My first Hopscotch was in 2012, and it was a banner year for the weird. Drummer Chris Corsano was the festival's inaugural improviser-in-residence, bouncing from show to show, sneaking into sets by everyone from The Roots to Yo La Tengo to add just the right bit of extra texture to whatever was going on. I wandered into totally spaced-out psychedelia by Greg Fox's Guardian Alien, complete with some kind of electric autoharp. Minimalist iconoclast Arnold Dreyblatt joined Megafaun for a decidedly Southern version of his signature pulsating textures. Guitarist Bill Orcutt offered a spastic, dismembered take on fingerpicked blues. Drones abounded, from Oren Ambarchi's glistening tones to Sunn O)))'s overwhelming roars. Even among excellent rock and metal, what really drew me in was the overall range of musicians pushing past the edges of genre into some kind of netherworld of sound.
The 2013 iteration somehow managed to push the festival's lineup further into strange territory, with improviser-in-residence Merzbow shattering my eardrums too many times to count. The best moments were, once again, the most visceral: Charlemagne Palestine's luminous piano chords; Pharmakon's screeching walls of static; Matmos's transformation of sounds into objects into strangely compelling dance music; and on and on.
Since then, however, the festival has started shifting away from the outer reaches that made it so attractive. The avant-garde has certainly still been represented—Tony Conrad, Hawkwind, Tim Hecker, Ian William Craig, Zeena Parkins, Zs—but the density and focus hasn't been the same. Instead, these outer-limits bookings are just one modest part among many, rather than being a defining feature of the festival.
The 2016 version of Hopscotch seems to be looking elsewhere for experimentation: acts like Erykah Badu and Vhöl plumb every possible nook and cranny of a genre. There are only a few purely experimental groups, though they're nothing to sneeze at. Foremost is Battle Trance, a tenor sax quartet that tests the limits of human endurance to build breathtaking overtone edifices. The group's show at the Carrack last year was an astounding, athletic effort.
In the lone "jazz" chair this year, Oneida drummer John Colpitts (aka Kid Millions) teams up with saxophonist Jim Sauter of the acoustic noise group Borbetomagus. Sauter is equally adept at making paint-peeling noise and delicate, ambiguous tones, with Colpitts as an able foil. Colpitts will also show off his minimalist percussion experiments as Man Forever. Finally, occupying the "classical" slot is composer William Basinski, who crafts the most beautiful sounds imaginable out of decaying magnetic tape.
A festival entirely made up of difficult music is, well, difficult. But part of what has made Hopscotch so exciting and refreshing has been the way it has treated the avant-garde so seriously, pushing the fringe to the forefront in ways that other festivals dare not attempt. —Dan Ruccia
Being jaded about festivals of any stripe at this point seems less reflexive reaction than practical approach. Whether it's the de facto tours that many acts seem to carry out via festival appearances—the financial reasons for doing so can't be waved away, but it's a little annoying, regardless—or just the fact that the random ethos of what it means to "go to a festival," down to perceptions of dress or action, has become its own obvious stereotype, I'm more than a little burnt out.
Still, at its best, a festival provides promise and random opportunity. Speaking about Hopscotch from across the continent in California might not be my most solid ground for an observation (especially since I've never attended a previous version), but when I reviewed the lineup of who was playing, any number of names leapt out as reasons to go, were I closer. Vince Staples, Wye Oak, and Yob? Already sold.
What I most often tend to look for in lineups, though, are the folks on the fringe. Terms like "indie," "alternative," and "underground" mean little to nothing anymore, and the acts I'm thinking about never even fell into those general perceptions. I mean people like Tom Carter, who has explored the possibilities of electric guitar and drone for decades on his own and with Charalambides. Or Leila Abdul-Rauf, the San Francisco-based multi-instrumentalist and singer, who has become a constant creative force in experimental metal and beyond. There's the duo 75 Dollar Bill, an act carrying on the spirit of a nearly lost Manhattan art clamor and experimentalism. Or, to keep it more local, the Asheville-based Tashi Dorji, like Carter dedicated to the consideration of where guitar can go, appearing in a duo with like-minded spirit Tyler Damon.
There's an understandable point to be made that past Hopscotch incarnations often focused more on these and similar figures, that the general drift via success has meant more of a smorgasbord and less of a direct focus. As someone who has happily attended even smaller and totally dedicated fests like these over time—the irregular Terrastocks, for instance, and the Bottled Smoke and On Land shows in California—I understand that very well. Sometimes you just want to indulge fully.
But there are enough generic fests out there on Hopscotch's level where things are so interchangeable one yearns for some real variety. These acts being part of the mix means you can attend them while still catching some excellent performers beyond the range—and the reverse can happen too. You never know who will attend because of one or two big acts and may just have their mind blown unexpectedly by an outsider act or others in a similar creative vein. Nobody starts out knowing everything by default, and keeping the space for a little discovery is always so very important. —Ned Raggett
This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't Fence Me In"