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“Everyone was afraid, not only the musicians”

The underground music veteran Mihály Víg looks back on Hungary’s Soviet-era scene.
Image: Balaton’s Károly Hunyadi (left) and Mihály Víg in Budapest, 1980s. Photograph by János Vetö

Outside of his native Hungary, Mihály Víg is best known as a soundtrack composer. His work is closely associated with the dark and brooding films of Béla Tarr. Movies like Damnation (1988), Sátántangó (1994) and The Turin Horse (2011) are shot in black and white and employ daringly long takes. When combined with Víg’s haunting minimal scores, these stylistic choices conspire to depict ordinary human hardships as poetic and mystical.

But at home, Víg is also a celebrated rock musician. He’s been an active participant in Budapest’s underground scene since the 1980s – when Hungary was still in the throes of communism – playing in bands like Trabant and Európa Kiadó, as well as forming his own decades-long project Balaton.

Born in 1957, he was exposed to classical and experimental music from a young age. His father Rudolf was an ethnomusicologist who researched Romani folk songs and would always play records in the house, while an uncle, who defected to the West, sent home albums from abroad. Stockhausen, Stravinsky and Zoltán Kodály were early influences. “I came into contact with their work through Bartók Rádió,” Mihály tells me over Skype. “It was the main source in Hungary for ‘serious’ modern music.” Víg’s initiation into pop and rock came when an older brother played Mihály “House Of The Rising Sun” by The Animals, firing up the young boy’s imagination by telling him it was a cowboy song.

Mihály played the violin and piano as a child, but his musical education really began when his parents went on a research trip to India and left him behind at a boarding school, where he learned to play guitar. Eventually, Víg dropped out of school and left home at 16. “It was chaotic at home,” he remembers. “But my new friends were also chaotic. They were drinking, sniffing glue and taking pills. We are talking about 1972–73. Some of them were musicians, some were not.” Víg stayed with various friends who, for one reason or another, had auspicious living arrangements: absent or bohemian parents who turned a blind eye to wayward teenagers crashing at their apartments.

“I was living in a place where there was a drum kit and a huge record collection. My friends and I tried to jam together, but we never formed a band.” One of these friends was a bassist who played with legendary guitarist Béla Radics, an influential figure in the evolution of Hungarian rock. “We listened to a lot of music,” Víg continues. “Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Radio Free Europe had a weekly show broadcasting contemporary music, but there were other stations that played music from across the world.” There was a decent jazz scene too. Bands like Kex, Syrius and Interbrass straddled the line between progressive rock and jazz, releasing few records in the 1970s, but performing regularly in small clubs.

In order to play live, musicians had to acquire a licence. The ensemble would have to learn a vast repertoire of songs and audition them in front of a schlager committee. If approved, the band would be permitted to perform. “You got a certification that said if you’re playing in a bar they must pay you a certain amount of money. It wasn’t much. By the time I started performing, it wasn’t so important to have a licence as a musician.”

Following a stint in a psychiatric hospital – a successful gamble to avoid military conscription – and work as an amateur actor at the Csili Cultural Centre, Víg committed himself to music. He formed Balaton with Károly Hunyadi in 1979, christening the band after the popular holiday resort of Lake Balaton, as well as the various eponymous confectionery items that wished to associate themselves with careless fun. “Károly learned guitar as a soldier and was friends with László Najmányi [film maker and co-founder of the seminal Hungarian punk band Spions],” says Víg. “We moved in together and started writing songs, learning from each other. We would show each other one chord, then another. [For lyrics] I would say one word, then Károly would add another. That’s how we put it together.”

The start of Hungary’s new wave scene is considered to be Balaton’s gig in the courtyard of the Gyula Kulich Psychiatric Clinic in September 1980, a bill they shared with the short-lived punk rock outfit URH. Bands sprung up everywhere, seemingly overnight, helping each other by lending equipment and exchanging connections. Balaton was one of 15 groups sharing members, gear and stages. “Budapest is a big city,” Mihály explains. “But the community of people who played underground music was really small, about 150 people. Everyone knew each other.”

Wasn’t it dangerous to play rock so openly during this time? “It was a general feeling that you can be arrested for something you may or may not have done. It was part of everyday life,” he replies. “Everyone was afraid, not only the musicians.” The experimental film maker Gábor Bódy, a central figure in the Hungarian underground, who often imparted creative advice to colleagues and friends, paid for this paranoia with his life. He collaborated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, effectively spying on those very same colleagues. He was later excluded from the network, but the secret police continued to intimidate him. Bódy died under mysterious circumstances in 1985. His role as an informant echoes the duplicitous intentions of Irimiás, Víg’s lead character in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó.

The young communist leaders who booked the bands were trying to dismantle the system from the inside. They took risks by giving rock a platform. The Wire’s Chris Bohn, then writing for the NME, visited Hungary in 1980 and was one of the first Western journalists to report on the country’s burgeoning underground. Bohn saw Balaton perform an acoustic show at a party, noting that Víg is “a compulsive performer as capable of commanding attention as [Sham 69’s] Jimmy Pursey”. In his piece, Mihály bemoans the difficulties inherited from bands like Spions whose iconoclastic performances perforated the public’s perception of the new wave, making it difficult for bands like Balaton, who were more poetic than wild, to reach wider audiences.

