As Petteri Mäkiniemi and I are preparing to perform in the Pan Sonic Tribute concert at the Helsinki Music Centre next Friday 1.2, as part of the Musica nova 2019 festival, we did a brief interview for the festival about the upcoming performance. The original posts are in Finnish, recreated here in English. Topic: Petteri’s Ginette and my “afrorithmic” system. ______________
In the Tribute to Pan Sonic concert the composer, music producer and sound artist Ilpo Jauhiainen and the musician, composer and instrument maker Petteri Mäkiniemi will present a partially improvised new work in which electroacoustic composition, minimalism and experimental electronic music meet West African musical influences, in a form inspired by Pan Sonic’s abstract, subdued and uncompromising aesthetic.
The concert will be realized together with musicians from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at the Helsinki Music Centre on Fri 1 February.
Petteri, what is Ginette?
Ginette is an electronic musical instrument designed and built
by me, based on the French ondes Martenot electronic instrument developed in
1928. Ginette is played so that the right hand controls the pitch by moving a
ring along a wire, while the left hand controls the loudness of the note with a
stepless key. The design of the instrument enables expressive gestures such as
vibrato, glissando and a wide dynamic range similar to bowed string
instruments. All this happens through the fingertips of the player, not by
turning knobs. In the musical performance I’m fascinated by the naked presence
of human condition – how for example a gentle touch of the hand or an intimate
blow from the mouth is audible in the characteristic sound of an instrument.
This is also possible in electronic music. Currently I’m developing a new, more
versatile version of Ginette.
Ilpo, in your performance you intend to use elements of field recordings made in West Africa that can be set to progress autonomously during the gig with the help of generative algorithms. What does this self-evolution of algorithms mean in terms of the live performance?
Generative i.e. self-evolving and -organizing elements bring a degree of surprise and added liveliness to the performance, both for the audience and performers alike. In this scenario, a computer sort of improvises how it transforms and reproduces the source material with the rules and processes that we’ve provided, and operates thus as one of the “human” performers. Algorithms can be designed to produce almost any kind of behaviour, but we’re fascinated mostly by certain consistency where the music evolves in a slightly random, probabilistic manner while retaining a recognizable character – like a river that flows. In our performance one of the field recordings progresses and changes quite freely on its own whereas with the others the program introduces tiny variations around the gestures made by the performer.
Recently we also had our first rehearsal with the full ensemble for the concert. The ensemble consists of Jaani Helander (cello), Heikki Nikula (bass clarinet), Petteri Mäkiniemi (Ginette) and me (“afrorithmic generator”).
This was my first time of playing together with members of a philharmonic orchestra, and it felt and sounded exhilarating!
This year I’ve received some truly heart-warming feedback about my debut album Shimmer & Bloom which came out seven years ago in November 2011. It’s always a life-affirming surprise when the ripples of your old work reach you after the years, to hear that the work still resonates to this day (considering the world was pretty much quiet when that album came out). This got me reflecting on the music and ideas between that first album and my newest one, Flash of the Spirit, which was released in November 2018, in particular since I feel the newest album represent a closure of a period begun by my debut.
Shimmer & Bloom was my first “official statement” of how the pop music and the world could be. After the album was released, I guess a lot of the interested people and fans expected me to continue building on the musical direction of that album: to continue becoming more pop, better and successful. One reviewer wrote: “Shimmer & Bloom is one of those albums that will continue growing for weeks and months after the first touch. Its surface seems calm at first but beneath the ethereally thin sound layers there is a lot going on that just isn’t revealed immediately. The main thread of this ambitious debut album tends to run away at times but on the whole Shimmer & Bloom is rewarding and beautiful”. This ambitious debut album…but towards what? Many didn’t know that the album represented a closure for me, of the music I’d been exploring, sketching and producing over the previous 15 years in my bedroom studios in Iisalmi, London, Helsinki and Berlin. The album was a statement for myself, to start taking my own musical interests more seriously and put an end to the endless sketching and experimentation (1). Shimmer & Bloom wasn’t a beginner’s discovery, it was me finally releasing what I’d already found, explored thoroughly and lived with for so long. And it was time to move on.
