Absent City

Absent City (2008). Video by Megumi Matsubara / Assistant.

This moment now used to be an unimaginable future. Absent City, a mixed media installation by Megumi Matsubara, with the music/soundscape by me, in Tokyo in 2008.

I’m currently reworking this sound piece for the upcoming release Radiant City, which has now progressed from a short EP into a full-length album as well as an immersive sound installation (I should’ve known). The original Absent City piece is 90 minutes long of which the video here features the opening four, and for the new album it’ll be reduced to a 30-minute composition with four movements and additional instrumentation.

Time is indeed an interesting character (see eg. the films of Christopher Nolan). I hadn’t listened to the full 90-minute soundscape for over a decade because I’d regarded it as a failure, an embarrassing attempt at creating something between music and environment, music and city, music and sound art. The piece consists of seven lunch conversations, 90 minutes each, recorded in various public spaces around Tokyo between the artist herself and different people she’d invite each day. My job was to imagine these recordings as different instruments in an orchestra and turn them into an abstract composition, simultaneously resembling music and an urban soundscape. And since I only had one full day to do this, I had to work really fast: deciding, treating, “composing”, arranging and mixing the tracks almost in real-time. My lovely Spanish flatmates would pop in occasionally to listen and offer comments – and bring food from the dinner table! A quick getaway to a Finnish sauna and a cold beer – and back to my studio (with a couple of more beers) to finish and send the piece by midnight, when the dawn was breaking in Tokyo for the exhibition’s opening day.

The artist was really pleased with the result and said it was exactly what she’d been looking for. But I felt a sense of unease: I hadn’t had time to really sit back and evaluate what I’d done, let alone make any corrections if necessary. There were parts where I’d wanted to bring in more musicality, to explore the possibilities of “the studio as a compositional tool” more (see eg. the lecture of Brian Eno from 1979) but couldn’t. The soundtrack was already playing in Tokyo, while the summer in Helsinki blossomed elsewhere. My disappointment at what felt like a missed opportunity for something unique and proper made me soon forget all about the piece and move on.

Until a few weeks ago, when I came across it on my old hard drive and decided to give it a full listen. And boy what a trip through space and time that was, through a city that had become nonexistent – or been missing for too long! Here I was in some future city, a possible city, an invisible city, a multiplicity, a radiant city, experiencing an increasingly familiar yet heartening pattern: as time passes your criticality toward your work simply dissipates, gets forgotten, transforms into innocence and ageless fresh joy with lived experience. With the original condition absent, you’re free to experience the work and the world anew, those midnight hours of Helsinki turning into a dawn chorus in Tokyo. Sometimes the original condition is of course better and you’re right to leave it as it is, but here I found myself arriving in a future the seeds of which I’d planted all those years ago, without knowing how they might grow. What once had felt absent, was now starting to feel radiant.

Photography: Sebastian Mayer

Upcoming musics (Spring 2023)

/// Updates ///

My next album Earth Variations will be out early next year 2023. As often happens, the album would be ready for release in late November/early December, but due to the holidays it wouldn’t be delivered to the streaming platforms until January-February at the earliest. So once again, I’ll take the opportunity of the quiet during the wintry rural days to go through the album one more time, ears refreshed.

—-

I’m currently working also on a new EP titled Radiant City, an offshoot of the new album Interspaces. It will feature the piece Radiant City from the album as well as four new compositions: Trade I, Trade II, Monday Morning in Lagos and Midnight in Fez.

As the title suggests, the EP is inspired by an idea of the city: a dynamic, hybrid, inclusive and thriving multiplicity – not the Corbusier’s vision of a linear and ordered metropolis of the future but one of an indeterminate and colourful incubator of our present (and near future).

The pieces, which incorporate city sounds into the music, have been partially created by using generative music algorithms, where an algorithmic system (designed by me) has improvised the music or soundscape from the sonic material and instructions I’ve provided, thus producing results which I as the composer might not have envisioned or chosen. The process and its outcomes are a bit like the life in a city: indeterminately unfolding yet always retaining a recognisable character.

The EP will be out next Spring.

