Symbiosis Gathering is an existential oasis: a wonderland of rampant creativity and experiences to discover. All of the other festivals I’ve ever been to have been split up into discrete days, but Symbiosis allows time to blur into a meaningless construct where the sun becomes the only clock you use. It revealed to me how carefully-considered planning, boundless art, and exceptional people can combine into an experience that lives in an alternate reality.
You could call Symbiosis a more intimate version of Burning Man on a lake, and you wouldn’t be far off, but it’s so much more than that. It was my first taste of the transformational festival, a holistic journey combining music, workshops, seminars, art, and natural foods that has become increasingly popular with the rise of festivals like Lucidity, Shambhala, and Lighting in a Bottle. Despite the recent deluge of new and growing festivals, though, Symbiosis retains a special flair that makes it wholly unique.
Arriving at the festival was a bit of a challenge. After a five hour drive, will call took quite some time, and they marked the entrance with yard-sale signage. At the time, I thought they seemed unorganized, but after we got in, I realized that it was only because the festival's producers were wholly focused on what happened inside the grounds. Once we built our campsite near the water, we headed over for Shpongle’s set at Swimbiosis.
At the incredible Swimbiosis stage, the dance floor extended into the lake. You could stand on dry land and dance your face off, or you could lie in a hammock over the water and listen to the music with your eyes closed. The water brought a whole new dimension to the festival: art boats and party rafts galore. We also discovered the refreshing, laissez-faire attitude of the people: anyone could strip nude, anywhere, without judgement.
It wasn’t the only great stage. Juke Town brought hard-hitting music into a pioneer town that felt like a honky-tonk hoedown, while the Grotto tree stage centered around a contemplative Buddha statue beneath a stream of water. There were no LED screens cluttering the horizons, allowing for the beauty of the Woodward Reservoir and the people inhabiting the space to take precedence. It encouraged us to let go of technology, and we left our phones at the camp site, content with losing the ability to communicate other than in person.
We walked around, checking out Becca Dakini throwing down at Juke Town before heading back for the end of Shpongle and taking a break for a workshop on the carbon cycle. It was interrupted by a DeLorean riding over water:
And meanwhile, my friend noticed a congregation of people in the lake and swam out to a boat where they were sharing oysters. Once he told them it was his first time, the entire crowd cheered him on as he shucked and ate a live oyster.
The level of trust that Symbiosis puts in its patrons is astounding in a world where some festivals won’t let you bring Camelbaks. Its family-friendly nature was also a boon: seeing five-year-olds running around and jamming out to such good music was inspirational.
Back at camp, we started meeting our fellow festivalgoers, having so much fun that I was content to miss Emancipator Ensemble and The Polish Ambassador, two acts I really wanted to see. Over the course of the next days, our campsites would merge with our neighbors — one brought a canopy for shade, another decorated it with art, we all combined tables and chairs — as we spent time together. When we made it back to the festival grounds, we stopped by the art gallery before heading to the live painting at Furtherr.
The festival became a wholly different place at night: from a fun summer camp into a psychedelic and neon-lit playground. We stumbled into world trance band Hamsa Lila at the Spring stage, one of the night’s first great musical discoveries. By now, I had learned to have faith in the curators of Symbiosis and continued to go where my heart led me rather than to the artists I knew. Janover & reSunator’s mindblowing performance at the Silk Road soundtracked the hookah dome perfectly as people rested and chatted, and became the talk of the camp site the next day.
We left to see Lucent Dossier Experience and Minnesota b2b G Jones, but never made it to the Big Island stage. On the way, we encountered a ridiculous, raunchy house party on a super-small boat that grabbed our attention. I don’t even know who was DJing, but holy shit, that was some dope music. Getting off that boat left us in a daze, shocked at how epic it was, and we slipped towards the Grotto for Max Cooper and Four Tet. I can’t think of a better opener than Max Cooper, who gave me a moment I will cherish forever when I heard the Future Sound of London classic “Papua New Guinea” live for the first time, feet in the water, staring at the nighttime lake.
Whoever decided to give Kieran Hebden a three-hour marathon set deserves a pat on the back. He destroyed it in every sense of the word, starting on some Hindi music and weaving everything from Caribou to his recent Eric Prydz remix into a relentless, extravagant mix. By the time he closed with “Morning” at 5 am, I was ready to pass out, and skipped out on the sunrise set from edIT and Ooah from The Glitch Mob.
