A Church of Sound Nurtures Sonic Communion at Basilica Soundscape

Basilica Hudson's annual 'Soundscape' is the rare festival where the audiences are actually engaged, the artists are present and everybody wants to be there

Leonard Nevarez/ Flickr

Leonard Nevarez/ Flickr

By the time my train pulled into Hudson station, the rain had slowed to a trickle but the clouds were still out. Sam picked me up in a car she borrowed from someone on her vegetable farm and took me on a short tour of the town, starting right across the street. We sat there for a few minutes in the shadow of Basilica—a massive 1880s glue factory-turned-performance space—just taking it all in. The looming edifice towered over the industrial flatland on the outskirts of Hudson’s populated business district, just far away enough from everything to seem like that spooky place where letterman-jacket-wearing bros might dare each other to walk through late at night without flashlights. The next night it would play host to the annual Basilica Soundscape, a music and arts festival teeming with curious devotees of sounds avant-garde and unusual. Covering Soundscape was my raison d’être for being in Hudson last weekend, but it soon became apparent that a larger ecosystem existed in town, an ecosystem central to Basilica’s existence.

Covering Soundscape was my raison d’être for being in Hudson that weekend, but it soon became apparent that a larger ecosystem existed in town, an ecosystem central to Basilica’s existence.  

When we turned onto Warren, Street, which served as the town’s main thoroughfare, Sam pointed out all the good spots. We picked up some Millbrook Distillery Bourbon from the Hudson Wine Merchants and continued to drive. Every so often we saw the ghost signs of old businesses on the exposed brick of buildings we passed, remnants of shops shuttered who knows how long ago. Further down Warren, Sam recommended Talbott and Arding for fixins and Bonfiglio & Bread for pastries, breakfast sandwiches in the like. With all the delicious localvore food in town, I could have easily missed Basilica.

Sam pointed out these places with the opinions of an established local, but she’d really only been in Hudson for over a year, as had her boyfriend, Allen. They’re one of the many couples that had found some entrepreneurial calling in the river city, which has seen more and more jaded urbanites starting anew as small town farmers or small business owners, embracing the budding “back to the land” movement without even a hint of cynicism. Basilica’s owners, Melissa Auf der Maur and her husband Tony Stone, were the most well known local couple to embrace such entrepreneurship. Ms. Auf der Maur, who made a name for herself playing bass on Hole’s Celebrity Skin, later joined the Smashing Pumpkins, and eventually started a solo music career, saw that old factory from the window of the home she shared with her filmmaker husband. That was when it all clicked.

“I became a mother when we took over Basilica, so the combination of getting the building and getting pregnant was very deliberate,” she told me. “I was ready to be settled in one place for a moment, and if I wasn’t going to be able to tour the world for music, I better be able to get a small part of the world to come to our backyard for music.”

Basilica Soundscape's food and drink selections are localy sourced, including these Romanian style chicken and dumplings from Alimentary Kitchen (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Basilica Soundscape’s food and drink selections are locally sourced, including these Romanian style chicken and dumplings from Alimentary Kitchen (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Basilica launched its programming in 2012 to include prose readings, film screenings and all sorts of performances, but the music festival quickly became its crown jewel. Eventually Basilica Hudson picked up a reputation for hosting a quality “anti-festival”—the food options were locally sourced, the crowds actually there to listen to the acts, and the cavernous, brick-lined hall noticeably free of Coors advertisements. Hudson was fast becoming a reprieve for couples who were sick of big cities, too, couples willing to put some elbow grease into making a life for themselves somewhere more remote. “Just this week alone three new bars and restaurants opened,” said Ms. Auf der Maur. “And all over Hudson, the new restaurants and bars are all couples with new babies. All of them! They all left the city and wanted to start a new place to raise a family.”

‘It often starts, for better or worse, with a couple, a family business. Because you’ve gotta live and breathe it.’—Melissa Auf der Maur

“When Tony and I moved here 8 years ago there was not a single bakery or coffee shop, nothing. It often starts, for better or worse, with a couple, a family business. Because you’ve gotta live and breathe it. You can’t just be checking in and out.”