—-

I’m also considering releasing a new version of my album Pulses / Radiance from 2017. I came across it recently after a long time, heard the tracks in a wrong order, and was surprised how sensuous, fresh and invigorating it sounded. It’s a shame that works like this, by a multitude of artists, have to disappear into the ocean of indifference (online music publishing) so quickly; “digital amnesia”, as architect Rem Koolhaas described our online culture…And where the art world tends to embrace and elevate visual diversity, the music world tends to eschew similar sonic diversity (for the obvious physiological, cultural and economic reasons). Nevertheless, the album probably suffered from a slightly naïve production at the time as it was a whole new direction for me, and now with experience – better mixing, editing, soundscaping and mastering – its idea might come through clearer and stronger: it might even float in that ocean for few seconds before sinking. 😊 The record was a precursor to both Earth Variations and Radiant City, so in that sense this revisit would be exciting and timely as well. Let’s see (I’m already hearing musicians from jazz, classical and intercultural ensembles playing on the revised version…dreams).

—-

Finally, I’m also preparing a collection of my previously unreleased ambient and piano pieces from 1998-2022.

Tentatively titled A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the album includes 10 compositions which have always represented the most welcome quiet waters to me when the stream of music has become exhausting, yet they have never managed to find a suitable home on any of my previous releases. And while I have often contemplated releasing purely an ambient album, the timing, the feelings, the drugs*, the ideas have tended to be wrong.

Until now, when my feelings are becoming toward less is more: less music that sounds like more music; less sound, more space; less perfection, more beauty; less engine noise, more bird song; less industry standard professionalism, more life-affirming authenticity; less centre stages, more environments; and so forth.

The album, which features contributions from composers-pianists Midori Hirano and Sylvie Walder, will arrive early next Spring.

Warmth x

*coffee, tea and wine in my case (thought of clarifying this 🙂 )

World / Interspaces

‘World’, featuring soprano Viktoriia Vitrenko on additional vocals, from the album Interspaces. The main vocal is by Taina Grohmann, quite heavily timestretched here, and it’s an outtake from my debut album Shimmer & Bloom (2011). The video consists of photographs taken by me in Tokyo, Marrakesh, Fes, Cotonou, Agouegan and Helsinki.

What makes this track really special to me is that it became, unintentionally, a condensation of my most cherished musical awakenings: from Can to Fela Kuti, Bernard Parmegiani to Steve Reich, Brian Eno to Björk, Jon Hassell to Pan Sonic, etc. to etc., it seems to have distilled ingredients from all these influences into its own kind of worldly essence. Especially four pivotal discoveries come to mind: ‘Boat-Woman-Song’ by Holger Czukay and Rolf Dammers (from their 1969 album Canaxis), ‘Come Out’ by Steve Reich (1966; it was preceded by a similar tape piece It’s Gonna Rain but Come Out was my first encounter with Reich), ‘Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics’ by Jon Hassell / Brian Eno (1980), and ‘Kokoku’ by Laurie Anderson (from her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak).

It’s also fascinating to notice that we indeed seem to be occupied by the same few ideas throughout our lives, exploring and cultivating them as we go along: when visiting Finland this summer and listening through my old tape archive (what’s left of it anyway: I have foolishly discarded most of my early demo cassettes), I was amused to realise that several of the tracks I’d made 30 years ago bore a distant similarity to pieces like World. While obviously exuding more naivety and my attempt to follow the musical trends of the time (like Balearic and ambient house), their shortcomings hinted at a desire to break free and create stylistically something more diverse and global; I was a teenager dreaming of a better world as well as exploring more of this world. And a couple of those pieces actually got played on the Finnish national radio (Radiomafia) where the presenters described them as “very interesting and original” at the time: the memory of having such an experimental mainstream radio culture now feels like a dream from a fictitious world, with any differing colour and sparkle (and any sign of a more complex and potential world) having been quashed decades ago by the monotonous industry playlists of hyper-consumerism.

