Tone Glow 083: Lucia Nimcová & Sholto Dobie
An interview with Lucía Nimcová & Sholto Dobie + our Writers Panel on Jana Rush's 'Dark Humor', Dan Gilmore's 'Dutched at Swan Cleaners', and 7FO's 'Ran-Bouten'
Lucia Nimcová & Sholto Dobie
Lucia Nimcová is a Slovak multimedia visual artist who descends from the small Rusyn minority based in the East Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine, Poland, and her home country. Growing up, she wasn’t allowed to speak the Rusyn language. This prohibition began a lifelong fascination with the forbidden, one she’s documented through dozens of photography and film projects over the past 20 years. In 2014, she began traveling to the Ukrainian side of the Carpathians with the sound artist Sholto Dobie. They went with the vague goal of creating a Ruthyn folk opera by documenting khroniky, the story-songs Nimcová had heard her parents and grandparents sing growing up—and more specifically potka (vagina songs), a raunchy subgenre containing coded language with which women could communicate secretly in the presence of men. Three summers of patient work yielded a film and an album, 2016’s Bajka (fable) and 2021’s DILO (work), respectively. She’s since returned to the area with wildlife recordist David Petráš to gather material for the sound installation DOLE (destiny), which premiered this past November at KIOSK 2021 in Žilina, Slovakia.
Last summer, Raphael Helfand spoke to Nimcová and Dobie (who joined for the second half of the conversation) to discuss their collaborative work. The landscape of Nimcová’s life has changed dramatically since that interview. Wars currently rage in her beloved Ukraine and her current nation of residence, Ethiopia. In a recent email, she had this to say about her current situation:
I am finalising sound installation from Addis Ababa and working on Dole at the same time, as world is getting crazy and I try to find connection between my experiences of civil war in Ethiopia and last 8 years in Ukraine...
as one of my friends said to me:
How is y’r life doing. It must be really difficult, that wherever direction you turn away from, or to, turns into a battlefield.
The sound installation, which opened April 1st at the Nová Synagóga in Žilina, includes recordings of construction sites in Addis Ababa, as well as monologues, prayers, and songs from DOLE.
Lucia Nimcová: There is always some work that you don’t manage to finish, so I actually came back to a few villages close to the river which I didn't have a chance to visit in 2015 and 2016. I wanted to go back because people don’t live close to the roads in those areas. They are really in the mountains and you need more time to climb there and find them. I was surprised: Many of the people I recorded last time had already become pretty famous, regionally. So I moved more into the mountains to find more outsiders—random, normal, ordinary women. I improved my vocabulary to describe what I’m searching for, which is songs about female destinies, female lives. I explained very clearly that I’m not interested in singers. I’m just interested in normal women who can share their stories. Sometimes they would be performed as poems, not as songs, but even the poems are almost like songs, they’re so beautiful.
I’m obsessed with the language and the dialects. When I discover a new dialect, I’m eager to learn it through listening. But because these people are self-sufficient—they really have to work from morning to evening—I had to be lucky to find a moment or help them work to be able to get an hour or two hours of their time. Usually, it would be only on the first try, so you really have to be present and sometimes navigate in a sensitive way to get to a vagina song, to get them to share something which you know they know but they won’t share with a stranger. You are always trying to improve your strategies, how to communicate that vagina songs would be really appreciated.
Have you ever tried saying that right out of the gate?
No, no, no. It takes time. And sometimes even then, you don’t reach that point. It really has to be a special moment. And it’s interesting that if you sing or share a song about vaginas, for example, it would have a special term in every village. The general word for it is potka, but in some villages it would be called soromijski, or pluhavniI, or mokry. They all have special names to call those filthy songs.
Are you filming again this time or just recording sound?
This time I’m with the Slovak sound artist David Petráš, who is an expert in wildlife recording. He’s spent hours with birds and wild animals, and I found that he was the right person. We’re all animals, you know, and the people we’re trying to record are really in connection with nature and the environment around them, and this time I wanted those aspects to be even more and more present. So, for example, one old lady had 16 dogs, and she would sing very softly on the gate of her house. But in one moment all 16 dogs started to bark and there was a thunderstorm behind. I really wanted all this environment to be part of the song, and David Petráš managed to record all of it. So DOLE—which means “destiny”—is 50/50 environment and songs. That was just the beginning; we only had two months, so I might be going back.