Maybe the quality of life in any place will one day be measured by how many homes leave their doors unlocked. When we arrived at Sam’s place, the front part of a duplex overlooking the postcard-worthy Hudson River Valley, she just turned the handle and walked on in. “I don’t think we’ve locked the door once since I’ve lived here,” she smirked, recalling that cloyingly drawn out moment in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 when Moore uses unlocked doors as a metaphor for the death of a trustworthy society.

Sam didn’t harp on it, though, she just headed inside and started cooking squash from her vegetable farm with pepper and brown sugar. Allen came through a little later, adding sausage from his farm in the mix. So we sat, and we ate. It was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.

Morning outside Sam's duplex in Hudson (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Morning outside Sam’s duplex in Hudson. (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Allen wouldn’t be joining me the next day, or for the first evening of Basilica Soundscape. He’d left Sam’s at the crack of dawn, gone to the farm to slaughter some cows whose time had come. (One was just old, and one was betraying the natural order of the herd. When an adult cow starts sucking another cow’s milk it’s treated as dissenting.)

Soundscape didn’t start until 6:30 that evening, so I made my way through town nice and slow. John Doe Records had a great collection of used vinyl, books and communist literature. Sam pointed it out the night before, and said a man known as Dan, who ran a collective of musicians and artists called Bunnybrains, owned the shop. I saw Bunnybrains open for Devendra Banhart in 2005 at The Somerville Theatre in Massachusetts, when the troupe threw a giant, smelly blue tarp over the whole audience. That tarp stuck in my memory as an experiment in intimacy, a sort of Americanized version of Nicola L’s raincoats where “everyone shares the same skin.”

The idea that seemingly clashing cultures can turn their disagreements into something ceremonious and celebratory was profound.

Further down the road was Fatcat Records, an independent label based out of Brighton in the U.K. and Hudson in the U.S. Formerly located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Fatcat moved up to Hudson when the rent became too damn high. A man named Adam worked in this little space on Warren Street now, hanging out with his dog and selling records out of the bottom-floor office.

Basilica’s programming began a few hours later in the building’s North Hall, adjacent to the grand main room, with the documentary We Won’t Bow Down. The film chronicled the traditions of two dueling groups of Black Indians in New Orleans on St. Joseph’s Night. Taken as an invocation of Basilica’s interdisciplinary and cross-genre leanings, the idea that seemingly clashing cultures can turn their disagreements into something ceremonious and celebratory was profound. But presented as the opening of an evening festival in a town where everybody either works day jobs or commutes over from other places, the screening was under-attended.

Festival goers were surrounded by Dan Colen's large-scale "Tar and Feather" paintings in Basilica's main hall (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Festival goers were surrounded by Dan Colen’s large-scale “Tar and Feather” paintings in Basilica’s main hall. (Justin Joffe for Observer)

The spectral folk of Weyes Blood kicked off Basilica’s music in the main hall about an hour later, its endless brick walls decorated with the large scale, black hole resembling “Tar and Feather” paintings by Dan Colen. Weyes Blood is just Natalie Mering on keys and/or guitar, and her seemingly fragile voice grew increasingly muscular as those high ceilings filled up with her words, while a farm-style door behind the stage let in a cool breeze. Closing with Harry Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” in cut time, Ms. Mering liberated the song from kitsch as she carefully enunciated every syllable. Much like that Nillson cover, the rest of her songs were rendered sincere and heartfelt not for breaking new ground so much as treating the sounds so many cherish with an well deserved earnestness.

The main stage was a veritable pastiche of sounds and styles that progressed with an unexpected cohesion.