But despite late capitalism’s best efforts, life continues to flourish and diversify – like in the basement rehearsal space of the Cité international artist residency, where I was fortunate to encounter the Ukrainian soprano, conductor and artistic director Viktoriia Vitrenko. When we were later recording her vocals and I sat there listening to her experiment (“the voice transports you: our small studio space turns into a concert hall, then into an Afromontane forest between a desert and an ocean, before returning, via the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Jonquet district of Cotonou, to a wooden cabin by a lake, with the stars just appearing in the late summer sky and the moonlight traversing the water’s still surface”), I felt a new musical awakening, a possible music waiting to be unearthed beyond the albums of mine we were working on – except this time, instead of records and radio waves I was in the same room where the music was coming into being. To experience such an unguarded moment of openness and play, when things break free and your preconceived ideas fail and become receptive to the environment – a molar world becoming molecular, a difference in the atmosphere becoming sensible yet still indeterminable – is what philosopher Gilles Deleuze might have described as being “present at the dawn of the world”.

Petals

‘Petals’ from the new album Interspaces, featuring Petteri Mäkiniemi on Ginette. A proper music video/short film for the track is currently being developed with this internationally acclaimed media artist, and it will be released sometime next Spring (due to time and budget constraints). I wanted to try some visual experiment for the piece now, however, while the album is still fresh…

—-

Petals has been 24 years in the making. The ambient background was created during a summer night in 1998 in Suonenjoki, Finland: I had my studio and rehearsal space in this wooden cabin by a pond, surrounded by forests and fields on an organic farm where I spent that summer working, and while I was recording, I could see through my window nocturnal mist hovering above the still surface of the water, interrupted only by two swans gliding quietly together. The landscape was illuminated by a full moon and the reflection of a midnight sun. A couple of years later in London a friend of mine wanted to use the track as background music for his painting exhibition, and for the purposes of the show I added a voice of this Finnish girl reading a poem of mine (in Finnish), timestretched into a more abstract and ethereal layer.

For the next 20 years the piece remained unchanged – and unreleased, despite my efforts to find a suitable context and form for it – until one Spring morning in Paris I finally realised how to continue with the music. Petals was finally finished during a summer night in 2021 at my Cité des arts studio in Paris: going through a heartbreak caused by this artist (coincidentally from Finland), I felt the piece was still missing something until I stumbled upon a lone Ginette recording Petteri had made and sent me the year before; Ginette’s expressive power and harmonic progression matched both the existing composition and, with some added raw distortion, my emotive state perfectly, as if recorded specifically for this piece, and brought the composition and my broken heart finally to a close. There were no swans gliding on a moonlit pond outside my window that night but a soft hum of the Parisian traffic, a couple of nocturnal birds singing, and a sense of a new dawn.

Algerian desert music

Recording with this Algerian guitarist, Nazim Bakour, for the upcoming album Earth Variations. We are deep in the Algerian Desert, an evening is setting in over the endless variations of sand dunes and rock forests and an oasis town down below teeming with people, animals, vegetations and agricultural soft robots. From my vantage point high on our dune I can see the rooftops of Paris through a giant window that has mysteriously appeared floating against the burning sunset sky.

The previous day Nazim had invited me to a jam session at his Cité des arts studio in Paris. There were musicians from Algeria, Benin, Brazil, China, Finland, France, Ghana, Germany and some others (whom I didn’t manage to meet properly). While sitting in the middle of the room and listening to this intercultural, borderless new music serendipitously emerging – what the late trumpeter Jon Hassell might have dubbed Fourth world music, “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques” – I began to hear a beautiful yet subtle male voice singing quietly during the calmer passages in the music. The voice was exactly what I’d had in mind for Earth Variations for some years now, and naturally I presumed it was just me imagining and projecting this voice onto the music once again. But then it grew louder, took on new variations – until I eventually realised it was this tall and handsome Ghanaian man, sitting serenely lotus-like, eyes closed and his mouth barely moving, who was producing the voice. I felt elated: in that global space in the middle of the room, I had not only found the missing guitarist but also the missing singer for my album.

Earth Variations will be out later this Autumn or early next year (depending on the forthcoming recordings).