The next destination was Africa. My interest in Africa and its music goes all the way back to my childhood, to my earliest memory of making music: at the age of six I saw a documentary about a village somewhere in Africa, and its imagery and music fascinated me so much that I felt compelled to try and recreate the music and the atmosphere of the film with the electric organ at our home. I tweaked the organ’s setting in a “wrong” way until suddenly there it was: a pulsating, minimalist bass and organ motif mirroring what I’d just seen and heard. Few years later I discovered the hypnotic, minimalist mbira music of Stella Chiweshe from Zimbabwe, followed by lively, minimalist Pygmy music from Central Africa, and when I began to dabble more seriously with music production at the age of 14, these influences sought their way into the music (2). The fact that I’d never been to Africa became a fuel of imagination for a lot of the later music that I produced in my bedroom studios in London and Berlin: I wanted to create a new kind of sonic world inspired by Jon Hassell‘s Fourth World concept, the underground techno from Detroit, Warp‘s new electronica, David Byrne and Brian Eno‘s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, dub music by African Headcharge, Fela Kuti‘s Afrobeat, and by countless of other influences. I kept reading Ocean of Sound by David Toop and More Brilliant Than The Sun by Kodwo Eshun while producing nearly a thousand of sketches, backing tracks and finished ideas. Most of them are now lost to broken and stolen technology.
This “African electronic” thread was also present in our post-punk band l’ectro Q’d in London which operated between 2001 and 2004, as well as in the ethno-electronic ‘art pop’ music that I created and performed with artist Megumi Matsubara between 2004 and 2009, as Green & Ilpo.
In the Spring 2011 I collaborated with the Nigerian-American painter Odili Donal Odita for our track Colourist, for a feature at Another Africa. The track was my reaction to Odita’s West African-influenced abstract geometric paintings, “the music I’d always wanted to see”. He was showing in the ARS 11 exhibition at Kiasma in Helsinki at the time, and in the same exhibition were two sound works by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh. Annoyed first by the sonic intrusion that Ogboh’s pieces created in the tranquillity of my solitary Helsinki walks (one of them was broadcasted outside Kiasma) and the simplicity of his presentation, I was moved by the incredible richness of his Lagos Soundscapes once I began to listen. I knew immediately that there was a whole new musical dimension embedded in these soundscapes: music that would emerge from the everyday life, be woven in the fabric of living like buying clothes at a jostling market or hustling for a medicine on a crowded bus. An ‘urban music’ created by a city itself.
Finally I got to visit Africa: first in Senegal for the Dakar Biennale in 2012, then at an art residency in Benin for three months in 2013, during which I travelled also to Burkina Faso, Togo and Nigeria (where I met and stayed with Emeka Ogboh in Lagos, among others). These travels infected me with rhythm fever, joy and colours of life. The West African funk, afrobeat, highlife and gospel that I heard at this corner bar in Ouagadougou alone, through its dusty one-speaker soundsystem, changed me forever: the sound was so raw, distorted, full of soul that I felt flashes of spirits charging through me (could’ve been also flashes of pastis, not sure). I kept having epiphanies.
I rediscovered a new joy for making music, for being here, for this multitude of colours and cultures and shared possibilities that the Earth presents.
This West African experience subsequently gave rise to the albums Arrival City, Sahara, LOS-HEL: Possible Cities (with Emeka Ogboh), Pulses / Radiance, and Flash of the Spirit.
And now I feel that with the new album a certain chapter is closing. The period from Shimmer & Bloom to Flash of the Spirit has seen me refining, exploring and discovering my musical voice, my sound, and reason for making music. I call this my “pop period” even though the music can hardly be called pop. Pulses / Radiance aside, it’s characterized by short 3-minute melodic tracks, youthful experimentation, search for my place in music, and by my desire to please audiences (3); it’s also unified by the fact that most pieces on these albums were initiated during those innocent and productive “imaginary Africa” years in London and Berlin 1999-2010, when I dreamt of becoming a pop producer akin to Brian Eno, Timbaland or Quincy Jones (etc.). With Shimmer & Bloom I set out to see if I can actually finish a whole album of the music I believed in and present it proudly to the world. This was followed by the passion to create a new kind of music that would bridge my interests of the West African musics and the Western electronic music. And I feel I’ve achieved all that – apart from becoming Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson never called, bugger). Personally I found the pop music of the future world I’d like to inhabit.
