The Hearn Generating Station is one of the great architectural fantasies of Canada. An abandoned power plant in desolate industrial lands next to downtown Toronto, it is so massive and so forbidding, it attracts the producers of blockbuster movies. It has repeatedly been the setting for explosive battles between robots and aliens. It’s all girders and catwalks and concrete pillars. Its open interior spaces tower several storeys high; its turbine hall is 300 metres long. It is postindustrial, postapocalyptic heaven. The first thing you think of when you step inside is that you would love to see Robocop or the Terminator fall three storeys into a vat of molten steel here. The second thing you think is: this could be the coolest music club anywhere.
And it will become that for two evenings next week, June 19 and 20, when, as a part of the Luminato arts festival, it will be taken over by the Unsound Festival, a travelling show of new, experimental, ambient and electronic music from around the world. The combination of setting and sound promises to be dramatic, to say the least: it combines ethereal soundscapes with spectacular visual ones, it juxtaposes cerebral art music with performers of harsh industrial drones. There will even be some dancing. This will be an event to cement the affinities between dance-club culture and the artistic avant-garde – affinities that have always been palpable.
Unsound originated in Krakow, Poland, the brainchild of Mat Schulz and Malgorzata Plysa. The festival has always been what Schulz calls “amorphous.” It is also nomadic: It has occurred in New York, London and Adelaide, each time in a unique site. Schulz, originally from Wagga Wagga, Australia, told me over the phone from Krakow, “We have had concerts in a synagogue, a gothic church, a postindustrial space, an old communist hotel. The idea is to experience the whole city. We think about the way music interacts with architecture.”
Most of the performers work with electronics, although that is mostly because composers of new classical music tend to be obsessed with technology right now (as are their counterparts in gallery art).
The focal point of this iteration of the festival is a rare appearance by the legendary 82-year-old Californian composer Morton Subotnick, who is known for creating one of the first albums of purely electronic music ever. The harsh, bleepy-plinky record Silver Apples of the Moon came out in 1967; he will be performing it in Toronto using, in part, his ancient modular voltage-controlled Buchla synthesizer. The music will be enhanced by “improvised” video projections by Berlin artist Lillevan.
But although Subotnick is perhaps the most revered artist on the roster, his music is the least fun. It is largely an intellectual exercise, tuneless and difficult. Compare the work of Germany’s Robert Henke, a.k.a. Monolake, whose lovely layered synth sounds are pleasing and danceable. It is his elaborate laser light show, done in complete darkness, called Lumière II, that could be the star of the festival.
Most of the events will be immersive and possibly slightly scary. The cleverest of the proposed installations is perhaps Ephemera, a synaesthetic performance that involves the releasing of a specially created scent into the space to complement the music. The musician, Montreal-based Tim Hecker, created a piece inspired by childhood memories of smells (a burning vacuum cleaner; a grandfather’s workshop; the back of the hunting truck; church on Sunday). The “conceptual” perfumer Geza Schoen, who has created such perfumes as Paper Passion (it smells like a book) and has created a playable organ that releases a different fragrance from each key, interpreted the music in a scent called Drone. He has created the perfumes Bass and Noise from the music of two other composers as well. I have sniffed samples of all three scents and they are mysterious and beautiful: fresh and light, but with troubling chemical overtones. (Only the Drone scent will be released at the Toronto performances, as getting an odour into a space is one thing, but getting it out is another.)
The less airy-fairy party crowd will also be satisfied with harsh but danceable performances by underground German DJs Helena Hauff and Lena Willikens. The goths will adore the industrial horrorscapes of Welsh film composer Lustmord. Mat Schulz says, “Those genres – club music and experimental – have broken down in some ways. You have noise-infiltrating club music. Experimental music has made reference to club music.”
A few Torontonians have been commenting online that they are nervous about this possibly toxic and unsafe venue. Indeed, a trespassing photographer fell to his death while climbing high up there in 2008. But Luminato has used the space for a party before and closed off the unsafe areas. It will be safer than many an unlicensed rave held in similar spaces in the city. Or perhaps the worriers have just never heard of raves. This safety-first reaction is what gives this city its reputation for dullness. This is a Canadian chance to host something big: a big space with big sound, big ideas and a lot of cigarette-smoking Poles and Germans. Its scariness is part of its appeal.
Furthermore, there is something utterly nostalgic about the sheer scale of the Hearn plant. It was built in 1951, a time of optimism about industry, about Canada itself, and yet a time of fear of nuclear attack. Nothing like it will ever be built again. So how fitting to have its crumbling emptiness filled by such unabashed futurism.
Editor's note: Mat Schulz referenced concerts rather than installations for this story, which has been changed to reflect this.