One project that did reach a large audience was Trabant. Formed in 1980, the band named themselves after the East German car symbolic of the economic stagnation within the Eastern Bloc. The group featured several members, but centred around its co-founders Gábor Lukin, János Vető and Marietta Méhes. After spending a year in the US, Lukin returned to Hungary and immersed himself in the music scene. He met Víg following a Balaton concert and their collaboration began as soon as Lukin learned that his associate had a tape recorder and an organ at home. “Gábor visited me with Marietta,” Víg recalls. “Immediately we recorded two songs. This is how it started. We would write together, rehearse the song and record it. It was like homework. For the next rehearsal every member tried to bring a new song.”

Trabant rehearsal in Budapest, 1980s: (from left) Marietta Méhes, Gábor Lukin, Mihály Víg. Photograph by János Vetö

Trabant subsumed Balaton from that moment. While Víg and Lukin wrote the music, the visual artist János Vető focused on the lyrics, which Méhes delivered in a detached, impassive style reminiscent of Nico. Some of these domestic recording sessions were captured on video by Zoltán Gazsi, who later worked as Béla Tarr’s assistant director. In the footage, which is now available on YouTube (brought together for a major film project on Víg) Trabant come across as a focused outfit with a repertoire of gentle but enigmatic songs. On “Harang”, Lukin, who is left-handed, plays a choppy rhythm upside down on a right-handed guitar, while Víg’s lead melody anchors the song in a hopeless melancholy.

For around two years, Trabant didn’t play live at all, but eventually branched out into performing in university towns. The band’s peak came in 1984 with the film Eszkimó Asszony Fázik (Eskimo Woman Is Cold), in which Méhes played the lead role. Trabant wrote the soundtrack and featured prominently on screen with an expanded line-up. Rehearsals for the music took place in a rented house over the course of three weeks. The songs were recorded on set and released as a 7″ EP to promote the film.

This was one of the first instances that an underground band broke through to the mainstream in communist Hungary. How was this possible? “At that time there was only one state record label, MHV (Hungarian Record Company), but this album was released by the film studio, which was much more progressive,” he replies. “There was no way the state record label would release music like this. It was pressed in 3000 copies and sold out in three days, but never repressed.”

Eszkimó Asszony Fázik was written and directed by János Xantus, who was married to Marietta Mehes at the time and a frequent visitor to the band’s rehearsals. The plot revolves around a love triangle between a pianist who falls in love with Méhes’s character Mari, and her deaf-mute husband. “I was wondering why Xantus wrote a script like this,” says Víg. “So many people saw this film. It was a big part of why Marietta emigrated from Hungary. There were erotic parts in the movie. It was difficult to walk on the street after its release. Everyone knew who she was. Everyone saw her in the film.”

What are Víg’s memories of Méhes? “I liked her a lot. She was clever and every man was in love with her; a femme fatale. She was a really good singer. A really straight and honest person.” In 1985, Gábor Lukin emigrated to the United States in secret. Mihály was the only person he informed about his intention, telling him two days prior to departure. Méhes emigrated six months later, also defecting to the US, making her departure during a film shoot in Italy. With that Trabant effectively came to an end, although the group did perform a string of reunion concerts, in 2011, when Marietta returned to Hungary for a brief time.

After Trabant, Víg reformed Balaton, this time adopting members of the celebrated band Európa Kiadó (Péter Magyar, János Másik and József Dénes aka Dönci). In return, Víg played guitar with Európa Kiadó and the two projects toured together. Their split live album Európa Kiadó És Balaton – A Zichy Kastélyban documents a concert from 1986. It was recorded by the Fluxus artist György Galántai aka Artpool, but remained unreleased until 1998, when it was issued by the experimental label Bahia.

The late 1980s was a difficult period for Víg, who by this time had a large family of his own. Balaton disbanded in 1987 and, although he began working on soundtracks for Béla Tarr, he took on work as a park ranger to make ends meet. Tamás Pajor, frontman of the influential post-punk outfit Neurotic, invited Mihály and his wife Micánka to join the Faith Church, an evangelical Christian denomination. At first, Víg found the community attractive, before becoming suspicious of its leader Sandor Nemeth and disillusioned with the cult’s requirement for adherents to break from their past. Mihály left after only a few months, but Micánka remained. The Church harassed her for staying married to Víg and this psychological pressure eventually led to her untimely death. Víg considers falling in with these people to be the biggest mistake of his life. “It’s not good to become a fanatic. When it comes to God, you are alone with Him; it’s really personal. It’s not about the sect or the many people coming together, being fanatical about something.”

Balaton re-emerged in the early 90s with a new line-up, just as Bahia began issuing the band’s archival recordings. The first album 1985.04.27. captures Balaton’s energised set at Budapest’s Ráday Klub. The follow-up II, which combined domestic recordings made at Gábor Lukin’s apartment with a gig from 1987, documents the band’s more experimental side. Later in the decade, Bahia also commissioned Víg to produce Cigánydalok (Gypsy Songs), an album that’s inspired by his father’s ethnographic work and centres as its key motif Romani choral songs of desperation. Balaton continue to this day, playing regularly in Budapest. Víg also performs solo acoustic sets while reciting poems by the likes of Endre Ady and Sándor Petőfi.

In 2022, Víg became the subject of András Kécza’s lengthy documentary feature Ott Torony Volt (There Was A Tower), which began life as a survey of the 1980s underground scene and evolved into a portrait of the musician. In the film’s opening minutes, Víg reflects that music promised to be a path to progress, which is why it became the medium of choice for so many.

With this in mind, I ask how life in Hungary now compares to life then. “Hungary had a lot of financial debt. The government didn’t have much power and already knew better than the general public that it was all coming to an end. There was the possibility that you’d wake up in a prison cell, but the situation now is similar – you’re not sure what will happen if you don’t agree with what’s going on.”

