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VIA Festival in Pittsburgh stays on cutting-edge for music, visual/video art |
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VIA Festival in Pittsburgh stays on cutting-edge for music, visual/video art

Aggraveire Music
Jazz-improv band Bee Vs. Moth
Arbutus Records
Electro-pop group Blue Hawaii from Montreal
Zebra Katz
American rapper Zebra Katz
The rock band Deafheaven will perform as part of the VIA Festival in Pittsburgh.
Alison Brady
American rapper Zebra Katz
VIA Festival
Richard Devine

For a music festival whose first year utilized a massive abandoned steel-mill-turned-movie studio in the Strip District, thinking too small was never a problem.

From the start, the VIA Festival was always going to be growing, changing, searching, feeding on cutting-edge music and visual/video art, and whatever was just a step beyond.

Somehow, VIA also fit Pittsburgh like a (virtual-reality-interfacing) glove, complementing the transfusion of new noise, new art and new thinking that had begun trickling into the city’s bloodstream.

Every city and its brother has a music festival now, it seems, but this was clearly built for Pittsburgh.

However, other cities began to want a piece of it. This year, they got one — there’s now a VIA Festival in Chicago, going on simultaneously to the Pittsburgh festival, through Oct. 5.

“We challenge ourselves every year to do it differently, and to expand,” says Lauren Goshinski, who organizes VIA with Quinn Leonowicz and a small crew of volunteers. “Just because you like a ton of music doesn’t mean you can book a ton of music. We don’t have that money, for one. You have to figure out the people who want to work and are invested in it.”

In Pittsburgh, it seems to suddenly be everywhere at once — from unfinished spaces in Bloomfield, to an architectural masterpiece Downtown, the Union Trust Building. Yes, the massive Flemish-Gothic former shopping arcade on Grant Street, the one that looks like it’s wearing a cathedral for a hat, is going to be a venue.

Musically, the old categories don’t seem to apply anymore. VIA has always veered between up-to-the-second developments in dance music and the more experimental electronic-music world, with a nod to history and context. That’s still there, from pioneering sound engineer Richard Devine (Oct. 3, CMU), to young Parisian techno giant Bambounou (Oct. 3, Hot Mass, Strip District), to Chicago juke/footwork giant Traxman (Oct. 4, Union Trust).

Now, however, its scope has expanded to include everything from the noise-encrusted metal of Liturgy (Oct. 2, Rex Theater, South Side) to the jazz-improv mischief of Austin’s Bee Vs. Moth (Oct. 3, Thunderbird Cafe, Lawrenceville).

The music is one thing, but it’s the extra-musical layers of VIA that separate it from other festivals, particularly the visual/video artists picked to collaborate with the musicians.

This year, experimental video art “label” Undervolt & Co. is getting a showcase (Oct. 4, Union Trust). This brings together video artists from Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and elsewhere — who have never been in the same room before — to create visual parallels to the music.

Visual artist and media designer Kevin Ramser is helping to coordinate the art for the show at the Union Trust and is combining his work with that of rapper Zebra Katz.

“I’m using content from his music videos and putting it onto 3-D objects — a lot of floral imagery, a lot of organic shapes and forms,” Ramser says.

VIA also involves a certain amount of audio-visual experiments that don’t fall into any neat category. There are projects involving Oculus Rift’s virtual-reality platform, group video games and a peculiar one involving the Internet culture of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).

“We’ll see how it goes. The festival is a chance to pilot stuff,” Goshinski says. “We’re not just (bringing) touring stuff, we’re making it. That’s what I mean by ‘festival as laboratory.’ ”

There also will be a free music conference Oct. 3 at Carnegie Mellon for anyone who wants to dip their toes into VIA. It includes talks, workshops, demonstrations and performances from Richard Devine, Ellie Herring and others, and a chance to play around with the music software Ableton.

For the rest of VIA’s lineup of concerts, film screenings, video games, lectures, workshops, after-parties, experiments and other stuff, see

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7901 or [email protected].


Oct. 2, Rex Theater, $17-20,

One of VIA Festival’s headliners, Deafheaven can be described a lot of ways. But if you want to be blunt about it, they’re sort of a clash between irresistible force and immovable object.

The immovable object is metal. In particular, the “black” variety — bred in the bleak, cold nights of Scandinavian winters, its sheer sonic harshness transforms guitar-based rock into something dark and strange.

The irresistible force is the relentless experimentation at the edge of rock’s avant-garde, in the vein of Sonic Youth, Swans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

These things rarely come together; their fans typically hate each other. The one thing they have in common is volume.

“I don’t consider us a black-metal band, but we definitely have the influence,” says Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke. “It’s the type of music I’ve always been interested in. It’s striking. I think they have a great sense of melody. The vocal style really appealed to me.”

Deafheaven’s latest record, “Sunbather,” has gathered almost universal acclaim for its tension-and-release dynamics and epic ambition.

Clarke’s screamed/strangled-sounding vocals, though, are another story. Somehow, he hasn’t destroyed his vocal cords (yet). “I think it’s just about knowing what you are doing,” he says. “Vocal control. … It’s not that different from any other kind of singing. It’s about being smart, controlling your diaphragm and not going overboard.”

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