I’m done with trying to be popular, trying to play safe, trying to prove my credentials. Been there, done that. From now on I’m just making music, crafting what I feel is the most exciting thing sonically, musically and culturally. I have found my voice: pop or experimental, African or European – I really don’t care. It’s just music, it’s just me. All I know is that I want to go deeper with what I’ve found.
1 And none of this might have happened if I hadn’t met with my dear London-era friend Lee in Berlin (where she now lives), when during our breakfast at Ankerklause she said that you never become an artist unless you finish and release your work, and take the responsibility for that.
2 Not as straightforward sounds or music but more in terms of rhythm, sensitivity and overall aesthetics: repetition, patterns and complexity through simplicity.
3 This is not to dismiss the seriousness, criticality, passion and commitment that I’ve invested in every track and album – I wouldn’t have released any of these if I didn’t think there was a worthwhile idea behind each of them.
Afrorithm in the house. I’m currently preparing for this special concert with a good friend of mine (and very talented musician) Petteri Mäkiniemi, at the Helsinki Music Centre next February. The concert will be a tribute to the pioneering Finnish electronic music duo Pan Sonic, and it’ll form part of the Musica Nova Helsinki contemporary music festival 2019.
Our idea is to create a new kind of music in which the aesthetics of Arvo Pärt and Olivier Messiaen meet those of West African musics, through the minimalist and sometimes brutalist aesthetics of Pan Sonic (we are also inspired by Jon Hassell’s musical concept known as Fourth World). Petteri plays his self-built instrument Ginette, which is based on the ondes martenot (and which appears on my album Pulses / Radiance), while I play my generative system called Afrorithm (Afrobeat + algorithmic composition). We’ll be joined on stage by a cellist and a bass clarinettist from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
So far we’ve had two rehearsals. While these began as innocent jam sessions for the concert only, we soon realized that we’d created an album’s worth of beautiful, new kind of music – less polished and produced, more spontaneous, candid and human; pastoral, orchestral, African and futuristic (the word ‘evergreen’ keeps also coming to mind). After six extensively crafted studio albums it feels invigorating to arrive somewhere fresh and fully formed so effortlessly, as if we had simply channelled this music onto the tape. Our plan now is to bring this serendipitous album out into the daylight early next year, possibly around the time of the concert…
The film composer Hans Zimmer said that music is at its best when it’s about people playing together in a room. I agree with him. As a music producer you mostly release your long crafted labours of love as digital downloads and streams only, and the work then drifts in isolation in an obscure world of internet clouds and distant servers. It’s all fine as a distribution model (barring the energy consumption of those servers) but you rarely get to hear and feel how the listeners react when they listen to your music; the function and purpose of your music, if any, remains mystery. But when it’s just even two people playing together in the same room, immersed in the moment and moved by each other’s sound and playing, you remember why you love music, and why it has become such an important tool for you to explore and understand this complex world pulsing with new possibilities.
My new album Flash of the Spirit is out now. This is my sixth album, and it builds on the direction begun on my previous albums Arrival City, Sahara and LOS-HEL: Possible Cities.
The album is inspired by my travels and experiences in West Africa. It’s a reflection on a kind of liminal global space, imaginary and real, that exists in between and beyond cultures, nations, borders, ecosystems, beliefs, social constructs, identities and differences. This space is always in the state of becoming: changing, emerging and suggesting new possibilities.
Similarly, the music defies any clear categorization and well-established aesthetics, existing and moving between Minimalism, Afrobeat, Electronica, Krautrock, Gospel, Ambient and West African traditional musics – as if heard and treated through a slightly futuristic perspective. My idea has been to make an approachable yet artistically uncompromising, melodic, rhythmic, emotive record, one that can grow on repeated listening over time. I always imagine the music that I’m making belonging to a possible future world (“music holds the promise of a different world”).
The title refers to the book of the same name by Robert Farris Thompson, which I’d read during my residency in Benin. It’s also a nod to the album of the same name by Jon Hassell & Farafina. It’s also a reference to those great “flashes of the spirit” that I kept coming across on my travels.