Subscribers to The Wire can read an interview about Mihály Víg’s film collaborations with Bela Tarr in The Wire 470. Tarr’s Sátántangó will be screened with musical accompaniment on 31 March and 1 April at Silent Green, Berlin. Mihály Víg’s solo album Koncert A Kis Lumenben 2017 is released by PrePost Records. András Kécza’s Ott Torony Volt is released via Gallivant Film

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, March 2023

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Sympathy for the Devil

Mihály Víg — The Hungarian composer, actor and musician recalls his 40 year relationship with director Béla Tarr in advance of an epic screening. Photography by Balázs Fromm.

Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) is glacial cinema. The seven-hour epic is shot in the Hungarian director’s signature monochrome and based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel of the same name. Long tracking shots follow a cast of characters who live on a derelict collective farm in the bleak, dystopian countryside. While relentless rains ensure the villagers’ isolation from the rest of society, the people of the commune attempt to rob, screw and drink themselves out of their decaying misery. 

The film is rich in detail and the music, composed by Tarr’s frequent collaborator Mihály Víg, plays a central role. Extended passages of near-silence, diegetic sound and sparse dialogue are punctuated by Víg’s compositions, which act as characters in their own right. The opening scene, for example, in which a herd of cows vacates the barn and disappears into the fields — a single take occupying nearly eight minutes of running time — is soundtracked by low drones and pealing bells. This pessimistic leitmotif reappears at strategic points throughout the movie. 

Víg also plays the lead role of Irimiás, the messianic pied piper at the heart of the story. Irimiás commandeers the villagers to their eventual demise, his charisma and eloquence leveraging their fearful naïveté. Over video call, I ask Víg why Béla Tarr cast him as the lead. “It’s so it isn’t obvious from the beginning that Irimiás is a dictator,” Víg explains, referring to his own natural charm. “So that it’s easier to believe everything the dictator says is true. You need a character who you can believe in.” 

The same events, particularly in the first half of the feature, are shown from different characters’ perspectives. The repetitive nature of this device, along with the episodic chapters that dissect the plot, echo the steps of the tango. The dance metaphor takes on a literal form about halfway through. Paralysed by Irimiás’s imminent arrival, the members of the commune congregate at the pub. The music coaxing them into their inebriated dance with the devil is an absurdly long and repetitive accordion number that rattles around in your mind for days afterwards.

Sátántangó took four years to produce, because filming could only take place in the spring or autumn. The trees had to be bare and the earth sodden with rainwater. Scenes set outside were shot during the twilight hours when shadows weren’t present. There was no script, just Krasznahorkai’s novel and Tarr’s vision. Another reason for casting Víg — as Tarr admitted in an online interview — was because he needed someone who could understand the necessity for such a schedule and join the project not only physically, but mentally and spiritually, too.

In the 1980s, Víg was a prominent figure of Budapest’s underground scene, playing in the bands Trabant and Balaton. Hungary was still under communist rule at this time, although in some ways the country was more relaxed than the rest of the Soviet bloc. Tarr and Víg met through a mutual friend, Zoltán Gazsi, who would years later serve as an assistant director on Sátántangó. Tarr ran a film club where you could watch movies unavailable to the general public such as the works of Fritz Lang or David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1965). “There was a video camera and members of the club could rent it for free,” Víg remembers. “Zoltán used this camera to record my concerts. He gave a tape to Béla and brought me to his apartment. Over champagne Béla asked if I would write music for him.”

Sátántangó was not the first project that Tarr and Víg collaborated on. Before it came two features: Autumn Almanac (1984) and Damnation (1988). The former is a rare colour outing for Tarr. Set in a communal apartment, the film explores manipulation and claustrophobia. The score is based around half a dozen melancholic pieces, which are sometimes mixed under the dialogue to resemble a neighbour practising their piano next door: a reminder of the external world we never get to see. Damnation, which chronicles the doomed affair between a barfly and a cabaret singer, saw both artists arrive at their preferred workflow. For Tarr it was long takes, a textural black & white palette and a screenplay written with László Krasznahorkai. For Víg it was finding the right sonic atmosphere — before shooting commenced — which helped to steer Tarr’s vision. 

How does Víg approach soundtrack composition? “I read the script,” he says. “Then I try to forget everything. I stay calm and silent, waiting until something comes to mind. That’s all. It works.” It’s rare that Víg will find the music immediately, but ultimately it’s about tapping into the emotional centre of the story. He tends to write about four times more material than what ends up being used. For Autumn Almanac, the film was already done, but for Damnation and all subsequent works the music was scored first. Does he have a preference for working one way over the other? “It’s the same when you have a poem and you write music to it. Sometimes you have music and you find the lyrics. It can work both ways.”

Sátántangó is considered by many to be one of the most important works in cinema history. In recent years, it was remastered to 4K from the original 35mm negatives by Arbelos. Due to its length Sátántangó is seldom screened, but the cultural platform Digital In Berlin is set to screen the restored version for two dates this spring in an unusual setting. Several composers have been invited to contribute to a new live soundtrack, next to Víg’s score, the plan being to perform them live in the concrete hall of a former crematorium in Berlin’s silent green venue. There will be no intermissions, but the audience will be encouraged to move freely around the space. The point is to experience the film with new levels of intensity. Víg will be present for both screenings. “I understood what it was all about,” he says. “And I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen.” 