Hindustani musician Indrajit Banerjee sat cross-legged with his sitar next, while Gourinsakar accompanied him on the tablas, the duo immersing all in a gloriously hypnotic raga. Every year Basilica has a few artists who would most easily fall into the “world music” category, but the two men were treated with no less enthusiasm than the more familiar names. The audience was engaged and enraptured, cheering and applauding during particularly virtuosic portions of the raga with a fervor that left the musicians visibly stunned. From then on, the main stage was a veritable pastiche of sounds and styles that progressed with an unexpected cohesion. When Lydia Ainsworth’s orchestrated synth-pop followed next, it served as a gentle comedown from the heady time signatures of raga.

Justin Joffe for Observer

(L-R) Gourinsakar and Indrajit Banerjee. (Justin Joffe for Observer)

The angular post-punk blasts of Viet Cong picked things up again next, their guitars strung up so close to their chests that they resembled weapons of sound. The band soundchecked to Can’s “Vitamin C” before the set, and aside from the fact that they didn’t play the whole thing, the performance that followed was flawless. A youngster next to me had his fingers crossed to hear “March of Progress,” wondering how Mike Wallace would execute that thunderous drum explosion toward the song’s end.

Mr. Wallace had no trouble. Frontman Matt Flegel sang the song’s final lines, “We play the life secure with give and take/ We build the buildings and they’re built to break/ Tell me, tell me, tell it to me, tell it straight/ What is the difference between love and hate?” and the room rocked and swayed, in a building perhaps built to break but nonetheless standing, giving the moment an added resonance.

Such seeming sonic juxtapositions felt appropriate in Hudson, where much like a large city, different scenes of people converge and coexist.

More peaks and valleys followed—British electronic musician Darren J. Cunningham, better known as Actress, took his sweet time building ethereal ambiance into grooves, at times forsaking the direction it sounded like he was heading in favor of outright dissonance. HEALTH, meanwhile, split the difference, closing out the evening with a performance equal parts catchy EDM and industrial noise-rock.

Actress (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Actress. (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Such seeming sonic juxtapositions felt appropriate in Hudson, where much like a large city, different scenes of people converge and coexist. Melissa Auf der Maur laid it all out while explaining Hudson’s eclectic history of being down and out in the ’60s and early ’70s. “There was not a job to be found anywhere and Hudson shut down—so in one way, this historic architectural beauty was preserved by the fact that the ’70s and ’80s never really happened here,” she said. “But during the time all these shops, all these mansions, main street doors and old department stores were boarded up, or family run and just struggling along.”

“And while that architecture and history was visually being preserved, they’re knocking down corners and building Section 8 housing, moving inner-city housing projects to the middle of nowhere from New York City. So there’s this really weird, amazing thing that happens here where you feel like you’re in the middle of this tiny city.”

Much like Basilica itself, there’s every type of culture represented in Hudson.

Much like Basilica itself, there’s every type of culture represented in Hudson. In the ’60s, a button factory moved a whole community of Bangladeshi people in; one corner of town is heavily Bangladeshi, whole other sections of town have large populations of West Indian descent. “The history is really going to preserve Hudson so that it can’t just become a Rhinebeck or a Hamptons, it can’t just be gentrified in a second,” said Ms. Auf der Maur. “Only tough people who aren’t afraid of the city can make it here. This place is pretty real.”

For Brandon Stosuy, managing editor at Pitchfork and main curator of Basilica Soundscape’s lineup, the parallels between his personal history and that history of Hudson are equally important. “I was coming up as a teenager putting on hardcore shows in my backyard when I was 13,” he remembered. “My parents were from Brooklyn, but moved to the country when they were gonna have kids. But because I had a lot of relatives in New York I went back and forth, and would see what was going on in New York. I had access to that kind of music.”

“Then I would go back to my small, unhip town and put on shows in my backyard. It wasn’t like I ever got any money out of that, it was just the thing that was fun to do.”

Described by Ms. Auf der Maur as “an angel in a 6’5”, bearded body,” Mr. Stosuy is himself an elusive ‘cool dad,’ not to mention a passionately involved curator of music and art. His attraction to Basilica Soundscape is palpable, an environment that he said was “less about people taking selfies and focused on themselves, and more [about] people engaged in the music.” Mr. Stosuy thought that such engagement is what keeps bands coming back even if they aren’t playing, and agreeing to perform for less than they might make at a festival backed by corporate sponsors. “When Swans played they actually picked up equipment in New York and drove it up to help us out… Basilica kind of has that sort of feel to it,” he said. “People are helping each other out, and actually want to be there.”