Absent River

A video painting/music visualizer for Absent River, a track from the new album Interspaces:

Absent River was originally a spoken word piece for the Radio Continental Drift compilation A Radio-Bridge across the Zambezi (2018), consisting of remixes by artists and radio-makers from around the world in response to audio/radio pieces by local BaTonga women from both sides of the Zambezi river. My piece featured a story and voice by Lucia Munenge about the challenges for women to provide fresh water in Binga, a resettlement area in Zimbabwe for the BaTonga people and a result of the World Bank financed Kariba dam and lake which destroyed the original Zambezi Valley ecosystems and livelihoods.

A Radio​-​Bridge across the Zambezi on Bandcamp

Two years later I was approached by this rather interesting Finnish artist originally from Zambia, who was looking for a new kind of musical direction for her upcoming nationwide project about environmental and social issues: she had been inspired by my previous album Flash of the Spirit and especially the track Terra, and asked if I could send her a couple of more pieces in the similar spirit. Her brief was of “futuristic and uplifting electronic music with an African dimension”. Exalted and thrilled, I made her a total of 42 sketches and half-finished pieces in almost one sitting in two days, of which this version of Absent River was one. And while Lucia Munenge’s story had to go, her voice remains in the ambient texture of the track.

Unfortunately the project of this artist never came to fruition, for reasons I never learned (some venues like the National Museum of Finland had already been confirmed). She went on to release new music with this more commercial dance music producer (a suggestion from her record company perhaps? “We want more of the same”) while I relocated to Paris, my 42 sketches becoming the foundation from which the albums Sharawadji, Interspaces and Earth Variations emerged.

I hesitated retaining the original title, considering the serious reality told in the first version and the seemingly jubilant flow in the new one. But then I recalled some of the liner notes from the compilation: “After 60 years of struggle, the Valley Tonga people have a story to tell about cultural survival, creative resilience and determination for self-help and self-organisation.” The track itself is a continuation, an evolution, a ‘futurality’: the possibility that things could be different.

Interspaces is out now

My new album Interspaces is now available for streaming on all major music platforms.

The album is also available on Bandcamp where the release includes higher quality audio download and extended album artwork. In the end I decided to make two initially planned bonus tracks part of the official album since – thanks to the brilliant mastering once again by Gregor Zemljic – their inclusion felt natural, necessary and uplifting.

Interspaces – my tenth album (including two collaborations) – presents 11 tracks of largely electronic instrumentals with abstracted vocals, drawing from electronic, popular, contemporary and global musics. The initial idea has been to explore a new kind of beauty and sensitivity, spatiality and intricacy in music. The album features contributions from soprano Viktoriia Vitrenko @viktoriiavitrenko, bassist Omar Harb @omarharbmusic, and musician and Ginette player Petteri Mäkiniemi @petterimakiniemi.

Influenced by diverse ecosystems and worlds between vast empty landscapes and pulsating global metropolises, the music is furthermore inspired by the idea of globality and mundialization as well as the city of Paris where the album was produced between 2020 and 2022.”

With every release you try to reimagine the future world. And the feedback I’ve received so far regarding the new album has confirmed that music and sound, even those made by me, indeed have the capability to bring us to the world as it exists without being reduced, represented, distorted and clouded by ideologies – economic, political and religious constructs – and to show the potentiality and possibilities that the life, physical and nonphysical, continue to suggest. A complex, ambiguous, evolving, creative, more invigorating and freer state of existence: “a dawn of the world” as philosopher Deleuze described it. Or as Björk said, “this universe is truly a magnificent spectacle, and needs to be mirrored”. That’s why we have art, music and science.

—-

I would like to thank you for all your support and feedback so far, it’s been the most inspiring and catalyzing to receive and hear. I feel I’m at the beginning of a new musical discovery and adventure, and I hope many of you will continue to share this future journey with me as well.

Naturally I would also like to extend my heartfelt gratitude once again to Viktoriia, Omar and Petteri for their invaluable contribution to the album, and to Gregor Zemljic for his genius-like/zen-level mastering of the music. I’m delighted that this same group of collaborators and talent will be featuring on my next album Earth Variations as well.

