Marja Ahti’s Vegetal Negatives is one of the most intriguing records of the year. Inspired in part by René Daumal’s metaphysical essay On pataphotograms, the album finds Ahti shedding her Tsembla moniker and creating music in a brand new manner. The Finnish artist discusses her newest album, her work with the Himera work group, and more below.
Tone Glow: You've released music as Tsembla for many years. What prompted you to start making music under your own name? Was this something that required a lot of deliberation or did it just happen naturally?
Marja Ahti: There was a big shift in my relation to sound a few years back, leading up to a feeling of starting all over, learning new things and a new way of listening. While working on my previous album throughout 2015-2016, I was growing increasingly disconnected from my methods and focus. I had been working a lot with samples over the years from what started to feel like a forced angle—looking for bits that would suit a musical format centered on rhythm, squeezing interesting sounds onto a metrical grid. I wanted to find a way to make music that would let me breathe while working on it, and to regain a personal connection to the sounds I surrounded myself with. By this time, me and my partner had started to carry around a pocket recording device, zooming in on sounds in our domestic surroundings. This simple act of connection and documentation was one of the things that made an impact on me. Something else that informed my work the past few years was being invited to work in residency at EMS in Stockholm. I was there for about four weeks scattered over almost a year, enough to learn how to work with modular synthesis and the Buchla. I initially approached it with equal interest and skepticism—like what can I do with this that doesn't sound too much like synthesizer music? But it's a wonderful instrument that can be played in so many ways.
Letting go of metrical rhythm and tonality as the main organizing framework and replacing it with an organic, associative, almost literary way of putting sounds together, made everything much more interesting to me. I haven't studied music, but I have a degree in comparative literature, so I guess this approach was making sense as a way to reconcile these interests. I like this double position of juggling between treating sounds as signifiers and as sounding material, between the beauty of sounds in themselves and the collective associations they may carry. I enjoy putting really obvious sounds, like water or traffic, into a context that allows you to simultaneously doubt them and enjoy the simple beauty of their familiarity. Taking what surrounds us daily with an equal dose of pleasure and doubt.
Where did you take the field recordings that appear on Vegetal Negatives? And what sort of "signifiers" did you feel some of them had that led you to utilizing them?
The act of recording is of course quite personal and intimate in the way you choose to record a certain situation, and charge that recording with your own memory of the place and whatever emotions happened to come with it. You can't expect these to carry over to the listener, but they might have a say in what you decide to make of them. But there is of course other kinds of information that might translate. Deeply recognizable sounds like water or traffic could be used to set a scene. Sounds that are more opaque but still bear resemblance to something recognizable, carrying other kinds of signals, are the most interesting to work with–something vaguely wet, dry, airy, metallic, still, animate, crunchy, rolling, etc. Composing is much like organizing associations, like words, into a poem, while keeping an ear on what works musically. The material characteristics of the sound in itself might trigger the imagination in the direction of another sound with the same kind of energy or similar spectral pattern. Annea Lockwood made beautiful use of this idea in her "Tiger Balm" tape piece, in which a purring cat morphs into a pulse, then into a mouth harp, breathing, an airplane motor etc. She was choosing sounds that she thought might trigger atavistic communal memories and in particular sounds representing the sensual or erotic. So you can read that piece as a narrative on the level of the materiality of sound, or on the level of meaning as a ritual play. It's brilliant and inspiring.
Most of my field recordings were captured at Turku botanical gardens, during a road trip in Alaska last spring, on the Greek island Skyros the year before, in Unnaryd in the south of Sweden, and at home with its surroundings. There is a recording on the track "Rooftop Gardens" from the Sheraton hotel in Anchorage, entering from the street, moving through the lobby and up to the top floor with an old rattling elevator. This upward movement sets a narrative in motion, entering a fictive garden with all its greenhouse technology sounding. It finally ends in a sense of elevating or evaporating into a dense cloud of puffing sound.
Your album Vegetal Negatives was inspired by a text from René Daumal called On pataphotograms. What about it inspired you, and how did it inform how you created the album?
I think Daumal's work appeals to people because he combines tricksterish play and games with a sense of dead serious metaphysical quest. This kind of serious play is an attitude that I also appreciate in music. But the reason I wanted to work with this particular excerpt was the way it coincides with strains of contemporary ecological theory and posthumanist thought, destabilizing categories to point towards an understanding of forms and phenomena as interdependent, shapeshifting, vague, and weblike. Daumal's text had this simple and a bit disgusting image of an animal or human turned inside out into a plant. I somehow found that more interesting to work with than a sexy theory quote. Contemporary posthumanist aesthetics in music can at times come across as glossy and generic and I wanted to avoid reference in that direction. What happens on the album is a lot of riffing on the theme of the text in terms of form, sound material and transitions between sounds.
