An Unexpected Voice (from Ukraine)

This week I’ve been recording vocals with this Ukrainian soprano, Viktoriia Vitrenko, for the Earth Variations and Interspaces albums. We met accidentally and serendipitously two weeks ago at the Cité des arts in Paris, an encounter which I documented from word to word on an Instagram post of mine since it was the most unexpected as well as the swiftest start of a collaboration I’ve experienced so far.

“I met her in a hallway, by the door. I was returning from a break when I noticed that a woman walking ahead of me stopped by the open door of the studio I was working in and peeked inside.

‘Are you possibly looking for something?’ I asked her politely.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘There’s supposed to be a hiphop dance rehearsal somewhere here tonight.’
‘Well, I do occasionally breakdance when I’m working, but I’m sure that’s not the workshop you’re looking for,’ I said, joking only partially. ‘The hiphop rehearsals are usually over there, in Studio 5.’
‘What are you working on in here?’ Her curiosity surprised me. People here weren’t usually interested in what others were up to.
‘Oh, just on my music. You know, composing, recording, mixing…’ I fumbled.
‘What kind of music do you make?’
‘Erm, it’s electronic based but with lots of influences from different styles and from around the world…so hard to describe.’ I felt the usual ship of words sinking into the thought of an ocean of sounds.
‘That’s very interesting as I’m also a–,’ But before she could continue, we were interrupted by a pianist next door looking for a bathroom.
‘So, what do you do?’ I resumed when the pianist was on her way and we had both returned ashore.
‘I’m a singer.’
‘Oh…I’m actually looking for a singer at the moment.’ I hesitated for a second. ‘But it’s quite experimental…no lyrics or clear structures or anything like that…a sort of new ways to play with voice in music…’ I was sure that by now, in her ocean view, my ship had actually sunk. But her eyes lit up even further.
‘That’s exactly what I do!’ she exclaimed, becoming visibly excited. ‘I’m a soprano, singing mostly contemporary music, but I also work with electronics and experiment with my voice and singing a lot.’
‘Wow…that’s really interesting. Er…I don’t suppose you’d be–.’
‘Yes, I’d be happy to sing on your tracks!’

And that’s how every collaboration should start. No ego, attitude, negotiation, hesitation or hassle: simply openness, enthusiasm, resolution and curiosity to play and experiment.”

It really is astonishing to watch and listen to a world-class singer, two metres away, building layers of vocals on your tracks, elevating them instantly into something resembling a proper, serious music. She comes up with similar ideas I’d written in my notebook earlier but am yet to share with her, and then expands them much further, exactly the way I’d do it but could never have imagined. 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.

Afterwards we spend a couple of hours discussing philosophy, art, Detroit techno, Mediterranean cities, migration, and the possibilities of voice and sound as agents for social and political change. It turns out that she, like me, loves to deepen and expand her work through thinking and writing, reading and discussion. This happens so rarely with musicians – and understandably since music, at its best, evades all the words and thinking – that I want to freeze the moment for the eternity; I simply love this level and scope of commitment, curiosity, drive and professionalism. Through our conversation, I realise that my forthcoming book has begun to find its territory and form. Yet I can’t help wondering how random and unexpected, serendipitous it was that we met: in that hallway outside, by the door, just one night by chance.

Images: recent visualisations of some of the sonic atmospheres on the aforementioned albums.

Spring Makes Noise: Paris

Update from Paris after a lengthy silence (you can follow my more frequent snapshots of Paris and abstract visual “musics” on Instagram @ilpojauhiainen).

Time flies, and the noise the spring keeps making is mostly inspiring: an exhilarating mix of new music, ideas, encounters, conversations, collaborations, doubts, dead ends, openings, failures, idiot glee, love as well as writing, reading, cycling, “working it harder, making it better”.

Currently I have four to five albums’ worth of material floating around – and every one of these compositions works rather well with everything else. For a while I was playing with the idea of releasing just one album: every time you’d play it, it would choose a different set of tracks from these 40+ compositions, depending on the first couple of tracks and the time of the day. A generative and modular record, in a way. But since it’s not financially possible to finish so many tracks – unless I have a record label backing me (finding a record label that’d understand the territory I’m cultivating has become next to impossible) – I’ve decided to focus on two albums only. Naturally this has presented a new challenge: which tracks to pursue further and to include on these records when everything seems to suggest a fertile new direction.

