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.

Serendipity, surrender and the return of Afrorithm

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.