Symbiosis Gathering celebrates ten transformational years
Symbiosis Gathering celebrated ten years in the serene enclave of Woodward Reservoir, about a hundred miles east of San Francisco. The music and arts festival returned to the venue after a year hiatus in 2014 for the most well-attended iteration in its decade-long history. 14,000 attendees came together for the celebration, the first sold-out edition in its history, up from 8,000 in 2013.
Symbiosis is a gathering in every sense of the word. Though the four-day event boasted a diverse and cutting-edge lineup, music is “just the vehicle” to get to the festival’s foundational tenets of community and collaboration, says Symbiosis’ founder Bosque Hrbek. Like its name suggests, Symbiosis’ mission centers around balance, togetherness, and harmonious living. Sharing the venue with the six stages were visual artists, art installations, theatrical performances, artisan vendors and gourmet food purveyors, circus and acrobatic performances, wellness workshops, educational speakers, and a children’s area. Atop the reservoir’s 2,700-acre lake floated art boats and art installations, and festival goers were encouraged to swim and bring personal watercraft during the day.
Photo credit: Brendan Jaffer
The counter-culture festival is one of the last of its kind on the summer festival circuit, drawing the same community-minded crowd that may have attended Burning Man several weeks ago or Lightning in a Bottle in the spring. Performers and attendees at Symbiosis shape each other’s experiences, and natural melding and stretching of expectations and experiences took place over the course of the weekend. Individuals may have found themselves at a yoga or dance workshop for the first time, paused at one of the spoken-word or comedy performances that seemed to crop up at every turn, or overheard a different language from an international visitor the next tent over.
Symbiosis has had a bit of a nomadic history, finding its home at Woodward Reservoir after relocating four times prior. 2015 marked the first year since 2007 that the festival returned to the same venue twice, and the background knowledge of the area’s shortcomings from 2013 gave planners an opportunity to address and correct common complaints. A complete overhaul in venue design brought the six music stages closer to each other while maintaining the distinct character of each. Increased free water stations dotted the festival grounds, and ample shaded areas provided a welcome respite from the blazing late summer sun. Symbiosis adopted RFID bracelets as tickets to cut down lines and waiting time, and interactive areas like acoustic zones and Psychedelic Friendship Bingo provided memorable landmarks around the venue.
Photo credit: Julie Hanna
With music playing practically 24 hours from Thursday at 4 pm until Sunday at 11:30 pm, attendees had more music to listen to than nearly any other festival in North America. The stages were spread out along the edges of the peninsulas of the central island, and encouraged organic movement from one stage to the next so that no one set was ever overcrowded. Unlike most festivals, especially electronic music festivals, each stage intentionally changed genres throughout the day and night. Hrbek explained that this was to encourage new music exploration, and keep attendees from staying at one stage for the entire time. Experimental electronic, techno, and bass spilled into deep house and fusion, an audial reflection of the unceasing human flow from stage to stage.
Many artists played longer-than-average sets, two hours or more. These longer slots were perfect for developing the nuanced and gradual build that is almost impossible to achieve in a typical sixty or ninety-minute set. UK producer Max Cooper‘s live show at the second-largest Grotto stage was an inventive audiovisual experience. He debuted the new show in September 2014, and the dynamic visuals and techno beats provided an apt precursor to Four Tet, who came on immediately after. Kieran Hebden’s project wove beat-driven samples, soaring melodies, acoustic instrumentals, and minimal techno for a triumphant two and a half hour set, the soundtrack to the sunrise over Symbiosis.
Photo credit: Andy Alfaro
Psy-trance had a noticeably more pronounced presence than at most mixed-genre festivals and found its home at the second-largest Grotto stage on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Headliner Nicolas Jaar tailored his live show to the receptive audience, incorporating a manic Lydia Lunch spoken word monologue and experimental sonic samples along with trademark Motown cuts and techno beats. Dirtybird takeover began Sunday morning with Christian Martin at the intimate Juke Town stage. Low to the ground and resembling a house, the artist played on a porch that divided fans from the stage only by a waist-high wall. J. Phlip took over mixing duties after an hour, with Ardalan closing out the label’s residency before Scumfrog took over at 6 am.
Last-minute cancellations due to visa issues and illness were announced on Symbiosis’ Facebook page after the festival was in full swing on Friday. Acid Pauli and The Ancient Moons (set to perform with Damian Lazarus) couldn’t make it due to visa issues, and Pantha du Prince because of illness, but Sunday was no less anticipated for it. Crosstown Rebels don Damian Lazarus took to the stage alone Sunday evening, more than compensating for the unforeseen change by playing a two-hour set- four times the length of his scheduled slot. Though competition for the title was preternaturally high, the set of the weekend may have gone to Griz. The producer’s soulful blend of electro-funk and live saxophone culled together the inexhaustible crowd for one of the last sets of Sunday night, in a scene as energetic as the first set of Thursday.
Photo credit: Brendan Jaffer
It has been less than ten years since “transformational” festivals like Symbiosis Gathering have reached the heights of popularity and attendance that exist today. One consistency for the whole decade, however, is Symbiosis’ surety in and pursuit of its mission. Sustainability, upcoming and underground musical talent, yoga, and free-spirited ticket holders all serve as evidence that the festival has managed to hold to its core objective- bringing together people and experiences that wouldn’t naturally intermingle. Hrbek and the Symbiosis team are already anticipating opportunities to create these unions in the future. In 2017, there will be a total solar eclipse passing through the US, and the festival is “finalizing a site as we speak that will bring together many collectives from around the globe to truly create a unifying moment.” If it is anything like Symbiosis, it will more than live up to it’s ambitious yet simple promises of a weekend that will linger in memories long after the last car leaves the campsite.
Photo credit: Andy Alfaro