Substrata: Alone in Its Field

A weekend of experimental music escapes the familiar summer-festival trail.

Depending on your perspective, Seattle is either blessed or choked by a mass of big summer music festivals, from Sasquatch! and the Block Party to Bumbershoot and Decibel. It’s enough to make you want to put on some soothing ambient sounds and get away from it all—which is where this year’s inaugural Substrata Festival comes in.

Substrata is a small-scale, DIY, experimental/ambient music festival founded by Seattle musician Rafael Anton Irisarri, who records gauzy, obliquely guitar-based music as the Sight Below; under his own name; in collaboration with artists such as Slowdive’s Simon Scott; and lately as part of a trio called I3O. Substrata not only elaborates on Irisarri’s minimalist sonic aesthetics, it also represents a radical idea of what a small-scale, experimental music festival might look like, from its 150-capacity main events at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford on Friday and Saturday to the 15-person day hike on Sunday, July 17, during which participants will make field recordings of the natural environment.

“We can only fit so many people on the [field] trip in order to keep it personalized,” Irisarri says of the hike—to be led by veteran Norwegian ambient artist Biosphere, who has captured field recordings from the Himalaya to the Arctic, and with whose 1997 album Substrata shares its name. “I’ve gotten so many e-mails from fans of Biosphere asking to please make an exception, or even offering twice, triple the money for the experience. And the answer was always the same: ‘Sorry, no—can’t do.’ It has never been about money, but about creating a unique, meaningful experience.”

For those not lucky enough to get in on that trip, though, Substrata still has plenty of other experiences to offer. On Friday, Portland musician Eluvium leads an evening of “variations on non-traditional approaches to the electric guitar, feedback, and tone” with Australian musician Oren Ambarchi, fellow Portlander Marcus Fischer, and Canadian Crys Cole. On Saturday, Biosphere’s first U.S. performance in four years includes Kranky recording artist Benoît Pioulard, Germany’s Nils Frahm, and Irisarri’s I3O trio. Neither night is sold out as of press time, but the festival’s capacity is intentionally limited.

“[Substrata is] intimate, it is small, it’s not for everybody,” says Irisarri, “but for true fans/followers of this aesthetic, I’m hoping people will find their experience worth the amount of hours we put in to make it all happen.”