Thirteen hours, two mugs of coffee, three gas tanks, one power nap and 800 miles later and I was checking in for what I expected to be the most sonically-focused, true-to-the-word “transformational” festival of my summer. Less than a week of planning for an event I did not expect to attend had deposited me at the banks of central California’s Woodward Reservoir, and amidst unseasonable heat, dusty morning wind and a strange haze of elated exhaustion, I began to weave my gonzo thread through Symbiosis Gathering 2015.
This was a far cry from early summer’s Lightning In a Bottle—the most oft-compared-to festival I heard referenced in my weekend of sonic meandering and artistic absorption. The big-act focus that drove many attendees to LiB played only a small role in my view of Symbiosis’s overall identity, which instead drew much of its energy from niche electronic music set in smaller stages and conscious activities that seldom pandered to mainstream crowds.
Neither was Symbiosis a true-to-the-word “Burner” event, despite the presence of enough Playa-drawn art, dust and nudity to have one second-guess that assessment. Rather, it was a delicious blend of art, music and conscious culture into a creature of its own, where bass-heavy speakers ran free (most of the time), interactive art popped up and moved across the festival grounds as if from another dimension, and the potential to learn and network in both formal and casual settings seemed infinite. Blending one day into the next were wee-hour performances at stages that never seemed to sleep, crack of dawn meditation and yoga sessions by the lakeside and of course, the blank canvas of off-hour exploration into the array of theme camps scattered throughout the festival and campgrounds.
The Fractal Melting Pot
As the sun began its slow descent toward the lake on Thursday afternoon, I was already on a dance floor while thousands still inched through the entry gate and hunted for space in the rapidly expanding campgrounds. From what I had seen of the festival and its ornamented attendees so far, the prevailing Symbiosis population did not seem new to the progressive counterculture landscape festivals like this capitalize upon—one in which neo-spirituality, voyages to the interior, gender liberation, chemical exploration and sonic surrender are unspoken steps on the path toward serenity and higher vibrational states.
This was where Burners and “high”-minded folks—many of whom do not need the sanctuary of the Playa to drop their guard or who were still in full-on decompression mode from Burning Man—mingled together with an increasingly diverse array of music lovers and thrill seekers from around the world to explore the potentials and limitations of radical freedom applied to a material reality. Tapestry-adorned campsites and lavish domes filled the camp spaces lining the main road in, stages were already bumping top-notch tunes and the early crowd filling the dusty dance floor of Juketown, where the Desert Hearts crew was setting the tone for the weekend with a seven-hour marathon of tag-teamed house beats, looked well rested and ready for anything.
With so many different seekers coming together in this one place under the flag of music, dance and self exploration, the primary challenge I saw for Symbiosis’s organizers (as is the case for any diverse festival) was creating an atmosphere in which everyone could find his or her groove and tribe without feeling relegated or excluded. This was accomplished with remarkable grace.
A Stage for Every Citizen
Each stage seemed to take turns drawing different segments of the Symbiosis population on different nights to showcase distinct elements of the sonic (some would say “synesthetic”) experience. Kinetic sound found a home amidst the pioneer-styled quadraphonic speaker arrangement of Juketown and journey-like electro-world performances were focused around The Spring stage. Stretching furthest into the lake, the peninsula stage of The Grotto offered a future-tribal array of art structures that echoed with a spectrum of high-energy dance music all day and night.
Symbiosis’s main stage, Big Island, stood out as a necessary, albeit out of place oddity in the landscape. With a design that echoed themes from Lightning In a Bottle and even larger festivals—and didn’t necessarily match the aesthetic and vibe of the rest of the festival—I couldn’t help but feel energetically lost at this stage the few times I ventured in. Perhaps this is a symptom of my own prejudice against large festivals, big “headlining” acts, packed crowds and sound at a distance, but Big Island’s role in the festival arc was clear to me.
Acting as a stepping stone for the masses, it was the comfortable environment Symbiosis used to accommodate the spectrum of crowds they’d pulled from LiB and big-stage festivals into the more intimate setting of transformational gatherings. In a sense, this stage was where you got your feet wet, checked a few critical acts off your “must see one day” list, showed off your totem and got your eyes and ears dazzled by juicy displays of light, fire and sound while grooving with friends and bystanders. If you wanted to let loose your inner animal and tear up the dance floor, though, there were far better places to do it than at Big Island.
