Basilica Soundscape: The Anti-Festival

Quinn Moreland

Meredith Graves

Meredith Graves. Photos by Sam Williams.

Since its inception in 2012, Basilica Soundscape has been touted as “the anti-festival”. To outsiders, this label may seem pretentious, but as those who attended the third and largest incarnation of the festival can tell you, Basilica is truly unlike any other music festival (save maybe the Normcore of summer festivals). On a surface level, Basilica boasts the careful curation of other Pitchfork events—thanks to the involvement of their senior editor Brandon Stosuy and Brian Deran of Leg Up Management—minus the crowds, advertisements, drunk teens, questionable sound quality, and pricey tickets. Basilica is purely focused on the experience of live music, which is a sentiment many festivals desire, but few can deliver.

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Most “Music and Arts Festivals” are held at public parks, farms, and even the occasional polo club. Basilica Soundscape takes place at a renovated 1880s whaling factory in Hudson, New York. The space was purchased in 2010 by Melissa Auf der Maur, ex-bassist of Hole, and her husband, Tony Stone, a filmmaker. Since then, Basilica Hudson has become one of the leading forces in Hudson area’s revitalization, and some might say, gentrification. The events held at the center are audience-specific, and may only appeal to a small percentage of Hudson’s population (recent events include an art exhibition curated by Lower East Side gallerist James Fuentes and a tribute to the late Czech filmmaker Vera Chytilová). But most Basilica attendees will not experience the less-idyllic parts of Hudson. They will depart the Amtrak, walk fifteen minutes up Warren street, and be faced with a plethora of vintage shops, antique stores, hip coffee shops, and fresh, local food. This is the sort of small-town / mini-Williamsburg charm that city-folk crave. I overheard one man remarking that he found the friendliness of locals creepy.

This man has no soul.

They will not hear the grumblings of locals who feel like they are being ignored, they will not visit the unpleasant parts of the city, and they may not realize that Earl Swanigan is one of the best folk/outsider artists around. But all this is not to say that Hudson is not the best possible home for Basilica Soundscape. The city is beautiful and remote enough to eliminate distractions and focus on the music. The festival is guaranteed to remain small because of a lack of physical performance space and limited lodging. 2014 was the first year that both days of the festival completely sold out, selling around 1000 tickets per night. Anyone interested in attending next year best buy their tickets ASAP.

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As I said earlier, no drunken teens will be found at Basilica, unless they are sneaky about their alcohol consumption. Ben Ratliff of the New York Times aptly described Basilica’s audience as those who live “somewhere between Brooklyn and Albany, look at Pitchfork once a week and can name a Swans record.” In my own words, I would describe Basilica Soundscape as a festival I would feel comfortable attending with my parents, or at least my dad, who really likes Dead Can Dance. There was a feeling of trust between organizers and audience; security was lax, except when it came to moshing. Any aggressive movement during Deafheaven’s set was quickly stopped.

Friday’s lineup was considerably smaller than Saturdays, but was no less impressive. Julia Holter commanded the stage during her intimate and haunting set right before NYC’s Gamelan Dharma Swara completely reconfigured the room for their performance, which allowed the audience to encircle them and sway. The transition from the Indonesian percussion jam into Tim Hecker was effortless, which is saying something, considering the Basilica crew had to move massive amounts of very delicate equipment in minutes. Alone on stage, accompanied by a fog machine, Hecker created ear-shattering soundscapes that reverberated through my entire body and left me shaking and unable to speak. It was basically one giant My Bloody Valentine holocaust. My friends and I sat down and closed our eyes during the set, both as a way to maximize contemplation, but also to let the taller bodies block some sound waves. I left the first night of the Soundscape strongly believing the festival is the best in the world. Day two would only heighten my love.

