SOKOLOWSKO, Poland — For three years running, Sanatorium of Sound has given hundreds of experimental sound art devotees reason to ascend to a small, mysterious Polish village, nestled only a short distance from the Czech border. The annual event is housed in and around a mystical 19th-century sanatorium, where the first international treatment center for tuberculosis was founded by Dr. Hermann Brehmer in 1855. Over the last century and a half, Sokołowsko has played host to a number of cultural dignitaries, including famously the Lumière brothers and Krzysztof Kieślowski, master of Polish realist cinema. Today, the obscure little village is under transformation by two exemplary women — Zuzanna Fogtt and Bożenna Biskupska — who have made it their mission to reposition Sokołowsko as one of Europe’s best-kept cultural secrets by putting together an unusual and curious festival focusing on sound art and noise.
This year’s edition, curated by Fogtt and Gerard Lebik, invited artists who are exploring composition, improvisation, and musical notation in ways that heighten our understanding of the potential of noise art. The festival was presented in partnership with the European Capital of Culture, awarded this year to nearby Wroclaw, which supported the festival’s eight artists in residence — Keith Rowe, Michael Pisaro, Valerio Tricoli, Mario de Vega, Alessandro Bosetti, Martin Howse, Olivia Block, and Stephen Cornford — with additional support from A-i-R Wro.
The standout performance went to Robert Piotrowicz and the Ensemble Phoenix Basel, a group founded by pianist Jürg Henneberger, flutist Christoph Bösch, and percussionist Daniel Buess. Their concert, dedicated to the memory of Buess, who tragically passed away earlier this year, featured two variations — “Grund” (2016) and “Apendic” (2016) — neither of which were based on any traditional musical notation. Instead, the artists composed them during a residency using materials like graphics, sound files, verbal instructions, and timelines. The artists called their work a “conceptual composition” and it sure felt like one. When it was performed, it felt like a total barrage on the senses, which I likened to a kind of synesthesia. The bold and harsh sonic dexterities reminded me of an approach to industrial noise techno developed by David Foster (aka Huren): Each note felt like it was pulsating and giving me whiplash.
The Ensemble Phoenix is not new to these kinds of improvisational terrains. Since 1998, the group has been gaining fame amongst European high modernist noise circles for their openness to untraditional methods of notation and anti-academic approaches to music, produced by combining junk materials with a veritable bastardization of traditional classical instruments like flutes, clarinets, and the piano. As a result, I’m sure they’ve received their fair share of harrowing snobbery from classical musician enthusiasts and practitioners, but together with Piotrowicz’s compelling percussive additions, the group delivered one of the most satisfying moments in the entire festival.
Other performances were much less jarring, however, lacking the sonic severity of Piotrowicz and Ensemble Phoenix. Still, the festival did an excellent job of examining alternative approaches to musical performance, notation, and experimentation — subjects which Jospeh Nechvatal, artist and Parisian correspondent for Hyperallergic, associatively explores in his influential book Immersion Into Noise (2011). The book forays into an alternative history of noise and relates it to the visual arts. Nechvatal narrows in on how sound and noise can be conceived and connected to abstract and conceptual art, Neo-Dada, and visual culture broadly speaking, particularly through expanded definitions of terms like assemblage, montage, and bricolage. He cites composers who have transgressed the limitations of music strictly speaking, including Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, as instrumental to understanding how an expanded definition of noise shows how it affects perception and our other senses.
This was perhaps most apparent in Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro’s performance “Venerable Bede” (2016), a two-hour long concert combining found sounds from live shortwave radio broadcasts, amplified together with a technique for playing the electric guitar by laying it flat, developed decades earlier by Rowe. The unorthodox method for strumming the guitar was in part inspired by the visual arts, namely from Jackson Pollock, who inspired Rowe to abandon traditional methods of music-making just as the Abstract Expressionists had done so with painting. As a result, Rowe became a rather statuesque yet controversial figure in the avant-garde noise world of the mid-1960s, around the same time he founded the AMM ensemble, a free improvisation group he formed with Eddie Prévost, John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew, Lou Gare, and Christopher Hobbs. Over the past four decades, never have they planned or even rehearsed outside of performing live together. This gives each performance a totally improvisational vibe, shirking any and all convention with respect to melody, harmony, and rhythm, but the end result can sometimes feel overly drawn out, abstract, repetitious, and somehow too experimental for my taste.
Another exceptional performance of the festival was “Dry Mountain” (2015), an improvisational piece based on Rowe’s old work interpreted by instrumentalists Johnny Chang, Mike Majkowski, Bryan Eubanks, Xavier Lopez, Jonas Kocher, Gaudenz Bardutt, Emilio Gordoa, as well as visual artists, Bożenna Biskupska, Radek Szlaga, Alicja Bielawska, and Daniel Koniusz. In one of the beautiful halls in the old sanatorium, the artists made live drawings based on Rowe’s musical scores while each of the musicians interpreted the sketches, a performance considered part of the broader curatorial concept called “The Fall of Recording” (2016) initiated by Michał Libera and Daniel Muzyczuk. The piece was an example of how visual art and sound can merge into new horizons, transgressing the limitations of sound.
Other artists, however, were much more attentive to disruption and interference in their work. For example, Olivia Block’s performance “The Aberration of Light” (2016) used interference to create sonic textures that built up over time. The piece was composed of fragments the artist had recorded earlier and manipulated live. The key to the piece was how Block live-mixed, processed, and equalized the sounds, which slowly responded to and changed in the space of the sanatorium. The piece, which culminated with slight ticks and pops, spoke to the spatial qualities of noise.
Besides Block’s astounding performance there was a noticeable lack of other female performers at the festival. This depressing and all-too-familiar reality is not just true of Sanatorium of Sound, but the vast majority of contemporary music festivals in operation today. Despite the fact the Sanatorium of Sound is overseen and run by two exemplary women, the noticeable lack of female performers at the event was puzzling, likely the result of thoughtless curatorial oversight rather than any sort of malicious intent. Nevertheless, the lack of female performers reveals that more can and should be done by the festival next year to address gender imbalances.
By extension, the festival, in my opinion, could improve by paying closer attention to some more socially aware avant-garde music and art, which certainly exists. I’m thinking of Donia Jourabchi, for example, who uses sounds taken from everyday life and the urban fabric in Holland as well as her home base in Den Haag, to explore sound as it relates to geographical and political contexts.
Another barrier limiting the expansion of the festival is the simple fact that most of the sanatorium remains in derelict condition. When Fogtt and Biskupska bought the old sanatorium in 2008, they set up a nonprofit initiative called the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation to raise funds for renovation and programming. However, they have so far managed to only renovate about 10% of the physically crumbling structure, a four-story tower that houses rehearsal spaces and a ground level room that is used for multimedia performances.
Nevertheless, the small and intimate festival is filling a necessary void in the highly saturated Polish festival circuit, completely unique from other more commercial festivals like Unsound or OFF. Yet, with the inevitable growing pains that remain ahead from renovations of the old sanatorium through to programming and fundraising, it remains to be seen whether Sanatorium of Sound will have the necessary framework to grow and expand. Here’s to hoping it does.
The Sanatorium of Sound took place at the Sokołowsko Sanatorium in Sokołowsko, Poland August 12–15.