The next day felt equally exciting: waking up for some yoga at the Movement Shala, watching Justin Martin decimate Swimbiosis, finally making it to the Big Island and discovering the vocal supremacy of Ibeyi’s Afro-Cuban grooves while the sun set. I didn’t want to miss another sunrise, so I went back to camp for a nap, waking up around midnight for Nicolas Jaar. His set wasn’t as world-bending as when I saw him as Darkside at FYF — still one of my favorite sets ever — but I definitely enjoyed his eclectic mixing. Afterwards, we wanted to see Filastine (our second attempt to see them at Symbiosis), but hunger got the best of us. Instead, we ate some fresh pizza and gravitated towards Dirtybird’s Sunday morning Juketown takeover where J. Phlip reigned supreme during her 4 AM set.
The moment of my transformation, though, was during the Tipper sunrise.
The Tipper Sunrise
I noticed a crowd forming around the Re:Union Palace, described by the festival as a “theater-in-the-round containing an 84-hour continuous evolving tapestry of sound, movement and living art”. The performance here was absolute insanity: some of the edgiest, improvised acid-infused dance music alongside slow-motion dancers in wild costumes. “Is this Tipper?” I asked some people naively. “You’ll know when it’s Tipper,” everyone responded. Tipper was the big question-mark of the festival, as the only headliner left off the schedule in his only California performance of 2015, so we knew something special would happen, but did not expect this.
I went towards the lake and sat cross-legged at the apex of the peninsula, right next to the water. The sun seemed destined to rise over a sculpture of conflict and then the Re:Union palace, one of the many examples of intricate celestial planning throughout Symbiosis.
I meditated at that point for over an hour. When I started, the crowd was sparse, but when the sun finally popped up from beneath its early rays, jubilatory shouts pulled me from my meditation, and as I turned around, I saw hundreds of people around me welcoming the new day with open arms. One nearby man was shouting in a preacher-like tone: “Sun rise, and the sun sets!” Another person pulled out a trumpet and played out the sun’s arrival. Meanwhile, some time in between, the re:Union palace music had given way to downtempo jazzy vibes, the start of Tipper’s set. I’ll never be able to write words that can give justice to the magic of this moment.
When I felt rejuvenated, I walked up the hill back towards the palace, where I was amazed to see a new stage had been born: the Tipper stage. It was simple, minimal, and deferential to the beauty of the sun: two massive stacks of Funktion Ones appearing as skyscrapers, with Tipper set up on a piece of plywood in between the speakers. By now his set had morphed from its soft beginning into bassy, dubby waves of sound. When he finally stopped playing, the chant wasn’t “one more song,” but rather, “one more set!”
After such a rousing sunrise, the idea of sleep was laughable, and I stopped by the Human Experience, another discovery I had never heard of, as he slowly revealed the many depths of his music before picking up a microphone and bringing them all together under his voice. I saw an early bit of Acid Pauli’s marathon set (he was slated to play from 9 AM to noon and started early!) before rushing to the Grotto for one of my most-anticipated sets of the festival: Raja Ram's Stashbag.
I think of Raja Ram as a wise mystic and a legend of the scene. He embarked on the hippie trail in the 1950s, played as part of a psychedelic rock band at the first Glastonbury in 1970, and didn’t even start DJing until his 50s. Even today, at age 73, he performs with the energy of a man in his twenties. Seeing him play as Shpongle is rare enough (usually, they send out Simon Posford these days), but the opportunity to see him solo is even more rare. His psytrance journey touched all facets of music: there was even a moment where he reshaped The Who into a goa trance anthem.
After his set, I went to camp to freshen up and hang with the crew, then for a quick swim to check out the tree house that everyone was raving about. Yet another art boat, this one included a huge dance floor underneath a tree house DJ booth, and not one, but two slides! The final day closed out the festival with more great music: Sabo, ESTA, Desert Dwellers, a special guest set by edIT and Boreta from The Glitch Mob to replace the last-minute cancellation of Kaytranada, Little People, Random Rab, Blond:ish — but by now, lethargy was creeping up on me like a plague. After all, it had been twenty hours of near-continuous energy and dancing. No matter how many good acts were playing the last few hours, from GriZ to Coyote Kisses, I knew what my body needed, and without any fear of missing out, I took to bed and concluded my Symbiosis adventure.
Symbiosis sets a new bar for planning and executing a festival as a masterpiece of creativity. but the scale of thought and planning that went into its environment only created the canister. It was the beautiful, brilliant people of Symbiosis who filled that environment with an energy that catalyzed the whole experience. Symbiosis has changed my outlook on festivals, and though I’ll still be able to go to the Coachellas and HARDs of the world, my heart will always be here. They’ve already announced the next incarnation of Symbiosis, which will be taking place in 2017 during a total eclipse in Oregon, and I will certainly be there, this time with an even bigger crew, and maybe even a boat if it’s on the water again. Thank you, Symbiosis, for giving me an experience I can someday bring my kids to.