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Saturday’s lineup was curated by Show No Mercy, Pitchfork’s metal column. The day boasted a larger, more mainstream (in the loosest meaning of that word) lineup, and I was unsure if the audience would be larger, younger, or rowdier. My conclusion: I have no idea and the answer doesn’t matter, because attendees were just as polite as the night before. The evening began with a reading from Melissa Broder, before the always-lovely Emily Reo performed in Basilica’s antechamber. Reo’s performance coincided with the sun finally breaking through the clouds. Coincidence? I think not.

Basilica Soundscape may be focused on sound, but they also are masters of space. The unique construction of Basilica allowed for performances to occur in atypical arenas, like small alcoves above the audience, and art installations to be staged in hidden nooks. The fluidity seemed seamless, there were barely breaks in between sets. As I mentioned regarding the Gamelan Dharma Swarma, the space changed with the artist. So while Emily Reo performed with pastel projections and bright lights, Magical Cloudz was able to perform in the same space in near-darkness. On one night off from his tour with Lorde, Devon Welsh packed the small antechamber to the brim; people peered in through windows as Welsh entranced the room with his dark synths.

I expected the next readings to take place in the same room. But Mira Gonzalez, Mish Way, and Meredith Graves had a different idea. They performed in a small alcove above the main space, as Guardian Alien had earlier in the night. The only thing dividing them from a horrible fall into the audience was a small chain. Gonzalez read a list of some standout tweets, as well as a poem involving an unfortunate hookup with an older man. This was my second time seeing Gonzalez read, and each time, I have been impressed at how she paints awkward or possibly traumatic events with a dark sense of humor and bravery. Way read a story also involving sex, saying that her original piece was lost when her computer crashed.

Then, Graves took the “stage.” During her performance at last summer’s Pitchfork Festival, Graves began “Interference Fits” with the words “It’s time to cry.” But that time really occurred months later, in a cold factory in upstate New York. Graves’ piece may be read in full at The Talkhouse, and I high recommend reading it in its entirety. In brief, Graves uses the frame of her negative teenage thoughts about Andrew W.K. to explore the double standards of authenticity facing artists. Side note: the conspiracy theories surrounding Andrew W.K. were a large topic of conversation in the Impose offices last summer. Though the entire piece brought me to tears, the following paragraph cemented Graves’ role as a heroine:

After a month of thinking about the bizarre truth inherent here — that real women with fake names are somehow considered exponentially less authentic than completely fake men harboring a real, hidden sadness — I’ve come to one conclusion; that the cult of personality surrounding artists exists because of an unfeeling world that loves nothing more than breaking sensitive, talented people. The oppressive systems that surround us have forced us to assume personas like castles have moats — they can’t protect you forever but they might work for a little while to keep the bad guys from coming in. That’s not safe or good for human hearts, regardless of their respective privileges in regard to class or gender.

We are lucky to have a woman like Meredith Graves on this planet.

At the end of her piece, Graves, on behalf of the organizers and artists of Basilica, called for a moment of silence in honor of the people of Gaza, Ferguson, and in light of the recent airstrikes in Iraq. No one announced when the moment was over. The crowd slowly assembled for White Lung, unsure whether to talk, but Way’s shrieking and thrashing broke the uncertainty.

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I was excited to see Deafheaven in a totally different environment than before, but now I truly believe they sound great no matter the venue. My only qualm was that George Clarke’s vocals were way too quiet. When Clarke is screaming in my face, I want to hear him too. At the time of writing, my legs and neck are still in recovery from severe head banging and smashing, but I regret nothing!

So this is the part of the article where I fail to complete my assignment. I didn’t stay for all of Swans’ two-and-a-half-hour set. I spent half of the performance sitting on the cold concrete, huddled under a friend’s scarf, drinking whiskey, wishing to be in bed. Swans sounded amazing; as one of my friends put it, it was easy to forget that the band was playing actual songs, and not just jamming for hours.

So Swans played a legendary set and I slept through it. Did I even go? Yes, I did, and you will likely catch me there again next fall.

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