Symbiosis’s peak dance party atmosphere really seemed to coalesce around the crown jewel stage, Swimbiosis, which offered overheated attendees an aquatic venue to dance, swim and relax to an eclectic array of sounds from morning to sundown each day. With performances that included a rare Shpongle DJ set by Raja Ram, a harmonious arrangement of fresh tunes from melodic bass composer Kaminanda and a sunset dance party with Dirtybird DJ Justin Martin that I am told simply oozed with Woogie vibes, Swimbiosis was the place to drop your guard and let the good times flow. Gazing at the art boats anchored off the stage’s glimmering shores, alive with reveling dancers and flowing décor, one couldn’t help but marvel at the purity of the scene as throngs of smiling faces and grooving, scantily clad bodies beamed the blissful states of their interiors out into the serene landscape of the reservoir.
Candy for the Eyes
Accenting the splendor of the natural terrain, manmade displays of beauty awaited wandering and curious eyes in virtually every corner of the festival. Focused especially at MOVA (Museum of Visionary Art), a traveling art gallery showcasing the sprawling world of visionary art within the tranquil refuge of a geodesic dome, Symbiosis’s world-class art collection offered endless portals into the realms of the mind. Wandering into epic art installations like the Furtherrr Collective’s prodigious live art stage, where onlookers could watch artists bring life to an oversized canvas from the comfort of cargo nets and amphitheater-style seating, one could always find something to enjoy when mind and body needed a respite from dance floor stimuli.
Perhaps the best opportunity to experience the full breadth of arts flowing through Symbiosis took place the last night at the Spring as Phaedrana and Android Jones came together with David Block of The Human Experience to create the synesthetic live-art performance known as PHADROID. With Phaedrana on stage and Jones behind the veil, this experimental unification of dance, music and technology utilized the organic movements of interpretive dance, otherworldly sights of live projected visuals and texture-rich melodic glitch sounds of Block and known Jones collaborator Dave Tipper to create a feast for the senses that no words or video could ever hope to capture. One of the briefest spectacles of the festival, it was one of the few moments at Symbiosis when the only movement was on the stage as spectators were awed by a vibrant barrage of rippling images and fluid movements that seemed to defy the laws of reality.
A Tapestry of Sound
Living in what I consider a sonic desert (as well as an actual desert), I’m always chasing that blissful rush that comes with being hit square-on by a wall of textured, flowing sound. Though I attend festivals for more than just music—scenery, friends, art, workshops and overall vibes generally guide my trips—this fundamental experience still lies at the core of my motivations for chasing music across state lines.
Symbiosis spoke to this part of me in ways I still struggle to capture in words. Never left searching for alluring sound or a lively dance floor, I was in sonic heaven every time I broke away from the magnetic comfort of my campsite to venture into the dusty playground of the festival.
The performance lineup was an idyllic marriage of familiar and underground electronic music for anyone listening with a keen ear. Even at my most restless points of the weekend, I always had music to enjoy and was frequently torn between stages due not to poor scheduling but simply because there was so much verifiably good and curiously new sound worth exploring, no matter the hour. Plus, with the festival’s heavy psytrance presence—an unfortunate rarity in the American dance culture scene—reliable dance tunes were almost always on tap if you knew where to head.
It should come as no surprise that dialing my “top sets” list down to a digestible figure has been virtually impossible.
Juketown, as I already mentioned, was quickly embraced by my crew as an ideal meet-up stage thanks to its central location, powerful bass and uncanny ability to not smother our words despite the thunderous quadraphonic speaker arrangement. Among the performances I caught here, Riktam’s experimental barrage of tech beats stood out on Friday night as most of the festival flooded the main stage for The Polish Ambassador. Particularly memorable was an unexpected fusion-glitch set from mid-tempo producer Push/Pull, who took the helm of the stage Sunday on the tail of DVS and an upbeat sunset performance from Random Rab. Dropping his fresh remix of Birds of Paradise’s subtropical bass track “Mirage” and catapulting the dance floor into a ecstatic wave of technical textures laid over warm, pulsing beats, Push/Pull’s performance reminded me that there is always something new to be found around the corner when you go exploring.
I lost myself in the music and the crowd more than once at The Spring, where sacred downtempo surging with mysterious beats and aural pleasures met with wobbles of dubby glitch and trippy bass all weekend long. I found this stage to be a serene refuge from the heat during the day thanks to the bountiful shade and nearby beach (I spent most of Austero’s instrumental-glitch set vibing with new friends on the lakeshore) as well as a powerful conduit of energy at night so long as the music kept flowing. Long stage set-ups for live performances here did occasionally break the momentum but with Juketown bumping just across the water, this was seldom an issue that couldn’t be solved with a short walk.
Of the numerous performances that hypnotized me at The Spring, Deya Dova, Kalya Scintilla and Desert Dwellers stood out as the ones I knew would draw my kind of crowd. Each offering a spectrum of spacious sounds of varying intensities and styles, their sets affirmed my evolving view that some music must be experienced from start to finish in order to be fully realized as the artistic expressions of life and consciousness their creators are offering.