Sátántangó Live will be screened on 31 March and 1 April at Silent Green, Berlin. Mihály Víg’s Music From The Film Sátántangó is released by Arbelos.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, March 2023

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The Ephemeron Loop

Cafe Oto, London, UK

The venue is plunged into darkness. A sonic assault ensues. The processed drums strike the ear with an industrial regularity. The sound is heavy and repetitive like endless rows of pumpjacks nodding in an oil field. Coloured spotlights frame Vymethoxy Redspiders (Miss VR) aka The Ephemeron Loop in a halo of blue. She plays guitar, stationed behind a midi controller, which is connected to a laptop nearing its teenage years. In a moment of respite, Miss VR takes to the microphone. Channelling Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, her vocals envelop the room like a velvet mist. This moment of vulnerability is propped up with hazy guitar effects that evoke the secret majesty of a sleeping city. Until, that is, we are overcome by further bursts of speedcore and screaming. 

Miss VR is a prolific musician who performs under different pseudonyms and lends her talents to a multitude of projects, each of which looks at the art of noise making from alternative perspectives. She is perhaps best known for being one half of the Leeds duo Guttersnipe whose off-kilter brand of noise rock takes the audience on visceral excursions. Her solo project Petronn Sphene, meanwhile, is a relentless barrage of gabba beats and disintegrating electronics. The Ephemeron Loop combines the two extremes of guitar-based songwriting and high tempo dance music to form a new palette of richly layered psychedelic nuances.  

Last year’s debut Psychonautic Escapism took Vymethoxy Redspiders fourteen years to complete. The album is composed of fragmented sessions – reprocessed and woven into new arrangements by Miss VR and producer Ross Halden – and draws its influence from shoegaze, rave and the Leeds queer underground scene. As the album title suggests, psychedelic drugs also factor in the mix, catalysing the artist’s self-realisation and forging her identity as a neurodivergent trans woman. 

The record translates well onto the stage. The disparate stylistic elements of hardcore rhythms, guitar freakouts and sublime instrumental passages stack up on top of each other like multicoloured building blocks. Although the resulting structure may look unconventional, it is stable and fit for purpose. Close your eyes and the sweeping gusts, metallic scrapes and glitches take you to the centre of a derelict shopping mall at the moment of demolition. Open your eyes and witness the audience in abandon, fists furiously pumping in time to the frantic beats. Miss VR is acutely aware of the music’s summoning power. Her body movements and facial expressions mimic electricity. It’s what you might see in a strobe light snapshot at a club: the searing white flash arresting a stranger’s gestures and imprinting them in your mind. 

The gig concludes with a rumbling bass resembling a soft explosion. When undertaking a psychedelic journey it’s worthwhile surrendering yourself to the active ingredient. That’s the key to having a transformative experience. Vymethoxy Redspiders surrenders to the sound, drawing from it a nurturing energy, in spite of the music’s dark overtones. She invites us to follow her – like Eurydice into the underworld – down endless back rooms lit with flickering fluorescent bulbs, past people with fluid features and cruel intentions. It’s a disorientating trip, but when you finally reach the exit, you find that the sun has come up, you’ve shed your skin and left your former self behind. Just remember not to look back. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, March 2023

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Anton Ponomarev’s Language of the Avant Garde

P​/​O Massacre recorded their second album Aural Corrosion in Moscow last February, just as Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. Neither member of the expansive noise duo, which consists of saxophonist Anton Ponomarev and guitarist Anton Obrazeena, is new to exploring extremes; it’s difficult to imagine the horrors of war not finding their way into the music. 

“Anti-War Music” is split across two sides of an LP, unraveling with a foreboding cascade of metallic sweeps, butchered guitar strings, and rapid kicks. The Japanese noise legend Merzbow guests on the track, contributing a cyclone of brutal electric pulses that evoke the disorientating horrors of warfare without ever eclipsing the sonic field. “Chanting The Resonances Of Atrocity”—also split across two sides—features Swiss composer ​​Alex Buess. His frenetic beats encircle Ponomarev’s mournful saxophone and Obrazeena’s repeating guitar motif, imbuing the composition with an adrenaline-soaked panic.

Neither Ponomarev nor Obrazeena now live in Russia, but bearing in mind that dissent can land you in prison there, I ask Ponomarev if, for him, noise is a form thereof. “First of all it’s an outburst of emotion,” he explains from his home in Zürich. “It is an expression of protest, but it also brings you pleasure to make and listen to strange sounds that someone else might find torturous. It’s a search for a new language.”

Ponomarev’s interest in novel forms of communication developed from his love of metal. Bands like Sepultura, Pantera, and Slayer instilled in him an appreciation of extreme sound. It wasn’t until he became interested in jazz—in particular, the work of John Zorn—that Ponomarev decided to play. “I didn’t think too long about which instrument to choose,” he says. “The alto saxophone was in first place.” Picking up the instrument in his 20s, Ponomarev was self-taught initially and then attended the Moscow College of Improvised Music. It was diving into the Russian underground music scene, however, that propelled him onto his current trajectory. 

In 2008, Ponomarev joined Brom, a group of revolving personnel led by the bassist Dmitry Lapshin. Brom is an aggressive vehicle that mixes elements of hardcore, jazz and improvised music. Their eponymous debut—if you discount a couple of prior self-released titles—came out in 2011 on Long Arms Records, a label founded by late stalwarts of the Russian avant-garde Sergey Kuryokhin and Nick Dmitriev. In the dozen or so years that Ponomarev played with the group, Brom recorded a wealth of material and toured across Russia and Europe. The band’s most recent two albums, Sunstroke (2018) and Dance With An Idiot (2020), were released by the Peter Brötzmann-affiliated Austrian label Trost Records.

