðnadóttir recontextualising her score from HBO’s Chernobyl.
“Unsound has always tried to exist as that kind of platform – especially for Polish artists,” says Schulz. “We’ve tried to be supportive of, not only the general scene, but the careers of specific artists who we like and want to help export their music outside Poland, where we think it would work.
“But I think the more interesting festivals have a kind of ambition to present programmes that are more geographically diverse, as well as being diverse in other ways.”
Płysa concurs, “We have consciously always been trying to underline and promote Central and Eastern European artists in our programmes – both in Kraków and in our other programmes in NYC or Adelaide. It’s not only to fill the much-needed gap in representation but also to create interesting and diverse musical narratives different from the predictable live music touring circuits.
“I find the term ‘global’ or ‘world music’ quite condescending towards the non-Western scenes – and I believe that geographical diversity in programme curation is as important a factor as supporting and showcasing local talents. I think presenting different perspectives and cultural backgrounds within a festival creates a unique opportunity to stir the existing status quo and help in pushing towards creating new values and ideas.”
Unsound has had a presence in Adelaide for a decade – first occurring as a concert series in tandem with the Adelaide Festival under David Sefton in 2013.
“Until then, I’d actually never been to Adelaide, even though I grew up in Wagga Wagga, which is a mere 1200 kilometres up the road,” Schulz quips.
In 2021 Unsound migrated to the fledgling Illuminate Adelaide – the Dom Polski Centre now its home. “I think it fits nicely into the framework of Illuminate festival, but it’s also quite different from the rest of the programme,” Schulz says. Indeed, Unsound “has its own identity.”
Schulz acknowledges that Adelaide isn’t an “obvious” home for the Southern Hemisphere’s sole Unsound – but that makes it on-brand. In fact, Adelaide has long cultivated underground electronic music, stretching back to the ’90s with DJ HMC and Juice Records.
“It’s a festival city in a way that Kraków is also kind of a festival city, where it’s easy to feel comfortable there straightaway,” Schulz states. “It’s got some interesting spaces that we’ve used over the years – buildings that we’ve adapted for shows – which is very much in that Unsound spirit.”
While Unsound Adelaide has “a strong, devoted audience” locally, it also attracts visitors from Melbourne – Techno City. Schulz appreciates people travelling to Adelaide especially for Unsound – that “intention” rewarding punters as much as performers. “I think that they give themselves to the festival and this experience in a completely different way from how they would if it was in the next suburb in Melbourne or Sydney.”
Płysa praises the city’s openness. “Adelaide, with its love and support towards the festivals and risky cultural undertakings, has been a perfect home for Unsound. The audiences here of all demographics seem so open and enthusiastic to new cultural offerings. I sometimes wish we had that audience diversity in Europe!
“Adelaide also fits Unsound’s idea of exploring peripheries, rather than creating right in the main cultural centres. Adelaide, as a city, in a way reminds me of Kraków when it comes to its size, significant uni student population and openness to explore.”
In 2023 Unsound Adelaide is presenting Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN) in concert at the Hindley Street Music Hall. The cult New York producer previously performed at 2013’s event alongside Canadian Tim Hecker – and has recently worked extensively with The Weeknd. “I’m a big fan of his music,” Schulz rhapsodises. “I think that that show will be great. It’s like an overview of different parts of his music over the years.”
Buzz acts playing the two-day programme at the Dom Polski Centre include Kode9, the Glaswegian dubstep pioneer unveiling his audio-visual spectacular Escapology, and US rapper bbymutha – a Björk fave. Melbourne’s Robin Fox, an Unsound regular, will stage his AV show TRIPTYCH, a homage to Polish-Australian artist Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski.
Crucially, Unsound Adelaide has more Eastern Europe creatives, exclusively billing Ukrainian composer Heinali, aka Oleh Shpudeiko, who live-streamed a show from a bomb shelter during the Russian invasion of his country and aired the poignant ambient album Kyiv Eternal.
“His music is fantastic and obviously the impact of it is even greater in the present moment,” Schulz says.
Likewise, Unsound has facilitated a collaboration between the “transfixing” Polish vocalist Antonina Nowacka and Danish electronic composer Sofie Birch – lately releasing their atmospheric LP Languoria on an in-house label.
“We have to kind of balance the names that people might recognise with the ones they won’t recognise,” Schulz admits. “I don’t think it would work to make the programme half artists from Poland in Australia.”
Committed to decentralising music, Unsound has championed artists across almost every continent. And, on its second night, Unsound Adelaide will spotlight Otim Alpha from Uganda’s Nyege Nyege collective – Schulz raving about the rising star’s dynamic party music, dubbed ‘Acholitronix’.
As for Płysa’s tips? “I think the acts I haven’t yet seen live – [I’m] excited to hear [Guatemalan cellist] Mabe Fratti live! I am currently still exploring all the amazing scenes bubbling in Latin America, so I will also dance to [Argentinean DJ] Tayhana’s set in The Lab.”
Unsound continues to uncompromisingly evolve, even amid ongoing volatility in Central and Eastern Europe with surging ethnonationalism, authoritarianism and right-wing popularism.
“I think our mission has not changed dramatically over the decades but rather solidified,” says Płysa.
“This is also embedded in a wider socio-political context and [in] recent years in Poland we had to also underline our political positions – in support of the LGBTQ+ community and female rights as well as stand strongly in support of Ukraine invaded by Russia.”
Unsound is invariably described as “electronic music,” but Schulz suggests that it’s amorphous. The concept may have presaged a post-genre era, the Internet rendering any divide between ‘underground’ and ‘mainstream’ obsolete.
“Yeah, electronic, experimental, adventurous music… We don’t only have electronic music at the festival. There’s a lot of electronic music, obviously, because we’re presenting music that’s somehow pushing the boundaries.
“But I think those kind of distinctions and genre divisions, they broke down a lot since Unsound started. Electronic music is everywhere now. It’s like pop music is electronic music as well.”
As to Unsound’s future? The challenge in Kraków is negotiating gentrification and what Płysa calls “overblown tourism.” “The more leftfield and underground scenes seem to be pushed to other places. It’s a problem for many European major cities, for sure, to see the smaller venues and artists’ studios disappear.”
Unsound has had to withstand economic pressures ensuing from the pandemic and now geopolitics. But, then, its ethos has always been to adapt.
“The times are really tough for independent organisations promoting experimental music, so I would be happy for us to be able to continue our activities at the scale we are now – I don’t believe in unlimited growth,” Płysa concludes.
“What I find interesting, and I think is a key element to remain relevant, is a trend for an interdisciplinary approach to music and sound. Also finding ways to support and develop works outside of the ephemeral festival frameworks – adding to the longevity and preservation of the creations we help develop.”