Deya Dova’s performance was an especially powerful merger of feminine and masculine energy that stirred something primal within me as she gradually turned on the dance floor Thursday night. Channeling unique dimensions of the same aboriginal inspiration fueling a growing segment of downtempo psychedelic bass music, Deya seemed to reach through the veil to bring back emotionally charged sonic imagery from the Other World no instrument other than the human voice could communicate. Falling in a similar sphere to the mystical and tribal sounds of Kalya Scintilla and Desert Dwellers, who each offered Sunday’s dance floor psychonauts their own daytime avenue of fresh and remixed sounds to explore the hallways of the mind, Deya’s vocal talents and deeply psychedelic beats left my body and consciousness vibrating at a higher level than I thought possible so early into the weekend.
Filling out the bass niche at The Spring on Saturday night, fractal bass producer Andreilien provided one of the slickest, dubbiest most scrumptious soundtracks for dancing I encountered all weekend. Borrowing sounds from a range of heavy-hitting styles, his set dripped with supercharged textures of rippling glitch and computer dub that maintained their writhing momentum from start to finish. On the heels of an evening parked at The Grotto enjoying the hypnotic psytrance performances of Tetrameth, alchemic trance producer Merkaba and desert party DJ Treavor Moontribe, I used Andreilien to begin the tedious process of calibrating my energy levels for the inevitable Tipper sunrise set anyone paying attention knew was coming later that morning. An inevitable campsite refresh would be in the cards…
Sure enough, by 5am on Sunday morning, a crowd of a few hundred revelers and starry-eyed seekers began to converge upon a small and mysterious art structure flanked by two mysterious stacks of Funktion-One speaker cabinets near the heart of the festival. Wandering away from this rudimentary “stage” to the nearby shore, my compatriots and I threw our packs to the ground and reclined against the earth to unwind in our anticipation of the performance everyone had been waiting for yet comparatively few had the tenacity to attend.
Flares at Dawn
As the fires of dawn lit the sky aflame, casting their blazing hues upon the mercurial waters of the lake, the air began to stir like a liquid dream. From the serenity of chirping insects, morning birds and wearied listeners came the first strands of ephemeral sound: a clock’s tick turning at a crawl, ethereal winds chiming in the air, the gentle thump of bass moving across the earth. For the briefest moment, the heavens were torn between the rebirth of light and the impenetrable darkness of night as the rising sun, planets and stars danced in harmony overhead.
I felt that Mother Nature was showing those who caught these precious moments before the sun crested over the mountain range beyond the lake the glory of her scenery in full form. The fusion of delicately engineered music with her original sounds and the sublime palette of colors projected on the lake was far beyond the reach of any human, with or without the technology we use to entertain our senses. With Zen-like clarity, I saw a glint of meaning through the awesome beauty of the scene.
It’s easy to get lost in the landscape of a festival. Almost pastoral, offering a mystical environment for us to let go of our material worries and shed our barriers, these places are so much more than just collections of bass-heavy stages, art structures and colorful campsites. Like amplifiers for consciousness, festivals like Symbiosis are places where people from around the world converge to tap into something once relegated to tribal existence and the privacy of living rooms, solitary thoughts, meditations and deep dreams.
Yet, as we travel each weekend to join in the wildfire of festivals spreading across the globe, I sometimes worry we become so fixated on the mainstays of festivals—headliners and lightshows, stages and vendors, chemicals and costumes—that we forget to acknowledge the beauty of the lands we occupy for these brief moments and the freedoms that allow us to be there.
Tipper’s glorious sunrise set reminded me to look away from the stars every once in a while. Walk into the shadows and see what is there. Push through the darkness and chase the unseen fiery dawn at the other side. If we always wade into the sound and stand at attention with eyes fixed on the stage—even if it’s just a fold-up table with a single (highly gifted) man at the helm—the beauty happening around us can become lost.
As the whispers of the countryside and delicate textures of the music merged and faded with the majestic visuals of the scene, my takeaway as the sun broke the horizon was nothing other than the gift of understanding that this moment would never happen again. And as I moved against the throngs of people rising from their slumbers to sip from the brighter half of the set, I knew the true heart of moment had already passed.
tags @glitchfm , @thenextlevelrad , #transformationalfestival , #review , #glitchfm , #thenextlevelradio , #article , #christiancortes , #symbiosis , #wrapup , #andreilien , #androidjones , #bass , #birdsofparadise , #california , #conscious , #davidblock , #desertdwellers , #deserthearts , #deyadova , #electronic , #funktionone , #furtherrr , #glitch , #juketown , #kalyascintilla , #live , #merkaba , #organic , #phadroid , #psychedelic , #randomrab , #sacred , #sacredbass , #sunrise , #swimbiosis , #chasingthedawn , #thehumanexperience , #tipper , #treavormoontribe , #festival