The album is available now on my Bandcamp site, and on all the other digital music stores and streaming services from 2 November onwards.
My new album Flash of the Spirit is finally reaching completion, ready to be mastered and released soon. Only one piece is still on the cusp of becoming either funky pop electro disco (LCD Soundsystem) or funky avantgarde disco experiment (Kraftwerk), always a tough choice. The album is based on my experiences in West Africa and on the adventures and conversations with my dear friends scattered around the globe, and it incorporates my field recordings from West Africa into the music. I’m immensely happy about this album and its emotional landscape – I often ponder why I spend months in the studio joyously perfecting something that has absolutely no practical function in the world (I wish it had but it doesn’t). Am I wasting my passion, skills and dedication? Currently I think that I am since my music has no broader cultural resonance. But I can’t help it: when making music I feel like I’m participating in the whole scientific, social and cultural conversations in levels that go beyond ideologies, mindsets, borders, identities, beliefs…I feel free, inhabiting a culturally diverse, playful, socially and economically equal green world. Art becomes a tool to imagine and pull oneself towards a preferable future.
Yet this possible future keeps remaining just a ‘hope’ for most people on this planet, for totally unnecessary, outdated societal and financial designs. Why? On the planet where there are more resources – food, water, shelter, money – to cater for everybody than what’s needed, then why come there’s scarcity of everything: food, water, shelter, money?
I’m currently working also on new pieces by Emeka Ogboh for his exhibition in Paris, revisiting Lagos soundscapes and our LOS-HEL: Possible Cities, but this time from a whole different angle. It’s a refreshing departure from my album work, and Lagos has never sounded more contemporary and futuristic, thanks to Emeka’s musical vision. More info on this soon too.
Please redesign the world. All the problems in the world are utterly ridiculous, childish.
Terra is taken from my forthcoming sixth album Flash of the spirit. The single includes the B-side Fela’s Car.
The music combines my dearest musical influences from Afrobeat (Fela Kuti), Electro, Krautrock (Kraftwerk), Malian Blues, Minimalism, Soul, even Gospel. The tracks are based on my travels and field recordings in West Africa. The idea has been, as always, to create a new kind of music: timeless and geographically global, less concerned with styles or genres, experimental yet accessible and uplifting. Or as Brian Eno put it: “The idea is to produce things that are as strange and mysterious to you as the first music you ever heard.”.
The release is available on all the major download and streaming services worldwide, including:
The tracks have had a long evolution. Fela’s Car was originally made in the early 2000 when I was studying sound art in London and passionate about combining my ideas and impressions of everything African, a continent where I’d never been to, with my electronic music at the time. But because of my inexperience I didn’t know how to finish the track back then. In the following years it went through several permutations, but never seemed to find the right home…until now, as a B-side (in the future I hope to make a proper song version of it). Terra was born in 2010 when I was collaborating with an African-American painter, Odili Donald Odita, on our track for Another Africa. Inspired by his rhythmic and vivid, abstract geometric paintings, I made several variations of the initial piece, and Terra became one of them. Years later I reworked it for my album Sahara – recharged by my travels and musical experiences in West Africa by then – but it just never fit the final sequence, and I forgot it completely. In the subsequent years the stereomix of the track kept surviving my frequently breaking harddrives, and when I stumbled upon the mix last winter, I was astonished: it wasn’t just another failure of mine, it was a failure that had failed better than most, ending up somewhere truly different.
A wistful yet inspired last night in the studio before it closes for good. This studio has been my dedicated workspace for the past 3,5 years (apart from the 1,5 years I spent in Germany), and I know its sound and acoustics so well – hence the wistfulness of leaving. The space we operate in shapes greatly our being-ness / becoming-ness, and I’m curious to see how the next space will influence my output. I’ve worked on three albums here: Sahara, Pulses / Radiance, and the forthcoming Flash of the Spirit – or actually four, if one counts Egwutronica I + II, the 1-hour long composition I made for Emeka Ogboh’s installation in the Seattle Art Museum (those six months were one of the greatest adventures I’ve had in this space). Tonight finished a forthcoming single from the new album, currently titled Fela Mechanic. More info soon. X