Parallel to his work with Brom, Ponomarev was very active in the improv scene, playing with the likes of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the Norwegian free jazz bassist, or guesting on Obrazeena’s unforgiving noise rock project JARS. “It was a positive time,” Ponomarev recalls. “With every year that passed, there were more and more interesting musicians or bands; we were organizing concerts and festivals. Despite the music not being at all commercial, the scene was thriving.” He goes on to say that the war has decimated the Russian underground; many musicians have left the country.

During this time, Ponomarev also formed the group Teufelskeller—German for “devil’s cellar”—with bass player Konstantin Korolev and drummer Andrey Kim. Their debut self-titled album, released late last year on WV Sorcerer, is infused with a heavy, restless energy that is drawn from the band’s improvised performances and metal influences. “We spent a whole day in the studio, from morning to night, just us in a room,” Ponomarev says. “Everything was recorded live. There was about two hours of material, from which we chose six tracks. Four of those ended up on the album.” 

Although Teufelskeller are performing in Stuttgart in May, the future of the band is uncertain. An injury forced Kim to leave the project (Maxime Hänsenberger is stepping in for the upcoming show) and for Korolev, who still lives in Russia, travelling to and from the country is problematic. 
Ponomarev remains prolific, however. He has other projects in the pipeline, such as a duet with Chinese guitarist Li Xing. Last year, he toured with Riot Days, an award-winning theater production based on Maria Alyokhina’s memoir detailing her time with Pussy Riot. The tour was in support of Ukraine, and raised funds for Ohmatdyt children’s hospital in Kyiv. “It was one continuous tour that lasted for months,” he says. “A crazy amount of concerts. It was a great experience and done for a very important cause.”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Bandcamp Daily, February 2023

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Kings Place, London, UK

Themes of metamorphosis abound in NikNak’s immersive performance. The concert begins with a meditation that resets the mood of the room. Many in the audience feel inclined to sit or lie on the floor. Piano loops and birdsong are embellished by a winter treescape projection, while a female voice, lifted from YouTube, encourages us to “find compassion for the self.” Before long, the guiding voice distorts and discordant sounds enter the fray. Calm is replaced by trepidation. Down the rabbit hole we go. 

Nicole Raymond aka NikNak is a turntablist and Oram Awards winner who activates her instrument through storytelling. Sankofa, her 2022 album that tonight is performed in full, is a deeply conceptual ambient record. While the title references the Akan word for retrieval, the album itself is inspired by comic book narratives and evokes the story of a black woman (Storm) discovering her superpowers. Sankofa also symbolises the quest for knowledge through critical examination and the album’s track titles echo this theme by hinting at the protagonist’s character development.

The sounds themselves largely consist of a varied library of field recordings and found sounds. These are often collected by Raymond on journeys and the way she treats the source material during the performance mirrors its transient origins. Using a Serato setup allows Raymond to mix her digital library without compromising the tactile advantages of vinyl. Samples are looped or scratched and sent through a series of delays, filter sweeps and reverbs, while synthetic chord sequences construct unstable fortifications around them. The venue’s complex speaker arrangement means that certain frequencies pan around the room, disorientating the ear. Every now and again a deep bass drop arrests the air and reminds our bodies of their physical limitations. 

The projections, which are edited in real time by the Bristol based artist Loëpa, not only provide a focal point, but also illustrate what we hear: polygonal kaleidoscopic patterns, melting organisms, light tunnels, and Rorschach-like distortions. The colours shift from warm sunburst hues to dark subaquatic greens and back again. I am reminded of Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi album artwork as well as the light vortex scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Loëpa later explains that they are indeed influenced by 60s and 70s psychedelia, manipulating footage to “create the comic world, but have it be sensory and about the living things around us”.

The voices of the afrofuturist authors Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison also appear in the set. They discuss how popular science feeds the joy of speculating and that writing fantasy counters the boredom of everyday life. Much like her podcast series The Narrative, Raymond wants to increase exposure of content made by other black women, trans and non-binary creatives and this is why Butler and Morrison are present. However, the way Raymond alters their speech on the decks, from intelligible to incomprehensible, makes me wonder if their inclusion is meant to highlight censorship or the silencing of black authorship. “I love how you picked all of that up,” she tells me after the show. “It’s mainly just the texture. It’s very improvised a lot of the time. Sometimes I haven’t listened back to [the recording] at all and I’m just there, in the performance space, with these sounds responding to them live. The next time I perform it will be different. That’s the beauty of it.” 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, February 2023

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Wilbury Radio

The Storeroom, Letchworth Garden City, UK
Photo: Karma Please by Dugald Muir.

Founded in 1903 by the English urban planner Ebenezer Howard, Letchworth Garden City was the world’s first purpose-built alternative to the overcrowded and polluted conditions of industrialised cities. The utopian project aimed to reconnect people with nature by combining the best aspects of the city (jobs, housing, amenities) with country life. Letchworth became a model suburb, but its size and proximity to London meant that the town was culturally sidelined.

Wilbury Radio is a one-day festival designed to redress the balance by bringing experimental music to the town. The inaugural event is co-organised by the local netlabel Wilbury Tapeworm (run by Tony Venezia), Russell Walker of the Barlow Index gig series and curator Kristian Day’s Playing Fields initiative. Eight acts perform in a modest room adjacent to a local brewery. The space holds around thirty people, but it’s the perfect size for what the festival’s curators call their “pilot project”. 

