Guest Post | Ki Sung Kim | Reflections on Symb10sis Gathering 2015

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My good friend (and fellow electronic music enthusiast) Ki wrote this guest post after his transformational four-day stay at Symb10sis Gathering 2015, which sounds like a mini-Burning Man meets electronic music festival from his detailed breakdown of the event. Ki’s passion for electronic music runs deep and he’s one of the few folks I look to for solid EDM/IDM/indie electronica recommendations. Read on for his thoughts and recap on Symb10sis Gathering!

Check out his playlist here: https://www.mixcloud.com/coffeeandtrance/symb10sis-in-150-minutes/


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Disclaimers:

  1. I never write blog posts.
  2. I am tipsy.

September 2015. I arrived in SFO from a sleepless flight. I was obviously too excited to sleep because I hadn’t been to California in over a year. But trips never go as planned – right as I got off the plane, I realized that my century-old iPhone 3 didn’t work in the States. Panic. I panicked so much that the customs official started to look at me very strangely. Anyway, I somehow worked out that no-go situation, and my friend successfully picked me up from the airport. Because of the aforementioned phone debacle, it was difficult to focus on the fact that I was finally back in CA. We stopped by Four Barrel to try to cheer me up.

The Backstory

Let’s rewind to June. I was at my desk in Korea minding my own business, perusing Facebook. Something on Glitch Mob’s page caught my eye –  a 10 year celebration of a Symbiosis Gathering – and how the group was going to be playing there. I told myself that I obviously couldn’t go, but I clicked on the link anyway since I tend to get curious about event lineups. It turned out that the entire world of electronic music was going to be there – Nicolas Jaar, Four Tet, Pantha du Prince, EOTO, Griz, Justin Martin, and a live performance by Glitch Mob. I had an epiphany; if I didn’t go to this, I would regret it for the rest of my life. My co-worker, a genius at getting ultra cheap deals, got me a $600 round-trip ticket to CA, and I was officially en route to the place I love most.

symbiosis 2015 lineup

Referring back to the first disclaimer, I never write blog posts, but I remembered how my friend Glen always writes blog posts about events in his life he wants to cherish and remember. Given that an entire month had passed since my trip and I was still thinking about the gathering every day, I decided that this was a noteworthy happening in my life to write about.

Day 1

Back on topic. I was about to leave to the middle of nowhere the next day, and my phone wasn’t working. It’s nothing to worry about, I told myself. After yet another sleepless night, we were off to Oakdale. Getting inside the festival was no easy feat – the entrance staff was highly understaffed. This experience immediately lowered our expectations of what this event was going to be like. Once we arrived there, two things were made perfectly clear to us: 1. There was no way we would catch the opening ceremony, and most importantly, 2. Everyone present at this gathering would be drinking dust for the next four days.

Despite the fact my friend had a debilitating headache during this time, he did a very good job of setting up our tent at a very ideal camping spot, close to all the stages. In fact, we could hear 2 of the 6 stages relatively clearly from our tent. Our prep work was like a division of labor differentiated by expertise: I was in charge of planning which musical acts we would be seeing, and he was in charge of all the camping stuff. We set up just in time to walk around the grounds and check out the opening acts. As we were doing this, my friend and I had the exact same two thoughts. First of all, our low expectations of this event were to be nullified. There was clearly way too much preparation that went into this, and it made us wonder if the event company was making any profit off of us, given that they were only charging $70 per day for this.

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Secondly, given that I have a lot of experience with music festivals, I assumed that this one would be no different – large stages and a general feeling of separation between the artist and crowd. I couldn’t have been any more wrong. Each of the six stages had a very intimate vibe, devoid of fancy visuals. The visual was the stage itself – each stage was artistically designed and crafted to detail. Even my friend, who had never been to a festival in his life, mentioned that he was not at all expecting the vibe at the stages to be this intimate. I also realized that there was no pushing or shoving of any sort, a phenomenon all too common at regular festivals.

Thoughts So Far

While Mumdance was maxing out the bass capabilities of the speakers, a few more thoughts entered into our minds.

