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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Oxford Goes Underground: In Conversation with Komuna

Flynn Hallman interviews the organisers of Oxford's upcoming queer funk, jazz, techno and classical night - Komuna.

Three Wednesdays away from Komuna’s launch event at Plush on the 16th of February, Deputy Editor, Flora Dyson and I sat down to chat with the group’s director, Adam Possener. 

The event is advertised as ‘an immersive night of Queer funk, jazz, contemporary classical and techno music’. It aims ‘to celebrate queer contribution to experimental music as part of Pride Month’. It’s the first project of Komuna, a collaborative group of musicians and artists, split between Oxford and London, and we wanted to get to know more about its origins. Adam explained that the idea for the project came from his experience attending the experimental Warsaw Autumn festival over the summer. “I’d never heard classical contemporary stuff in a club before,” he said, “I thought it was really cool, and something there’s not as much of in the UK”. He went on to talk of the underground nature of the festival, and its conduciveness as an environment for flourishing countercultures in musical experimentation and underrepresented artists and approaches. “I came back thinking ‘I want to do that here,’ so I got some people I know together”.

Shortly after its formation, the group agreed on the name, ‘Komuna’. “It’s a Polish word,” he explained, “It kind of translates as ‘to commune,’ or ‘have an intense conversation’”. The name neatly captures the atmosphere Adam associated with the Warsaw Autumn festival, promoting the interactivity of a music event with the intensity and energy of the underground scene. We asked how he hoped the Plush event would also achieve this. “There’s going to be such a variety of music styles,” he said “and the idea is to blend them seamlessly”. Rather than having one act after another, he spoke of different sounds, performances and approaches to genre “progressing into each other, hopefully to try and make the experience as immersive as possible”. “From funk to experimental jazz, you can trace a path,” he explained, “the more experimental the jazz is, that can then go into the classical, and then go into the more techno stuff” and so on. The intention is that “everything is amplified,” he said, there’s live music as well as DJ sets “so it should run seamlessly from DJ into string quartet.” In the spirit of the group’s creative experimentation, this blended approach extends beyond the event’s music. Textual recordings are incorporated into the set-lists, while all the group’s artwork (some of which has already been released on their instagram page) is done by their own artist and graphic designer. 

The topic of conversation then turned to Plush’s suitability as an underground setting capable of providing a similar sort of counterculture atmosphere to that of the Warsaw Autumn festival. “It’s a really cool space,” he said, “its underground, quite small and confined, they don’t normally have live music there but I think it will be quite an interesting environment for it.” 

We wondered how the night’s music would reflect this aesthetic, and particularly how he hoped it would celebrate queer contributions and experiments in music. “We’re trying to celebrate it but not completely separate it,” he said. “We didn’t want to ghettoise the music, it’s about focusing on underrepresented artists within those spheres.” He gave the example of one of the songs on the string quartet’s repertoire for the evening, ‘Gay Guerilla,’ by Julius Eastman. A late 20th-century minimalist composer, Eastman’s body of work has only recently begun to receive greater critical acclaim and public exposure, and Adam spoke enthusiastically of the process of hunting down his original, scrawling, handwritten score in order to adapt it for the string quartet ahead of rehearsals for the event. 

Asked about his views more generally on underrepresentation of queer artists in the music industry, he referenced techno as a prime example of a genre with popular heteronormative associations, with a tendency for queer contributions to be underrepresented and delimited. “You have to delve deeper into a genre to find different artists,” he said, “because they’re all there, but when it’s done it’s done separately, as only for the queer community”. In this sense he also spoke about his hopes for Komuna’s launch to bring something new in comparison to more mainstream pride events. Beyond (and by no means belittling) the Lady Gagas of the world, he outlined that “there’s so much more that also needs to be heard at these events.” In a similar vein, we wanted to hear more about his views on underrepresentation and a lack of choice in the Oxford music scene. “There’s a lot of the same music being played,” he said, especially with a lack of club venues playing things outside the repetitive Bridge and ATIK pop repertoire. “Even on the classical side, lots of it here is very samey,” he admitted, perhaps hinting at the immutable presence of Bach and Elgar billboards outside the Sheldonian. With this lack of musical range naturally comes a lack of representation, and in turn, a diminishment of opportunities for individual expression. As he went on to say: “what’s useful about having [the range of venues catering to different music genres] in London is that you have a scene, there’s a vibe and aesthetic, and you don’t have that here so you have to kind of make of it what you can.” This seems to be the key aim for Komuna’s launch on the 16th of February. “It’s about what you do with the space,” he said, not only hoping to bring respective music scenes to Oxford, but on the same night, at the same time, and in the same room. The hope is ultimately that by enabling these scenes to seamlessly interact with and inform each other, they will also inspire a different kind of interaction between those attending the event. In this sense the theme of ‘conversation’, evoked in group’s name, seems all the more apt. As Adam went on to explain, this also ties in to the dress code for the evening. Left as one word, ‘experimental,’ he explained that “the dress code is a way for people to relate to the event.” The genres or sounds people associate themselves more with will “feed into their style, and so that improves on the conversation idea, because by showing and wearing or performing an outfit they’re part of the night and its atmosphere”.

The event is marketed as unique for Oxford. Its tagline of ‘this is not your average club night’, full of the potential for platitude, actually feels genuine. Amidst your average Oxford term-table of late night kebab peregrinations, and reluctant, instantly regrettable, trips to Bridge or ATIK, Komuna’s launch in a few week’s time represents an attractive experiment in a means of escape. I mean, what’s not to like? It’s at once a club night and an underground festival, it will have multiple DJs and live music performed by a string quartet, all with the intention of celebrating pride month through an immersive interspersion of sounds, outfits, and influences.

We ended our chat by asking Adam how he would sum up the evening as an experience for those attending. He answered honestly: “it’s an experiment for everyone… maybe you’ll end the night at a kebab van, but you’ll have had an experience that’s a bit different”. Now there’s certainly no cynicism about kebab vans here, but to take his point a bit further, maybe it’s worth considering what journey you want to take to that famed destination of the Oxford night out a few weeks from now. Hopefully it will be after resurfacing from Plush after a new, interactive, underground experience of an Oxford music event, and not another Wednesday stuck in the ATIK.

Thanks to Adam Possener for the interview. 

Follow Komuna’s instagram page @komunacollective for event playlists and more info about the launch. 

Image credit: Gala Hills, graphic design: Kayanne Shaikh

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