Japanese Knotweed has invaded the High Falls Conservation Area (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Japanese Knotweed has invaded the High Falls Conservation Area (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Allen was waiting with a surprise for me when I woke up the next morning. We drove to the High Falls, east of Hudson in the village of Philmont. After parking his pickup we walked through the trees. Allen knew every plant by name. We quietly took the trail north of the creek so as to not disturb the deer drinking water. Soon after we saw some large patches of weeds growing out of the creek rocks, and Allen stopped. “That’s Japanese Knotweed,” he said, stifling his excitement for the sake of serenity.

That invasive weed was not native to the area, nor did the conservancy folks who laid out the paths and protected the space we were on introduce it. Japanese Knotweed just appeared there on it’s own, Allen explained, which was strange considering the weed could be used in medicines to treat Lyme disease. Lyme disease, of course, was commonly spread through Deer Ticks. How funny that something such as that weed could randomly start growing in an area where something else, also naturally occurring, might be a threat. Further down the trail we found a small waterfall, and beside it grew the Jewelweed plant, its bright orange flowers catching Allen’s eye. “That one there’s your best cure for Poison Ivy,” he said.

How funny that something such as that weed could randomly start growing in an area where something else, also naturally occurring, might be a threat.

The waterfall at the trail’s end turned out to be much bigger, the water warm and the rocks smooth. A good waterfall is really the best friend of any flat-footed traveler who happens to be soaked in his own flop-sweat. Between the smoothness of the rocks and the pressure of the water’s flow exists the healing properties of a natural spa. We ran into a girl named Eleanor who recognized Allen from a local hootenanny the week before. Such is the great irony of a huge area like the Hudson River Valley, still small enough to where everybody knows each other.

The crystal clear waters of High Falls (Justin Joffe for Observer)

The crystal clear waters of High Falls (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Allen drove us to his nearby farm next, which he asked me not to name out of respect for the owner’s privacy. The remnants of those rotting cow carcasses still penetrated the compost when we were greeted by the farm dog, Biscuit, who kept coyotes and other foreign elements off the property. Chickens roamed free-range alongside the apple orchard, and pigs rolled around in their shit eating fallen acorns. “You can throw that apple in there if you don’t finish it,” Allen said. The pigs too served a purpose to the farm far beyond deliciousness.

‘All of these things are already out there in the world, and all we need to do is activate them.’

Stepping through the grazing hill and over a patch of poison ivy, we found some makeshift benches looking out east over the whole valley. Allen explained that this farm was biodynamic, a style of holistic agriculture based more in spiritual philosophy than mere sustainability. Dubbed Anthroposophy, this philosophy was developed by an Austrian writer named Rudolph Steiner who yearned to quantify the connection between science and spirituality. The way Allen understood Anthroposophy in relation to biodynamic farming was on this closed farm—an ecosystem where foreign inputs like nutrients, fertilizer, hay are added sparingly and with great caution. First, “the plant is given everything it needs to get what it wants,” he said, and second, “All of these things are already out there in the world, and all we need to do is activate them.” Pushed for a concrete example, Allen said the cows are the easiest way to understand a biodynamic ecosystem. “Happy cows, happy poop, happy land,” he said.

Allen continued to explain that the human variable can be invasive in a closed farm. “The soil gets its nutrients from others plants getting tilled into the ground, rain, animals walking over it and shitting on it. If you keep on growing crops and don’t allow the soil to rest, the soil will die.”

Haley Fohr's Circuit Des Youx (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Haley Fohr’s Circuit Des Youx (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Maybe a similar ideology explains why Basilica’s annual programming is so carefully scheduled and curated. It was hard not to connect my new understanding of biodynamic agriculture as a spiritual principle back to the burgeoning arts scene in Hudson, a small town that other creative communities had given everything it needs to get the culture it wants. Returning to Basilica again that night, this was no longer just an old, re-purposed factory: it was a veritable church of sound.