How was the process different this time from the recording of Bajka and DILO?
The way I worked with the people changed a little bit. For example, I would be visiting one 90-year-old lady, and she’s singing a song about the droomba [jaw harp]:
We buy this instrument, even if I will be without the clothes and without the shoes I would buy this instrument and still have a nice song around me. I will be playing this instrument below my nose and I will keep happy.
I know that this lady lived through all the wars and gulags—so many things—but she's so full of life at 90 years old. She still works every day. So David says, “Maybe we can buy her this instrument at the market and come back to her just to see what will happen.” But it takes time: You have to go to the market, which takes three days, and then you have to come back. You have to be lucky that the river that passes by isn’t flooding (there was heavy rain the last week we were there). But we came back with the instrument, and the lady took it and played for two hours. Then she had her two sisters come—they were all living in one area, all of them around 90, all of them either single mothers or unmarried, very special women. They also wanted to play the instrument, so they had a lot of arguments about who’s gonna play, how somebody else is playing and why it could be better. So I recorded all these discussions and all of this jam session. I would love to go back with another instrument and just hear all those three sisters playing. I would build a tent in their garden and live with them for one week. I would observe songs and discussions, and possibly record some of the improvisations of the sisters, playing what they remember and what they discussed with this instrument, which is a very simple instrument of poor people.
From what I could find online, you’ve been documenting Rusyn women through photography and film for about 20 years. How old were you when you started doing that, and what made you decide to dedicate your career to exploring your roots?
It’s just a simple thing. You are growing up as a girl in some strange society which, during the ’90s, is changing from communism to something else. Nobody really knows what it’s going to be like or what it means. You feel wildly free—all of my generation [did]—but, of course, you very quickly realize it’s not going to be so easy and there will be plenty of disappointments. There were plenty of great things during communism which disappeared during capitalism. So I just kept documenting all those transformations because, as a girl, I was expected to behave in a certain way and I couldn’t fit normality (laughs).
I’ve done many works about this transformation in society: studying old communist archives, documenting all the competitions happening around me. I traveled in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, slept in a car and went to different public events where females were present, trying to analyze what was happening, how women behave, how they “should” behave, and why. I was obsessed with being on the road, sometimes spending three days at some public event and only taking one picture in the end. You are observing something organized by power. You see all the officials and you see all the normal people trying to fit in. I was just looking and listening, and then taking a few pictures for myself, making a statement. It’s pretty silent work, taking a picture. But I’m from this small [Rusyn] minority and we were not allowed to speak our language. And more and more, I was obsessed with language. No one was doing what I felt was important: to capture the experiences of really old women who are super smart, super funny, and really special. And I felt I couldn’t say it by image; I really had to use the sound. I had to record the language, and I had to understand the language. It took me years to understand all the codes in the language, and all the jokes.
That’s why I invited Sholto to help me work with sound. Sometimes, if you are doing a project which is so close to your heart, you need someone else from a different context to help you, to give you feedback from a completely different space or experience. This work was so personal that I needed someone to help me with the judgment, to say “You can’t do anything in this house anymore, we have to move on.” You always have limited time, and once I start to listen, there is no ending sometimes. For Sholto it was different because he really is a sound artist, so he judges differently. So we came to the country and started from scratch. We really didn’t know anything, and some places and people we got suggestions for were total nightmares. We understood very quickly that the places and people which were offered to us were not the places and people we were searching for. It takes a long time to find the right areas. We knew we were going to the Carpathian Mountains, but we didn’t know which region and why. We had quite a huge area we started to work on.
But now—when I came back the last two months—I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m going to ask for, and I can ask by dialect. That’s a huge difference. It took four years of work before I could have results more quickly and more precisely. It was a very hard job for us, and for Sholto especially, to go anywhere where people would invite us in and somehow learn something from that experience. We would go for coffee in the morning in a local shop and discuss what we’d seen, what we’d experienced—and somehow analyze it. It takes improvisation from the beginning ’til the end, which is fantastic. But then you also have a moment when you are extremely tired and you keep working, and then you see it’s not going to help. You need another person just to say, “I think we are too tired” and to be able to recognize what we should do, how we should do it. We went through many situations where our friends would say “You cannot go there” or “You cannot leave your car there” or “You cannot go in those mountains” and we would go (laughter). It was good to have Sholto then because he grew up on a farm in Scotland, and he really has a great sense of navigation in a forest. He never got lost; he always found the car. I would never be able to do that on my own.