  • Artistic representation: cheesy light shows and fog machines had no place here. Every sculpture, every stage, every structure – everywhere we turned – was an art exhibition. When hippies imagine what Alice’s Wonderland looks like, I suspect it would look a lot like Symb10sis Gathering. I realized one doesn’t even need to be a fan of the music to enjoy all four days here.
  • Atmosphere of unity and lack of judgment: even before we set up our tent, people were striking up conversations with amazing ease, devoid of any awkwardness. In almost every human interaction I’ve had, whether social or professional, uneasiness prevails during the first impression phase. All judgment and negative vibes seem to have been left at the gate and it dawned on me that this event actually lives up to its name. This isn’t just a music and arts festival, it’s a celebration of life with no qualifications. Where you come from, what you do, what your beliefs are – none of this mattered here.
  • Naked people: speaking of lack of judgment, many attendees were unabashed and embraced the “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” philosophy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many unclothed people in one place. It was as if a Korean spa had gone on spring break. A more fitting description: we were all Adams and Eves hanging out in the paradise of Eden.
  • Little people: Mothers and fathers seemed to have no problem bringing their toddlers and little ones to this gathering. This seemed to be a common occurrence, as this year’s event had an entire section of the grounds dedicated to children’s activities. Seeing them around periodically was refreshing for me, and amplified that ubiquitous “celebration of life” sentiment. At the same time, to know that at any moment, an acid-tripping aficionado and a pacifier-sucking baby could be sharing the same square foot of space with each other was quite a novel concept.

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I also thought about how my friend was doing right about now. Even though I had a clear reference point from past festivals, these aspects were completely nascent to me. My friend had no such reference point, so I was trying to imagine the degree of external stimuli he must have been undertaking. This thought was fitting – as he said, “I think you ruined all future festival experiences for me.” Funny, I could’ve said the same thing for myself. To be honest, I didn’t focus my attention on the qualities mentioned above, which is why I’ve brushed over them so briefly in list form. I was obsessed with drowning myself in the music, as the lineup was the primary motivator for my grand expedition from Korea.

Day 2

The next day was when the musical adventure really started. My friend is into some weird music, so during the day we headed over to Swimbiosis, a lake stage (yes, you read that right, a stage on a lake where attendees could swim while listening to the music) to see a psy-trance set by Shpongle. Minimal tech house group Thugfucker played after, at the Grotto stage. Just as the sun was setting, they diverted from their usual minimal style to play Sasha’s remix of London Grammar’s “Hey Now” which was a pleasant surprise to hear during the first sunset there.

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IDM ambassador Four Tet was scheduled to play later that night. Whoever decided to give him a 3-hour timeslot deserved a Nobel Prize. I felt a little sorry for Max Cooper. Even though he unleashed a raw, uncut display of face blasting techno onto the crowd, everyone seemed to forget his existence as soon as Four Tet showed up to the stage. He started off really slow, playing tracks like Percussions – “Digital Arpeggios,” and eventually sped it up to play some tracks from the recent Jamie xx album, and the set culminated into his high energy remix of Eric Prydz’s “Opus.” Is it cliché to say the set was a journey? Yes. To my surprise, there weren’t as many people to go on this journey as I expected. Maybe they were too busy at the main stage, maybe they were asleep to wake for the sunrise; the point is, I captured an indescribably rare opportunity to see Four Tet in such an intimate atmosphere.

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I couldn’t dwell on this post-set afterglow for too long, as I had to see Glitch Mob perform at 6:30 am, a mere 1.5 hours after Four Tet’s closing. It would be the biggest understatement to say that it was worth the lack of sleep. The last time they played live was at the same gathering in 2009, so it was a rare treat. During the set, the group switched off between the keyboard and the drums, playing selected tracks from their individual solo albums, i.e. Edit’s “Crying Over Pros for No Reason” and Ooah’s “A Southern Summer’s Breeze.” As I was imbibing the music, from the corner of my eye I thought I saw someone who went to high school with me. It turned out not to be that person – but what a gloriously spontaneous moment that would have been! At this point, rest was much needed, because surprises such as EOTO and a main stage performance from Nicolas Jaar were waiting for us at night.

Day 3

Thus, we spent most of the (third) day recharging. EOTO is a phenomenon of experimental music. Each of their performances are completely improvised – they were not DJing, but playing live instruments and doing whatever they felt like doing at any particular time. During the session, one of the members shouted, “You know we’re live and improvised!” to drive that point home.

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We then made the trek to the main stage where Jaar had already started DJing to an enormous crowd. It was clear that people who didn’t know about him were extremely puzzled; they expected to dance at a main stage, but realized his music wasn’t danceable. Whether people were confused or enjoying the eclectic mixing, it didn’t matter because whenever Jaar decides to grace a stage with his presence, his goal is to remove people from their status quo, which is what happened to every person at that stage. I am not cool enough to have song recognition of what Jaar played, so throughout his entire set, I was basically just bobbing my head and being captivated by his elusive silhouette, in a state of disbelief that I was actually witnessing such a creative artist playing before my eyes and ears. Saturday night could be deemed an “anti-EDM festival,” the complete antithesis of supposed DJs polluting the air with the same ten tracks on repeat.