With warmth and care,

Ilpo

Serene noise

Listening to the final version of the Interspaces album (before mastering) in the heat and bustle of Paris, after having finished everything in the tranquility and bloom of Finland. It strikes me that the record exists exactly between these two worlds and landscapes: there’s a refreshing heat, bustling tranquility, serene noise, horizontal and vertical variations; a certain timelessness of something with a long history; celebration, contemplation and complexity of all things life. (yet I wish I could take a dip in that still, fresh lake while enjoying the heat and sounds of the city) Can’t wait to share this record with the world X

On new albums, music industry and post-music

My new album Interspaces is now finished. Hooray! However, I decided to postpone its mastering and release until after my forthcoming “holiday” (always somehow working) in Finland: I want to listen to it against the stillness and freshness of rural Midsummer nights, with my senses quietened and reoriented from the hustle and bustle of Paris, and make any final adjustments if needed; I’ll be also finishing my other album Earth Variations while there, in the same pastoral immersion.

I’ll be working in the very same room, with the same view over fields and forests, where I made my first serious electronic compositions 28 years ago (one of those pieces almost made it onto Interspaces!). Until recently, I’d thought this would be a fitting place to finish these two albums as, for quite a while, I’d been feeling that Interspaces and Earth Variations would be my final works and then I’d quit music, move on to greener pastures like writing – and what a more poignant place to bring my adventures in music and sound to close than the one where the journey started.

Music is a strangely intoxicating and invigorating substance, however, and once you’ve discovered something through it, it’s difficult if not downright impossible to quit. Ideas, inspiration and curiosity keep flourishing, even if your work continues to be ignored by music industry and media year after year, release after release; once you’ve realised that music and music industry are actually two very different and separate things – the former is about creating possible worlds and reimagining the society; the latter is about obsessing over profits and social media hype – none of that industry fuss matters anymore and you’re able to work with greater abandon and scope. In fact, you might be onto something as critic and music historian Ted Gioia illuminates in his recent and poignant, yet solacing essay Is Old Music Killing New Music?: the real progress in music happens now outside the music industry – record companies, media, playlist algorithms etc. – because the latter is no longer interested in innovation, in discovering new sounds and nurturing new talent. “New music always arises in the least expected place.” Personally I have no problem with any of this (I listen to old music more than new stuff, yet I couldn’t make old-sounding music myself because composing for me is a way of researching and understanding the evolving world) – although it’d be great to have some kind of structural support for this emergent new sonic art happening in the margins – and perhaps we could say that music, especially Pop Music, existed happily until its demise around 2010, and now we have something new for which we haven’t found a better name and suitable function yet.

So, on my small plot of land, I recently began to get a sense of what kind of music I want to develop next (it’ll focus on words and voices, listening and performativity, new yet subtle globalities), putting my retirement from music on hold. Meanwhile, Interspaces will be out sometime in June/July while Earth Variations will be released in August/September. Have a great end of the week!

A breeze from a possible world

Paris, a few random pictures from recent walks (my Instagram account is currently “disabled for violating our terms”. What is it about colourful abstract visuals and pictures of Parisian streetscapes – all created and taken by me – that is so violating? Beats me).

Lots of walking, pondering, working on music and writing. What can one do, aside from feeling sad and angry? There’s an utterly pointless and unnecessary war and humanitarian crisis raging on the continent, innocent people and other living entities are suffering, the war criminals of the Kremlin are committing crimes against humanity yet still allowed to remain and vote as members of the UN Security Council and sit at the international negotiating tables (WTF!?). The Hitler/Putin and his other delusional warmongering cronies belong in jail, nowhere and nothing else. Period. Why is it that the dead – tyrants, historical figures, ideologies, beliefs, yesterday’s repressive practices and policies etc. – hold so much power over the living? The Kremlin currently and so obviously embodies and exudes the dead whereas Russia and Ukraine and most of the international community belong to and continue actualising the living.

Finished four new pieces for the forthcoming albums, using the vocals of the Ukrainian soprano Viktoriia Vitrenko that we’d recorded last year. Her voice is so beautiful, transcending, pure. The vocals bring new vitality and scope to my compositions, a breeze from a possible world, deeper freedom. The music may not change anything in this world, but still, we have to continue exploring and nurturing the potential of the living while we are here, for this world alive is way greater and more brilliant than any empire, conquest or ideology of the dead ever was or will be.

Warmth and care, dear world.