I can’t even find my car in a parking lot! Can you tell me more about how you two met? Were you familiar with his work before you decided to bring him on for this project?
I have a son who was born deaf—he’s 10 years old now—and when I used to live in Brussels, I would go to London every two weeks for speech therapy with him to give him a chance to learn to speak and listen. That’s another part of my obsession and why I switched from vision to sound, because I had to do this process with my child. It was also one of the reasons I started to listen more, and completely differently, having that child who is learning to listen.
I had a friend from my hometown who went to the Slade School of Fine Art, which is very close to Kings Cross, where I did speech therapy with my son. Sholto was studying with her, so I met him for coffee and said, “I have this idea to make a folk opera in Ukraine.” It's such a crazy thing that if I describe it to anyone, they look at me like I’m crazy—because before I took all the videos, I’d never done anything with sound. And folk opera is strange; you don’t have 1,000 people waiting in a row to help you. But I talked to my friend and she told me, “I know someone who would be interested.” She called Sholto and he came in 10 minutes because he was close by in the school, and we talked for maybe 20 minutes because then I had to run to reach the train back to Brussels. And from those 20 minutes of talking when I described to him what I wanted to do—that I had no idea how to do it, but I really wanted to do it—he said, “Yes, I understand. I think that’s really perfect and I want to do it.” Maybe it was more than 20 minutes, but I was there with a small child running around. It may have been an hour, but if you are running behind a three year old the whole time, you only have 20 minutes you can really focus. We exchanged a couple of emails and then Sholto got a travel grant from the school which helped him buy the equipment we needed. And then we met in Slovakia and hit the road. We spent three summers and two winters working on the project.
So that all started in 2014?
Yes. I remember there was a revolution in Maidan. I had traveled in Ukraine already in 2006 for a half-year, sleeping in my car. But then I got a stipend to study in Amsterdam, so I went back. You learn some things, some life experiences, and then life brings you somewhere else, another part of the world where you know no one. Now I’m in Addis Ababa, but that’s another thing (laughs). Ukraine, especially the Carpathian Mountains, is like coming back to our roots, to our basics of life. I always recharge my battery and start from zero again when I’m there. It’s hard to describe, but it’s almost like a survival instinct. When I’m losing my path, I just go back and continue where I left. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2006 or 2016, because the people I’m trying to find live in a timeless reality.
You become addicted. You want to go back because it changes you as a human. But it takes time to find those people. When we were searching in the beginning, I tried to visit all the weddings in a village or other events where you can talk to many people. I needed to go through all these layers just to make clear what I was searching for. Sholto worked really hard to learn Ukrainian, but Ukrainian doesn’t really help in those regions because they all speak dialect.
Did you remember any of the dialect from your childhood, or did you have to completely relearn it too?
I’m from the same minority and I’d done some work before on the Slovak side of the mountains and the Polish side, and even the Ukrainian side, but not specifically in that region. So when we went to those specific mountains, it took me a while to understand. In the beginning, I listened to many songs more as a sound and tried to keep a dialogue with the people and explain what I’m searching for. I didn't really understand [the dialect] while recording in 2014 or 2015. But after listening to all the songs plenty of times, I suddenly started to understand. Now, when I go back, I understand much more. I always can tell when a new dialect is coming on the scene. But still, the songs are so smart that everything means plenty of things. It depends on how the song is performed. They often combine three or four or five songs, but now I know some of them, so I know when a song is famous. But if someone sings it in a special way, it can have a completely different meaning.
At face value, the songs are very raunchy. I was taken aback hearing older women sing about, for instance, lying on a stove and burning their vaginas or kneeing a guy in the dick and breaking it… all that stuff. It’s mentioned in DILO’s bio that these songs often contain coded messages which women use to communicate with each other in public, in front of men, without upsetting them or raising any alarms.
I experienced a few sessions when I felt like the women singing to each other were almost a family constellation. You find the song to sing about a certain pain a woman is going through and you try to help her, to build a situation where she would either start to cry or communicate with another song. Something special is happening at that moment. You can really feel the healing power of the songs. It’s not only for fun; it helps you to survive. Some of these women, because they grew up during the second war, didn’t have a chance to go to school, so they’re illiterate. They cannot write or read, so they share knowledge through those songs very often. But then they have to remember it because they cannot write it down. I was trying to find women who don’t write the lyrics down, who sing from the heart.