Jakub Rokita’s cmykscum opens proceedings with interconnected samplers and a small modular rig. Field recordings of sheep and rustling leaves are looped and morphed into crashing waves of reverb that evoke subaquatic imagery. An ambient laptop set by Anna Peaker subconsciously mirrors the marine theme, answering cmykscum’s sense of impending catastrophe by layering gentle drones on top of each other to resemble a chorus of distant foghorns.

Karma Please employs an impressive combination of near-obsolete tech with innovative software. An old Akai sampler that utilises floppy disks and self-made cassette loops emit drones fit for a cathedral. A granular synthesis app deconstructs the source sounds into decadent overtones, the stoic reveries of which are occasionally shattered by the clunking 4-track tape machine.

The drones are not limited to electronics alone. 3 Versions of Judas, a sludgy noise rock trio who formed specifically for the event, strives for obliteration. Featuring Venezia on bass, the band’s half hour set sees guitarists Xavier Marco del Pont and Hallvard Haug circling around a descending bass riff. The sound is embryonic but has apocalyptic potential. The duo Telepathic Visions, meanwhile, employs a more subtle approach. Verity Birt and Tom Sewell use loop stations and a web of effects to turn familiar instruments (guitar, recorder, keyboard, voice) into a beatific wall of sound. 

The final three acts conspire to subvert indie tropes. Tom Hirst aka Design A Wave delivers deadpan lyrics over short backing tracks. The music, played from Hirst’s phone, is reminiscent of James Ferraro’s instrumentals. It’s an entertaining set, floating somewhere between stand up comedy and karaoke. The Bomber Jackets, a trio consisting of Sian Dorrer, Dan Bolger and festival co-organiser Russell Walker, perform reticent synth pop that combines alienated vocals with ironically optimistic melodies. Closing the night is The Leaf Library, a drone pop collective. Kate Gibson’s vocal delivery and the band’s dynamics nod a little towards Stereolab, but there are plenty of other subtleties, such as Daniel Fordham’s infectious saxophone blasts, that keep the sound evolving. 

Before returning back home to London, I ask Kristian Day why Wilbury Radio chose Letchworth for its first ‘transmission’. “Hertfordshire doesn’t have a big city where scenes like this naturally gestate,” he explains. “What you do find though are interesting artists working alone. They develop in isolation like marsupials. It’s all about strength in numbers and collaborating in order to share ideas and amplify our reach.”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, January 2023

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Cyborg Soloists

Cafe Oto, London, UK
Photo by Sisi Burn

Zubin Kanga’s Steel on Bone begins with the composer attacking the venue’s piano strings with a pair of metallic rods. The percussive sounds are sampled in real time and manipulated by the composer’s movements. With the help of multi-sensor MiMU gloves, Kanga warps the samples, sending them through a series of time bending effects. Moving in and out of the piano, Zubin looks as though he is physically extracting soundwaves from the instrument and threading them through the air. Inspired by medical documentaries, as well as the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Steel on Bone posits abrasive violence against the notions of delicacy that you may normally associate with the piano. 

The performances tonight have all been commissioned by Cyborg Soloists, Kanga’s technology-focused research initiative, and most of the pieces are performed by him. These projects utilise artificial intelligence and motion sensors to explore music’s relationship with innovative technologies.

For Nina Whiteman’s cybird cybird, Zubin lifts his arms in exaggerated wing-like movements. Using Movesense sensors, he creates a series of electronic chirps, which are then mirrored on the piano keys. AI-generated images of bird hybrids are projected on the wall, while a robotic voice offers motivational advice. Whiteman’s piece imagines cyborg avians to be ubiquitous in our chaotic environment and is partially inspired by a satirical conspiracy theory proposing that birds aren’t real. 

Nwando Ebizie’s I Will Fix Myself (Just Circles) is dominated by mechanised voices – underscored by Kanga’s piano and a Moog emitting theremin-like tones – that read passages from various sources. Principal among them is Blake Lemoine’s conversations with LaMDA (a Google AI that Lemoine helped build and considered sentient). Phrases like “I do not have the ability to feel sad for the deaths of others” suggest that this monologue imitates sentience, but is detached from the nuances that make us human.

The UK premiere of Neil Luck’s 40-minute work Whatever Weighs You Down begins and ends with Zubin dragging a microphone across the floor. Large TV monitors flank the stage showing the composer-performer James Oldham, tied by a rope to another protagonist, tugging his way through a dilapidated labyrinth. As the men break through to a chapel-like space, a female voice lists phrases synonymous with overcoming. Luck told me that he sees their journey as a “Sisyphean struggle upwards, or a kind of reverse katabasis” layered with failure and resistance.

Musically, there are three movements. The first suggests descent, with the pianist’s melodies complemented by electronic sounds that move down the frequency range. The second is about communication or, as Luck put it “implied understanding”. Black and white projections of the deaf choreographer Chisato Minamimura appear, showing her hands mid-sign, glitching like electronic doves, while Kanga’s MiMU gloves echo their movements. Composed for left hand piano, the third movement is reflective. Minamimura appears upside down, like a half-forgotten fragment from a falling dream, while a series of incomplete sentences flash up onscreen. 

Luck talks about the material for Whatever Weighs You Down “as sedimentary layers of rock”. In fact all of tonight’s compositions are conceptually loaded. Some of the contextual information is only hinted at, incomplete. Watching the performances leaves you with the impression that you are the AI, trying to compute an endless stream of data and taking days to piece together what it all means. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2022

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Interstellar Funk & Loradeniz – Never Been

Never Been is the first collaborative release by Loradeniz and Interstellar Funk, who produced the EP at a Volkshotel artist residency in Amsterdam, in 2021. The record examines the interplay of synthetic melodies and Loradeniz’s vocals, which are underpinned by meticulously crafted rhythms. Steeped in melancholy, many of the tracks on Never Been evoke the essence of departure, complex emotions and fading memories.