Both albums are inspired by the sort of global multiplicity and potential that we’re living in – creolization of ideas, if you will. Where Earth Variations I moves through denser geologies with more classical, traditional and experimental musical influences, Interspaces travels through more open landscapes and vistas, drawing from electronic, popular and possible musics; the keywords connecting their desired production criteria read “soulful”, ”purposeful” and “timeless”. Paris has influenced the music enormously, as have my friend’s abstract expressionistic paintings that she’s been creating here during the past year (soon to be shown in her solo exhibition in Helsinki): their vivacity, multilayeredness, delicateness, movement, rhythm and pulse, beauty and sensuality emerging from chaos, turbulence and randomness…have resulted in a kind of evolved richness, clarity and maturity in my music that I haven’t heard before. Both albums will be out in the fall.

Paris is also rather fitting a place to be working on these albums in: it was here that I first got the idea for this kind of “global” music (for lack of a better word) when I first came here as an adolescent in 1995. I was listening to these two Malian musicians on the Pont des Arts, one playing kora, the other electric guitar and singing. I had never heard such music before, and everything about that moment felt so novel and exciting, full of future potential: the electrifying West African sounds, midnight in Paris, being in a global metropolis, meeting these people from around the world, travelling across the continent…I realised I could never be happy making “just” electronic music, it had to have this feeling and texture of the world woven into it somehow.

The question always is how far to develop these compositions though. I can easily hear some electronic parts being replaced or accompanied by real string quartets, intercultural ensembles, gospel choirs…but this would require a whole different level of financial investment. The pioneering Finnish electronic duo Pan Sonic used to always say that what they’re making is actually Jamaican dub and American rock’n’roll, but since they are just two taciturn Finns with electronic oscillators, they leave all those elements out. In a similar way, I’m always working with orchestras and gospel choirs in mind but since I can’t afford them, I leave them out in the final mix.

The theatre/dance production we worked on during the winter is currently on hold due to the pandemic; the related short film has been finished and I’ll share it once it’s being released. My “futuristc jazz” album has been postponed for the future: it simply doesn’t feel so thrilling to me at the moment, compared to the new music that has emerged here. Some of the promising musical collaborations have led to nowhere. My bicycle broke down (now fixed). And Paris…Paris continues to be love, a home in this galaxy of ours.

Paris – a multiplicity

A long postcard from Paris. Time just whizzes by.

The summer has finally turned into an autumn – the first time I felt my fingers freezing while cycling home late at night. Where did all that heat and endless blue sky go? Into working haphazardly on everything, meeting new people, cycling around Paris, going out, experiencing the city, settling down, pondering, searching for the meaning and motivation to continue making music: releasing albums digitally to muted response just won’t do anymore, I’m honestly done if that’s all there is for the function of music-making!

The end of the summer has fortunately coincided with the start of new conversations and collaborations. Paris, like any location, is an assemblage of different multiplicities, each multiplicity presenting a universe of ideas, encounters, possibilities. As the autumn leaves are preparing to fall, I’ve found myself on a plane connecting one such multiplicity to few others, entering exciting new becomings – meaningful and refreshing expressions of life, creativity and culture, if you will.

One such becoming is with this Swiss choreographer, dancer and director. Finally a long-term project that allows me to collaborate with other talents across the arts and other areas of the society for the next few years (why doesn’t this happen more often, especially since I’ve been more than ready for the past 20 years?). The details of our project may be discreet for now; the reason I bring this up is because it is our long conversations and shared experiences of Parisian culture that finally brought to an end my months-long impasse of trying to find the purpose for music-making. We don’t exist in isolation nor is the digital any answer: we need each other, real feedback and different talents to make the projects and worlds we care about happen. Behind every success story there are dozens of people with different skills working toward the same goal. My work has existed more or less in isolation (and digital ambiguity) up until now – not because I’ve wanted but because I haven’t encountered any like-minded scenes (and sceniuses) so far. I don’t really care about the popularity of my music per se: as long as I feel thrilled and passionate about what I’ve created, that’s all that matters; it’s the greater cultural and societal function of my creativity and dedication that bothers/matters to me.

And with this Swiss artist my long-term musical and societal interests have aligned with hers. Creating and imagining music for her project feels like serving a greater societal and cultural purpose than releasing albums into some digital amnesia that the internet represents.

Alongside this, Paris has presented some of the most fascinating live concerts I’ve experienced so far: between cultures, in a fourth world, between experimentation and tradition, like possible musics of the future (for one, check out the Palestinian composer Kamilya Jubran and her Terra Incognita project – and if you can’t find it, book her trio for your next festival/event 🙂 ). And I’m excited to say that I’ll be collaborating with some of these artists for my forthcoming albums Sharawadji and Earth Variations. I’ve been working joyously with a kind of “idiot glee” (as the painter Peter Schmidt put it) in my studio for the past week and have to concede once again: there’s so much potential and beauty in everything – so much incredible material – yet only less than 0.1% of that ever gets released. I guess the life wouldn’t have it otherwise.

Below some random snapshots from this transitional period. Paris is love, a home in this galaxy of ours.