Do you feel the songs lose authenticity when they are written down?
I was recording many of these songs for the first time. Maybe there are some folklorists who have already written them down, but very often I experienced that even if they took the old lady to perform in Kyiv, they would give her a special dress from the 18th century, and they would tell her what to sing and how to sing it. You bring people to cultural houses; you give them a special microphone in front of their mouth. The situation is not natural for them, and that influences the performance itself. So the only thing I want to do is give them a space to be who they are in their natural environment. I very often don’t have time to set up my equipment because they start to perform right away. Sometimes she feels like she’s been waiting there for 90 years to share it, but nobody came. Some of them are healers as well. One old lady was telling me, “I can heal snake bites, but I cannot heal other things. People are coming to me and they tell me, ‘Pray in front of my child!,’ but I don’t know how to do it.” It’s funny: People are coming with their own projections and their own imaginations of what a certain person can do, and they don’t take the time to wait for what this person actually wants to share.
Was singing a part of this woman’s healing process, or was it something she did just for herself?
She felt exhausted when I came. She started her monologue: “Please, I cannot do this, I cannot do that.” And I was just like, “Don’t worry, I don’t want anything of it! I just want to spend some time with you. What are your favorite songs? What are some songs about female destiny you heard from your grandma or from your mom that somehow describe how you feel?” We talked about her life, and then if I saw that she was describing certain moments that felt very important or traumatic to her, I would ask, “Are there any songs connected to this situation?” If you sing about a certain traumatic thing so many times, it’s not trauma anymore. It’s more like an experience or knowledge you are sharing with your audience because you’re not keeping it inside anymore.
You have to create those moments when she feels comfortable to remember those songs. Sometimes I would have to come back three or four times. She would say, “There is a song about those 300 German soldiers who died in the mountains because there was a huge snow when they were trying to run away, but I can’t remember now.” So I would just say, “Okay, I come in four days and maybe you remember. If not, it’s OK.” Sometimes I would come back and she wouldn’t feel well, so she wouldn’t sing it. But that’s the process of learning about a person.
I watched a short self-profile video you made where you talk about how influenced you were as a child by fiction, and how literature still informs the art you make. For this project, though, you mentioned the Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich as an inspiration. Did you think of Bajka and DILO as investigations?
Svetlana Alexievish collects oral stories about different events and edits them into books. But when I read her books, I’m always missing the voices. I wanted to hear the sound of the voices, not only read them. She’s a huge inspiration for me, but I still have this obsession that if anyone would have a chance to hear her books, it would be more powerful.
The lines between fact and fiction are blurred, both in your film and on this album, in a way that feels very intentional. It’s even apparent in the names of both the projects—“bajka” meaning “fable” or “tall tale” and “dilo” translating to “work,” but more importantly being the name of a major Ukrainian newspaper that was shut down in 1939 when the Germans invaded. It’s interesting because Bajka, with its stable-camera, single-shot takes feels much more like a straightforward documentary than DILO, where the manipulation of sound through space and time is much more evident. I’m wondering if you think one of them is truer to life than the other.
You know, it’s kind of interesting because DOLE, which I’ve done now in Ukraine in two months, was already performed as a kind of listening experience, but I also sang one song and there was one object, and it was more like a space where you enter and listen. You’re surrounded by sound. When you can go to the same place and start to understand the language differently, you learn certain things more deeply, and you change as a person, too. You always try to find a different form. DOLE is destiny; it’s magical realism. Bajka was still based on visual language, so with DILO, I just felt that maybe visuals are too exotic for certain audiences or for certain contexts, and I wanted to switch it off. And now, for DOLE, I wanted to go even more deeply into sound. That’s why I took with me a wildlife recordist: he’s really obsessed with every little sound. Ah, Sholto’s here!
Hey, Sholto! How’s it going? We’ve talked a lot about Lucia’s career and the making of the album from her perspective, but I’d love to hear your side. Knowing some of your past work, I’m wondering what made you so excited to work on DILO with her. From what she told me, you said you were in after discussing it for less than half an hour.
