Embracing the Unexpected at Toronto’s Luminato Festival

Embracing the Unexpected at Toronto’s Luminato Festival

I stand in a dark, unfamiliar space. Cold creeps from the concrete floor up into my body. People are all around me, and like me, they are completely transfixed. We all stare into a wall of smoke that twists and snakes. From beyond the smoky veil emanates an unearthly chant, the echoes of which surround the unseen strangers in the gloom. The chant eventually gives way to a heavy yet piercing guitar strum, which is repeated continuously and is both mesmerizing and maddening in its repetitiveness.

Just when I am brought to the very brink of listening sanity, the chant resumes alongside the drone of the guitar, and the smoke dissipates slightly to reveal figures in hooded robes. They are guitar-wielding angels of death.

No, this is not the set of a horror movie or an elaborate Halloween party. This is a balmy June evening at one of Toronto’s most distinguished annual art festivals. Luminato Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016 by “turning on the Hearn.” The Hearn is a decommissioned electrical generating station larger than the Tate Modern in London, the Lincoln Center in New York, or the Roman Coliseum.

During the first two days of the 17-day event was Unsound, a mobile alternative music festival known for utilizing unusual, adapted spaces. Combine this with a free Friday evening in Toronto and a location close to my lodging for the weekend, and you have the ingredients for one of the most memorable live music experiences of my life.

Once I began to explore the building’s depths, I was also struck by its raw, dilapidated beauty. Twisted pieces of metal still protruded menacingly and water still pooled on the dirty floor. Entire pieces of wall were missing, as if a giant had carefully torn them off like you would a piece of perforated paper.

My first impressions when beholding the exterior of the Hearn Generating Station were rather underwhelming. A large red brick building loomed ominously before me, the landscape appropriately industrial, with little adornment. In a gravel area was a small stage and handful of picnic tables acting as the Biergarten, a place to purchase overpriced beers and Bavarian sausages while listening to short musical acts and long-winded speeches. Inside the Hearn was a different world altogether.

I was first struck by the immensity of the 400,000 square-foot space. Ceilings soared high above, light unable to reach every corner. Concrete walls, possibly some of the thickest I have seen, formed a tunnel to the left of the entrance. Once I began to explore the building’s depths, I was also struck by its raw, dilapidated beauty.

Twisted pieces of metal still protruded menacingly and water still pooled on the dirty floor. Entire pieces of wall were missing, as if a giant had carefully torn them off like you would a piece of perforated paper. Electric wires, pipes, and exposed beams were everywhere. Stone rubble the size of boulders were collected in haphazard piles.

Luminato had become a part of the Hearn itself, with nothing looking out of place or time, the art installations simply a backdrop to the grandeur of the building. The only object large enough for the venue was a gigantic disco ball suspended from the ceiling, measuring 7.9 metres tall, consisting of nearly 1,200 mirrored pieces, which took 150 hours to install.

I took my time to snap pictures and wander aimlessly. My stomach finally overruled all else, and I went upstairs looking for fine French cuisine. My hopes were dashed. The control room of the Hearn had been transformed into a pop-up restaurant called Le Pavillon, inspired by a mid-century New York restaurant and helmed by Canadian heavyweights Frédéric Morin and John Bil.

The few coveted tables had been reserved long before I even decided to attend Luminato, and the 24 first-come-first-served bar seats were already occupied. I took my dashed hopes and rumbling tummy outside to the Biergarten for some sausages and beer. I listened to music and speeches, watched BASE jumpers leap from the 705 ft smokestack of the Hearn, and waited rather impatiently for Unsound to begin.

Whether they actually are the loudest band in the world, as they are often described, is irrelevant. What I can attest is that their performance is punishing, and in this case a full 90 minute test of the listener’s limit, which many people failed.

The music started at 9.30 pm with Montreal artist Kara-Lis Coverdale. Her style can be described as electronic ambient, and while it may not be something that I would normally listen to, I was blown away by her intricate layering of soundscapes. Raime hit the main stage an hour later. A London-based duo, their performance at Luminato marked not only their first Canadian show, but their first major concert as a three-piece with a live drummer.

The drums were a beneficial addition to their set, intensifying the rhythm and getting people moving, myself included. At approximately 1.30 am the real dance party kicked off. Kevin Martin, aka The Bug, busted out a set with heavy influences of dancehall, hip hop, and dubstep. He delivered a dark brand of dance music perfect for the ominous surroundings of the Hearn, and then took it to a whole new level with grime rapper Flowdan and Israeli dancehall queen Miss Red slaying by his side.

Embracing the Unexpected at Toronto’s Luminato Festival

These three performances alone would have satisfied any alternative music lover. Drone metal band sunn o))) made it something truly unforgettable. Whether they actually are the loudest band in the world, as they are often described, is irrelevant. What I can attest is that their performance is punishing, and in this case a full 90 minute test of the listener’s limit, which many people failed. Those who remained were met with an epic finale.

The lead singer slithered from the dark recesses of the stage, a human version of the giant disco ball suspended from the Hearn’s ceiling. He donned a cloak, breastplate, mask, and crown made of reflective shards, with purple laser beams piercing the gloom from atop his head. A musical act not of this world had transcended even further, the Hearn acting as a portal into another reality.

A reality where the terrifying and menacing could become beautiful, and where visitors are welcomed for embracing the unexpected.



 

Embracing the Unexpected at Toronto’s Luminato Festival 

 

About Elizabeth Widdifield

Elizabeth WiddifieldElizabeth is a 30-year-old living in northwestern Ontario, Canada with a handsome rescue dog and the occasional foster kitty. She has an HBA in English and History from her local university and currently works at a not-for-profit bone and tissue bank. She also volunteers for a campus and community radio station. She has a great love for both travel and music, often incorporating live music events into her travel plans. You can visit her blog, Musings at www.amusingblog.net, to read more about Elizabeth and her many interests.

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