Can you give an example of something from the text that directly informed how you approached a specific track on the album?
Well, it's not mainly in the details, more in the overall spirit of it, the in-between-ness of life, the shifting of forms—blending seemingly incompatible sounds into new entities. The inversion motif is the most directly translatable idea, pairing and dissolving opposites. The text has an odd mix of mysticism and science, metaphor and taxonomy. Balancing looseness and precision could be a way to meet this style in sound.
The track titles on Vegetal Negatives are evocative and, in the case of "Coastal Inversion," clearly seem to riff on the ideas that Daumal wrote about. Did you decide on the titles after you had recorded the music, or did you have specific ideas of what you wanted your pieces to sound like before constructing them?
The overall idea was there in the beginning, but otherwise the development of the music all happened intuitively bit by bit. I usually just start working and then little by little realize where it's all heading as I get acquainted with the sounds. I think Luc Ferrari once said of recording that you need to have a strong concept, then forget about it, which I think is a good recipe. The sounds themselves are what's generating the structure and having too much of a predetermined idea of what I want the music to sound like would sabotage the process. But at some point I know what a piece is all about and then I take it from there. The titles were the last decisions made.
What was your intent with naming the final track on the album "Chora"? What specific things about the instrumentation led you to choosing that title?
The voice you hear on the track was made in the Chora of Skyros. Chora (which translates to "the town") is often the name of the main town on Greek islands, not uncommonly situated high up on a hill. Climbing the streets up above the Skyros Chora, there's the medieval monastery of Agios Georgios. I was standing in the hall, a woman was praying in the room next door, and I couldn't resist eavesdropping with the recorder. The situation was interrupted abruptly as her phone rang and she got up to answer. There was something beautifully prosaic to that interruption with the shrill ring tone contrasting the intimacy of the moment, but it didn't really fit the piece, so I ended up not using that part. The other sounds and instruments in the piece are loosely associated to notions of the sacred and the intimate (organ-like sounds, breath-like sounds) but the origin of these sounds are of more profane and domestic origins. There's a kind of inversion here too—the piece starts with something that sounds like an organ, but really isn't, and ends with a reed organ that doesn't sound very much like one. If you dive into the meaning of the title, Chora/Khora could also refer to the territory just outside of the ancient city. Plato used it as a term for a space of neither being or non-being. An otherness, something in between forms. Quite a convenient coincidence, isn't it?
You have an album coming out soon with your partner Niko-Matti. What's the significance of the title Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear? and what was the process like in making the album?
I think you'll have to do the maths when you hear the album. It's romantic of course, in case you're also into Burt Bacharach, but maybe something else too. We worked on the album for a long time, collaging recordings from travels and home with electronic work I brought back from EMS and Worm. Niko-Matti likes to gather, mix, and edit slowly and meticulously and I like to spit out new sounds and sketches, which is a good combination, but it goes as much the other way around too and we are both involved in all parts of it.
You and a few musicians, including Niko-Matti, have run the Himera group since 2012. You've organized concerts, workshops, and lectures. What has been the most rewarding part of running Himera?
We live in Turku on the Finnish West Coast. It's a small city, so if you want to hear inspiring music in a live context you have to make it happen yourself. The most rewarding part of it is, unsurprisingly, doing things with your friends and through that meeting new friends. In particular, the festival has always, despite of all the hard work involved, been a great communal event each year. Me and Niko-Matti run the work group together with our friends Topias Tiheäsalo and Niko Karlsson, but there are often many other people helping out with different tasks, like driving, cooking, setting up the PA or whatever needs to be done. We don't have a space of our own but collaborate with local galleries, art spaces, bars, and museums.
What's a specific, memorable collaboration that you've had as a result of running Himera? Is there anything that particularly inspired your approach to music as a result of such collaborations?
We did a residency with Himera in the south of Sweden last fall. It was organized by Jason Dungan, an American artist based in Copenhagen, and he invited us to stay at his family's summer house in the countryside for a week together with two very nice musicians from Norway, Jenny and Guoste. That was actually the first time that all of us could spend a longer time together under the same roof, work on our different things, but also just hang out, cook, pick mushrooms, and whatever else. I did some recordings there that I used on Vegetal Negatives and some that I'm working on now for my next album.