‘Freefall’ – which has already been played by DJs last summer – opens with a solid bassline and crystalline melodies. An urgent kick and racing hi-hats intensify the composition, while the dominant topline brings to mind a rapturous dance at twilight. An allegory of communication, ‘Hidden Tongue’ has Loradeniz pronouncing splintered vowels, like a malfunctioning public service recording, over a reverberated snare, deep kick and repeating glockenspiel figure.

‘Fly Me In’ begins with an arpeggiated melody, before slowly combining multiple electric accents and delicate vocals with spoken word passages exploring notions of escape. The heroic overtones of ‘Situational Lullaby’ develop subtly with layers of synths reminiscent of mid-90s soundtracks, while ‘Lurking Orange’ closes the release with its listless refrain and snake-like percussion.

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On Screen: Artūras Barysas

Image: Rimgaudas Karvelis in Akivaizdu, bet neįtikėtina, 1982

Restored short films 1972-82
Artūras Barysas (Director)
Art-Film / LRT Mediateka 2022

Artūras Barysas was a filmmaker and vocalist who, along with his group Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu, had a profound influence on the Lithuanian underground. Known to friends as Baras, he co-founded the band with guitarist Artūras Šlipavičius in 1987. Their early post punk recordings are a maelstrom of anarchic energy that resonated with Lithuanians living under the Soviet regime in the late 1980s. As a frontman, Barysas was magnetic, modelling himself after singers like Captain Beefheart. He continued performing with the band on and off until his death in 2005.

As a film director, Barysas was most prolific in the 1970s and early 80s. Being a member of the Lithuanian Amateur Filmmakers Union gave him access to equipment and relative freedom from communist censorship. Despite his myopia, Baras created dozens of shorts and almost always cast himself in a leading role, employing others to operate the camera.

Films like Anekdotas apie metrą (Anecdote About The Meter, 1976), in which Baras orders a metre’s worth of coffee, or Esė (Essay, 1981), which shows a young couple indulging in western contraband, have a prankster-like quality evocative of Fluxus happenings and softly critique the absurd rigidity of Soviet society. Other films such as Romas, Renata, Rimas (1977) and Taina (1974) are more lyrical, but maintain an aura of subversive irony.

Baras often shot with natural light and had his actors improvise, adding a sense of realism to the scenes. Akivaizdu, bet neįtikėtina (Obvious, But Unbelievable, 1982) is shot in a cafeteria – complete with bemused onlookers – and shows two men from different social circles dining at the same table. This homogeneous setting acts as a backdrop for their mutual prejudices. Those men, Barysas suggests, are no different from the utilitarian uniformity of the Soviet system that both feeds and confines them. 

Barysas is sometimes compared to the Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas, but Mekas documented everyday life in a diaristic fashion. Barysas, inspired though he was by quotidian experiences, constructed works of narrative fiction. One exception is Mes (We, 1980). It depicts WWII veterans taking part in a Victory Day parade. The restored footage is accompanied by a series of descending drones. Šarūnas Nakas’s eerie music shifts the emotional resonance into one of foreboding, negating the film’s original ‘patriotic’ soundtrack. Stylistically, Mes doesn’t deviate far from other propaganda documentaries from this time. The ambiguity around its message allowed Mes to be interpreted as ironic by Barysas’s contemporaries and sincere by the amateur filmmakers union.

In his personal life, Barysas was sometimes a contentious figure. He was plagued by years of alcoholism and abusive to his partner and their son. Barysas’s volatile nature is apparent in some of his films, too. Intelektuali Popiete (Intellectual Afternoon, 1982) sees Baras attend a zoo and taunt the animals. Du kart du (2×2, 1972) is a tale of classroom rebellion that descends into adolescent misogyny. A misbehaving student, tasked by his female teacher to solve a basic maths problem, fantasises about abducting and cooking her. In Sniegas (The Snow, 1978) Baras’s character attacks his female companion in an argument. The film closes with a distressed toddler struggling to make its way through deep snow. A metaphor for life’s unrelenting challenges, perhaps, but was it necessary to exploit a crying child to make this point?

Although Baras’s films were screened during his lifetime – at festivals or underground events – they were never distributed widely. Some have been lost, while others are beyond repair. Fifteen surviving 16mm prints have been digitised and published online by the Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT. The original soundtracks were often collaged from Baras’s own record collection, which made licensing improbable. 

The project’s producers, Robertas Kundrotas and Dovydas Bluvšteinas, commissioned twelve contemporary Lithuanian composers to create music for the films, culminating in the Baras LP (Zona Records, 2022). The all-male cast includes established practitioners like Gintas K and Oorchach who navigate industrial beats and black ambiences, while others like Arturas Bumšteinas and Haruspic (Artūras Šlipavičius’s duo with saxophonist Vytautas Labutis) take a lighter approach that is perhaps closer aligned to Barysas’s original vision. 

