Substrata 1.5 in Photos
In 2011, a time when the term “summer festival” had already come to connote the massive, multi-stage, corporate-sponsored events which have since become the norm, Rafael Anton Irisarri envisioned Substrata — a different kind of model for showcasing live music. The first edition of Substrata that year felt more like a retreat than a festival: artists from around the world performing ambient and modern-classical music for a small, attentive audience in an intimate setting. Irisarri, a touring producer and composer himself, sought above all to provide an immersive and introspective experience for the listener.
He acknowledges the idea was a “huge gamble:” the focus is niche, there are no “headliners” (each artist is given equal consideration), and the venue is located in a semi-residential Seattle neighborhood. Despite these risks, Substrata found a loyal audience and has thrived, shifting to a crowdfunded financial plan and expanding from two to three days. Each year’s edition garnered increasing praise and public support via word-of-mouth and alt-weekly write-ups, but Irisarri, having relocated from Seattle to New York last summer, declared this year’s Substrata 1.5 the last. It was simply too difficult, he explained, to coordinate such an event from across the country.
Thus this final iteration was, of course, bittersweet, but everyone seemed to skip the pomp and sentimentality — fitting with Substrata tradition, the weekend was first and foremost about the music.
Good Shepherd Center building and gardens:
Every Substrata has taken place at Good Shepherd Center, a historic multi-use landmark originally built as a Catholic School for wayward girls. The apple orchard and garden remain from the original school, and a mild breeze wafted their fragrance up through open windows into the performance space, a richly renovated chapel.
LA multi-instrumentalist and visual artist Tara Jane O’Neil opened the festival with a sound collage composed of singing bowls, effects processors, and a microphone she used like a painter’s brush. Moving onto an experimental folk passage, she rolled a ceramic ball into a bowl and tuned her guitar accordingly: “that’s the tuning bell.”
Portland-based Raulsson then took the stage with his piano-based neo-classical compositions, while bvdub closed the evening with his highly emotive layers of choral vocal samples and gossamer string pads. Seattle’s own Leo Mayberry provided appropriately ethereal visual accompaniment.
Day two began with classically-trained harpist Mary Lattimore, who employed a delay modeler in crafting an intricate and distinctly modern sound with her otherwise orchestral instrument.
Lubomyr Melnyk, Ukranian pioneer of his “continuous music” brand of solo piano, brought perhaps the greatest challenger for the Substrata listener this year: his third piece alone, “Windmills,” was nearly an hour long. Afterwards, 12k label boss Taylor Deupree provided welcome contrast with his exquisitely restrained electroacoustic sound-art. 12K multimedia artist Marcus Fischer provided equally lush visuals, the night ending with many in the audience lying shoeless on the floor.
The final day of Substrata began with Seattle’s Jesy Fortino performing under her Tiny Vipers moniker. With only an analog synth and a few pedals, her brooding set melded kosmische sensibilities with the atmospherics of John Carpenter and Angelo Badalamenti.
Panabrite, aka Norm Chambers, followed with a rather more elaborate rig. Chambers drew upon field recordings, processed vocal samples, and modular synthesizer to create an eclectic and panoramic tour of early-electronic and new age styles.
The collaboration between Kentucky-based pianist Rachel Grimes and Canadian electronic musician Loscil (Scott Morgan) was a memorable highlight of the weekend. The two artists combined their respective acoustic and electronic elements in such a tasteful, fluid manner, and the result was pure synergy. LA-based sound artist Shuttle358 closed out the festival, along with San-Francisco filmmaker Paul Clipson. 16mm reel-projected film provided an analog complement to Shuttle358’s digital minimalism.
Ultimately, the weekend’s Substrata 1.5 marked five years of resounding success for the Substrata experiment. It also marked the end. Irisarri , however, remains positive and forward-looking: “There’s still a lot of fertile ground in Seattle,” he says, leaving the opening for a possible Substrata 2.0 in the future.
All photos and text by Joe Garvin, Seattle-based freelance writer and photographer.