Ms. Fohr performed something otherworldly, a plea to investigate ourselves in the vast expanse of that shared space.

If the first night of Basilica Soundscape examined the expansive nature of sound in the space, than night two was more about intimacy. Haley Fohr’s project Circuit Des Yeux opened the second evening with more folk, but her more baroque, gothic sonic leanings inherently turned more inward than the music of Weyes Blood. Opening with “Do the Dishes” over a looped, electronic progression, she moaned, “There is something deep inside of you,” in a somber baritone, “something that’s worth reaching into.” By the time her violist and bassoon player come into the picture, Ms. Fohr performed something otherworldly, a plea to investigate ourselves in the vast expanse of that shared space.

Around that time I met Jenny Hval, an enigmatic Norweigan musician whose blend of pop and spoken word is fresh with a clarity that transcends its seemingly avant-garde leanings. Ms. Hval is touring the U.S. to promote her new album Apocolypse, Girl, released by Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records. And though Hudson may seem like an innocuous stop on her itinerary, it’s there that Ms. Hval had found a creative muse in Zia Anger, a young woman who directed several of her music videos before appearing regularly as a part of her on-stage performances.

Jenny Hval performed in Basilica's North Hall (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Jenny Hval performs in Basilica’s North Hall (Justin Joffe for Observer)

“She wrote to me two and a half years ago,” Ms. Hval said. “She heard some of my songs and liked them, I had a look at what she was doing, thought it really great, and we started working—me from Norway and her from Hudson.”

“After that it just turned into this whole thing where she started appearing on stage with me. I could just instantly tell this person is amazing, and there’s no kind of divide between what this person can do. I trust her completely.”

‘Bricks are interesting, they remind me of being at a funeral when I was 15, counting bricks instead of crying.’

As Ms. Hval and I sat inside one of many backrooms hidden throughout Basilica’s labyrinthine walls, Mellisa Auf der Maur’s collection of guitars and amps surrounded us. “This is the kind of place you get lost in,” Ms. Hval said. “This room is like the room you wander into at a party and it’s so comfortable you fall asleep.”

Such large spaces can challenge her fascination with exploring intimacy, she explained. “When you play places in Europe, you end up in these old factories, art galleries, museums, under stairs somewhere,” she said. “There was a time when I was very much into space, but at the moment I’m much more interested in people. People do more to a space than the space does, in terms of my music at the moment.”

“Because I’m about intimacy, and so this could be a distracting place for me, because it’s so big. But it could also be great—it depends on the crowd more than the space I think.”

Though English is her second language, Ms. Hval saw her childlike exploration of words like “cunt” as integral to breaking down levels of distance between her and her listeners, however cavernous the space may be. “I’m very interested in getting close to the audience through what I do with language, and how I use it in a musical context,” she said. As such, having a multitude of performers onstage with her helps bridge the gap between performer and audience. That night Zia’s cousin Annie, along with a smattering of other Hudson women, would accompany her.

Jenny Hval performs in Basilica's North Hall with a troupe of Hudson locals, including Zia Anger and her cousin Annie. (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Jenny Hval performs in Basilica’s North Hall with a troupe of Hudson locals, including Zia Anger and her cousin Annie. (Justin Joffe for Observer) Justin Joffe

“ Tonight I’m presenting human failure, loneliness and other things,” she said, laughing at her absurdity before picking up the iPhone I used to record her. “Because I think the iPhone is like a dead metaphor, a road-to-nowhere metaphor for many things in our lives.”

“I think it’s a replacement for intimacy, because it’s just a way that, when you pull this closer it’s just a mirror for yourself. There’s a certain intimacy to it, but it’s lonely, it’s endearing, and there’s this kind of black hole there as well.”

‘I’m presenting human failure, loneliness and other things.’