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Day 4

Speaking of spontaneity and pleasant surprises, the final morning of the event really epitomized both of these concepts. My friend, who never wakes up early, happened to be awake in the low hours of morning on this particular day. “Where is Tipper?” “When is Tipper playing?” Such inquiries were frequently mouthed by attendees of the gathering ever since its inception. One of the headlining acts did not appear on the event schedule anywhere, so people kept asking these questions anxiously. A magical force allowed my friend to be awake this particular morning and discover that word of mouth was quickly spreading about the anticipated performance. The aforementioned artist had already started playing his sunrise set by this point, so my friend frantically woke me up and we were able to bask in the glorious glitch that is Tipper. I didn’t hear the chant “one more song” after his set – but I did hear someone shout “one more set!” I found out that this was his only CA appearance for 2015. In other words, to be present at this set was to truly have earned it.

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On to the final evening. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to survive the night because I had at least three acts to catch – Blond:ish, Pantha du Prince, and Griz. As a spoiler, this night took a turn for the worst (well, for me). My friend and I had split paths for the first time in the entire event. He had become acquainted with a lovely lady, and I didn’t want to third wheel him during what would become an amazing night (for him). Anyway, both Blond:ish and Pantha du Prince were no shows, and I had no way of knowing the reason why because my phone wasn’t working. In a rather disappointed state, I ended up clocking in early that night, so I did survive the night after all. I was too upset to see the final headlining act, Griz, but I tried not to be too negative by reminding myself I had seen some good sets by Little People and Random Rab earlier that evening.

Summary

It was quite a big drop from what started out as three days of euphoria, concluding in a sea of disappointment as one of my most anticipated acts – Pantha du Prince – didn’t show. I remember abhorring my old iPhone during this awkward time. Later on, I learned that some members of Pantha’s live crew got sick. Here’s the part where it starts getting really corny. I realized that the spontaneous nature of this gathering is a microcosm of human life, that we never know the cards we’re dealt until we are dealt them, and the correct mindset is to make the most of it. The second lesson is that there is always a silver lining. Remember when I said Blond:ish was also a no show? Well, they did show. They ended up replacing Pantha’s timeslot as I stood there perplexed about what was happening. I felt really thankful that I got to see them after all, because they could have easily been rescheduled to somewhere else and I would have had no way of knowing. The fact that I was waiting for Pantha to play at that particular stage, and the windfall of them being placed at that stage in that timeslot, seemed to be sent from above. Night had fallen by this point, but I kept my sunglasses on to lose myself in their lovely techno.

My phone debacle not only allowed me to distance myself from the compartmentalized, digital world and truly live in the spirit of the gathering, but it also set the stage for me to learn the aforementioned lessons. My phone problem in itself was an example of a card being dealt, and yes it sucked, but it did have a silver lining. I now understand why a lot of people use the term “transformational” when describing events such as this.  

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Nevertheless, my brain sometimes chooses to fixate on regrets. It turned out I completely forgot about Justin Martin playing a hyphy butt-swinging tech house set at the lake stage while we were resting up for EOTO/Jaar. Oh well, life has opportunity costs. I also regret not being able to share these moments with more people that I truly care about, and I sometimes think about how much more amazing it would have been to have so-and-so with me. But let’s not focus on these aspects. I should instead focus on how every sunset and sunrise was an ethereal moment, with mother nature’s glow syncing perfectly to the music. The core takeaway is that I had the chance to experience something I never had before – to experience camaraderie with 14,000 strangers in an increasingly alienated world, to experience togetherness in an increasingly sequestered world.

If I have the honor of doing this again, (hopefully at the next congregation in Oregon during the 2017 solar eclipse), there are a couple things I would do differently. First, I would focus more on getting to know different people and their experiences. This is a lot harder than it sounds because it’s hard for me to focus on anything else if there is good music around me. Second, I want to plan less and go more with the flow. I noticed no one else seemed to be referring to the event schedule, and some were surprised when they found out I had it on me. Fortunately, I did get to experience a little bit of going with the flow. Due to the Blond:ish mix-up, I ended up bringing in the final sunset with performance by Random Rab. Instead of choosing  the randomness, that Randomness had found me (no pun intended).

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Ending Note

I sometimes wonder about how artists that play at gatherings like this must feel. A lot of DJs claim they love playing at events like Burning Man, and I can understand why. To know that the crowd in front of you is sharing massive vibes with each other and is completely enamored by the music you’re about to play, must be a feeling out of this world. In lieu of that, I have compiled a playlist of the type of music one can expect to hear at these events. A third of the tracks are actual songs that were played out, and the rest is music I would play if I was cool enough.

https://www.mixcloud.com/coffeeandtrance/symb10sis-in-150-minutes/

“We with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, but the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom.” – William James


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