Tas saldus žodis… (That Sweet Word…, 1977) shows Barysas scaling a gate in a vain bid for freedom. This one-minute short encapsulates the late director’s struggle to survive amid hostile restrictions imposed by an occupying regime. Despite his problematic personal life, Baras was a genuine auteur. His films deserve wider recognition as they offer alternative vignettes into Lithuanian life during the Soviet era and, being dialogue free, easily transcend linguistic barriers.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, Nov 2022

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Field Of Dreams: Listening After Nature By Mark Peter Wright

In a new book published by Bloomsbury, sound artist Mark Peter Wright unpacks the knotty politics of field recording. Images of Tellenes Wind Farm, Norway courtesy of the author.

Where is the field in field recording? Does it begin when the recordist enters the location, when they press record, or when we press play? If the field exists in the playback medium, to what extent does the signal-to-noise ratio affect its manifestation? What is really being captured and what are we not hearing? How does power function in all of this? How is agency performed and negotiated? In his new book, Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice, Mark Peter Wright writes “Field” with a capital letter to “stress the fabricated nature of its making”.

Wright is an artist and researcher whose practice intersects sound arts, ecology and experimental pedagogy. He is a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research Into Sound Arts Practice) and lectures at the University of the Arts London. Wright taught several modules that explored field recording on the MA Sound Arts course at UAL when I was a student there. Sound studies can sometimes come across as a dry subject, but I found Wright’s sessions, as well as his outlook on field recording, to be very engaging. Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice is Wright’s first monograph on this specialist subject and the material is drawn from years of artistic practice, teaching, writing, and research.

Early on in the text, Wright notes that field recording began as an anthropological discipline and its history is problematically tied to colonialism, racism, and exploitation. He cites indigenous and postcolonial scholarship, suggesting that the idea of a neutral recordist or neutral recording has never been tenable. This is because, Wright argues, there is no division between nature and culture; human intervention has always encroached on the wilderness. The author also acknowledges that systemic racism, white privilege and social inequalities have played a part in constructing our institutions and cultural practices.

Carl Stumpf, a German psychologist and pioneer of ethnomusicology – a practice that developed in response to the shortcomings of text-based observations – is one example of imbalanced power dynamics. Stumpf amassed a collection of recordings of musical cultures from Japan, India, and Cameroon, but made these audio documents in Berlin. Many of Stumpf’s recordings were actually of diasporic communities who performed their traditional rites as a form of entertainment for the Western voyeur. This phenomenon of the human zoo, also known as ethnological show business, grew out of hierarchical divisions enacted by Darwinism, which was a colonialist project that attempted to categorise the Other.

Wright points out that exploitation also extends to the animal kingdom. In 1889, an eight-year old Ludwig Koch – a pioneering wildlife sound recordist – made the first known recording of birdsong. Committed to a wax cylinder, the work documents the song of a common shama bird that was “displaced from Southeast Asia, relocated, and recorded within a cage in Germany”. This story brings to mind Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s touring installation From Here to Ear (1999) in which a flock of zebra finches live among amplified electric guitars, activating the instruments when landing on or interacting with the strings. It’s unlikely that the birds have given their consent to participate and their captive performance, as well as the broader genre of wildlife recording, “resonates ethnomusicological histories in which asymmetrical power relations underscore the recorded encounter”.

Another key theme running throughout Listening After Nature is humankind’s geological impact on the planet. The Anthropocene is exemplified not only in greenhouse emissions responsible for climate change and the proliferation of microplastics in the environment, but also in our flippant attitude to the catastrophic potential of nuclear power, as well as the mining of minerals essential for the creation and maintenance of electronic devices. The fact that these devices – microphones and recorders among them – are intimately tethered to the postcolonial economic structures that surround the extraction of their constituent parts is not lost on the author.

The third chapter deals with the “sites and sounds of anthropogenic entanglement”, factoring in works such as Peter Cusack’s binaural walk through the oilfields in Bibi Heybat, Azerbaijan (Sounds From Dangerous Places, 2012). Cusack’s approach is described as sonic journalism. This technique advocates for factual and emotional content to be interlinked with relevant metadata sourced from the site in question. It insists that “nonhuman environments and phenomena should not be captured for their compositional merit but rather their affective and informatic qualities”. Elsewhere, Wright recalls listening to Andrea Polli’s Sonic Antarctica (2009), an album of field recordings, interviews, and data sonifications that capture scientists working at an extreme frontier. The scientific instruments and other industrial interventions come into friction with the ‘natural’ sounds inherent to an ecosystem undergoing rapid climatic change.

Wright isn’t interested in defining the genre of field recording, but he does spotlight what field recordists actually do, i.e. their documentary practice. Wright’s notion of the “Noisy-Nonself” is used to conceptualise the authorial presence of a recording. The author’s presence can be audible, as in the case of feedback and handling noise – sounds that were traditionally seen as undesirable – or inaudible, such as the silent field recordist “not wanting to disturb a fragile ecosystem” who, through their self-imposed dissolution, becomes “a form of white noise that we have learned to ignore”. There are artists who challenge these tropes and Wright mentions Hildegard Westerkamp’s ‘Kits Beach Soundwalk’ (1989) as an example. Westerkamp annotates her recording of the Vancouver shoreline, taking the listener through her process and editing decisions. By focusing the microphone onto the crackles of barnacles rather than the “acoustic detritus” of the city, Westerkamp engages us in the restorative potential of nature recording.

Although it is debatable exactly how restorative sound recordings can be in the context of a dying world, Listening After Nature does suggest that a more responsible approach is overdue if we wish to retain a field of any description. The book is a fine attempt at reassembling the existing cultural frameworks embedded in the niche but loaded genre of field recording.

Listening After Nature: Field Recording, Ecology, Critical Practice is published by Bloomsbury Academic

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Quietus, September 2022