Ms. Hval’s performance later that evening was rich with a similar deadpan wonder. Choosing to perform in the more intimate North Hall, the crowd quickly filled up the room, spilling onto the ground where Ms. Hval and her performers have fashioned a makeshift stage. Others who didn’t make it inside watched through the factory windows out in the rain. As she played through her new album in it’s entirety, affectionate contact with Zia and the performers became the explorations of intimacy she wanted to unpack, a can of red paint smeared all over her white frilly dress, while her staged moment of fixation into her iPhone’s blank screen becoming an elaborate joke about Tinder.

“If there’s something weird on stage I’ll step on it, and I’ll be investigating it,” she told me earlier. “And bricks are interesting, they remind me of being at a funeral when I was 15, counting bricks instead of crying.” Basilica, of course, had bricks for days. Perhaps this line was just another linguistic joke of Ms. Hval’s, another way to be less “subculturally lonely,” as she puts it. “I’m starting to take more interest in stand-up comedy,” she said.

Triangle Trio featuring (L-R) Chris Corsano, Otto Hauser, Ryan Sawyer (Justin Joffe for Observer)

Triangle Trio featuring (L-R) Chris Corsano, Otto Hauser, Ryan Sawyer (Justin Joffe for Observer)

This theme of intimacy continued promptly after Ms. Hval’s set in the main hall, where three drummers formed a “drum triangle”—Chris Corsano, Otto Hauser, Ryan Sawyer. Mr. Corsano is the most eclectic of the bunch, having played with the likes of Bjork, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon & Jim O’Rourke, Nels Cline, Jandek, and Sun City Girls weirdo Sir Richard Bishop. During the improvisation, his accessories ranged from wind instruments pressed against the skin of his snare to playing back a tiny microphone taped to the drum. Everyone’s CV in the triangle was impressive, though—Mr. Sawyer is known for his work with the Japanese iconoclasts Boredoms, specifically the group’s massive drum circle project, along with TV on the Radio, Massive Attack and others. Mr. Hauser’s work, meanwhile, can be heard in the outsider folk sounds of Vashti Bunyan, Michael Hurley, Devendra Banhart and Bert Jasnsch, among others.

Whether such a mutual engagement between artist and audience can happen just anywhere remains to be seen.

Heard together, each drummer brought a niche expertise that complemented the others. Mr. Hauser was quicker to work in his rolling style of playing toms, while Mr. Sawyer was more eager to unearth textures on his cymbals, and Mr. Corsano more adept at unorthodox implementations of percussion. When they played on floor rugs in the middle of the great hall, everyone in the crowd around them got an equally vital vantage point. This was an exercise in improvisation, sure, but also a study in closeness. So often the drummer is delegated to the back of a stage. There, in the middle of Hudson’s church of sound, they were the focus. But whether such a mutual engagement between artist and audience can happen just anywhere remains to be seen.

“What I didn’t tell you in terms of the future of America is that up in Troy we met a couple who took over an old Gothic church and is doing very similar things,” Ms. Auf der Maur said. “We went up there last weekend because they got turned on to Brandon through us, and Brandon just curated this amazing video art performance stuff there.”

“We met the couple running it and, similar idea—they were both in the city and thought, ‘why don’t we just go to the middle of nowhere and make an art center?’ Then their friends [will] move there to help them, and that’s how it starts.”

Ms. Auf der Maur had no tinge of naiveté in her voice when she spoke of the power of this couple up in Troy—or the work she and her husband Tony are doing up in Hudson—to acknowledge what’s broken with an infrastructure and collectively refuse it. “By my bedside, there’s a July 1969 LIFE magazine issue with a picture of this hippie family that says ‘The Youth Communes: New Way of Living Confronts U.S.,’” she told me. “It’s not the first time this has happened, as we know.”

“Friends come to visit us here and see there really is an alternative. It’s not easy, but you believe that you’re building something for the future. And that’s what we’re doing at Basilica.”

[Note: The names of my friends have been changed to protect their small town anonymity.]

A Church of Sound Nurtures Sonic Communion at Basilica Soundscape