Sholto Dobie: (laughs) Yeah! I’ve been interested in traditional music all my life, and there was something about this [project] that hit just at the right time for me. I was finishing art school, and I was drawing together a lot of my interests in traditional music as well as experimental and avant-garde music, and this opportunity to work with Lucia just completely fit with all that. I had a small personal connection to the area where Lucia is from through a mutual friend of ours, and I’d gone two or three summers in a row to that area of Eastern Slovakia, so that also pushed me in that direction.
I guess this is a good time to talk about the actual physical recording of the album. What gear did you use?
Sholto Dobie: It was basically the recorder that’s on the front cover of the album—which is a TASCAM DR-100, or something like that—for almost all of it. Lucia also had a small ZOOM handheld recorder, and the second summer we went, I had a contact microphone I used for some bridges and fences and that kind of thing.
So all the actual singing was just recorded with the X/Y mics for ambient sound?
It’s interesting that you didn’t use a shotgun mic or anything more direct to record the singing. I guess that speaks to the ambient nature of the whole project. I imagine the editing process was pretty intensive. Can you talk me through it a little?
Lucia Nimcová: For DILO or for Bajka?
Let’s start with Bajka, since that came first.
Lucia Nimcová: Well, as I said already, Bajka was really visual. Somehow sound and visuals had to meet at a certain moment so that it worked together. Then, of course, you have great moments that are just sound. You’re not always in a position to make a video; not everybody wants to be filmed, and you can’t always take your camera. There’s already quite a lot of limitations for the materials you can use. And we were always on the edge of trying to communicate that there is the “official” folklore and then there is this something that is really basic and really raw happening outside. It’s not always representative in a way which the community would like to show, but it’s super important, and you have to wait for those moments. So it would really be just a few seconds of improvisation when something special, almost magical, happened. When it was happening, we knew: “That’s it!” And then we just tried to build Bajka from all those moments. “Bajka” will be used in the region when you try to describe something and you lose the words. You just say “Oh, bajka, forget it.” (laughter). So Bajka was built from the moments you can’t describe, when you can’t believe what is happening in front of you.
Sholto Dobie: One of the first things that came out of the project after the first year, before the film, was a kind of radio piece. In terms of the editing, there were certain trajectories that I think both of us got drawn to. Like the way the film starts in the open field; that’s also how the audio piece started. There were certain narratives that got worked over again and again and again through the years.
With DILO, we had like 60 hours of sound, and all of it was so different. A lot of it was recorded to accompany the video, and some of it was recorded completely separately. And some of it was improvisations that me and Lucia made in certain locations. For me, it was most important to keep the framework really wide and try to include as much as possible in terms of the breadth of material. I made one version of the album when Jakub [Juhás of Mappa] first approached us last summer that I had to scrap completely. I had a very specific concept in mind, and it didn’t work at all. So the version which is on the record is completely different. I decided to approach it more like a mixtape, to put it really simply: combining sounds and songs in ways that feel right and particular to me.
Does everything we hear on the album come from the Bajka sessions, or did you go back to get more material?
Sholto Dobie: It’s all from those three years with Lucia.
What were some of your favorite non-musical sounds you captured on the album, whether by choice or by happy accident?
Lucia Nimcová: I came to Slovakia only for spring break for one week from Addis Ababa. But because corona started, I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t get back to my external memories for half a year. That was exactly when we started working on DILO, so I just said to Sholto sounds I remembered and was obsessed by. All I had was suggestions from my memory. You remember certain sounds even after many years—you can’t forget them. The sound of the wool machine, or certain songs, or certain personalities. You want to listen to a session of that guy once again. My suggestions were very abstract. I just said this and this and that, and then I made the booklet. But the whole album was done by Sholto.
The wool machine was a big part of the visual story in the movie as well. Sholto, what were some other sounds you tried to emphasize on the album?
Sholto Dobie: One time in winter, I recorded a bunch of trash burning when the market had closed, and that always stuck with me. It’s very different from a lot of the other material but it’s very textural. There’s a song which has somehow been included in everything we’ve done. The musician who plays the hurdy-gurdy in the film, after he played that song, played a song by his daughter from his mobile phone. I really like that recording.
Lucia Nimcová: I did a recording of that song this summer from another lady. I have it in two other versions now (laughter).
Sholto Dobie: That’s the song about making love for a piece of cheese.
It’s sometimes hard to tell which songs on the album come directly from Bajka, since there are so many different versions, as you said, Lucia. Is the song at the start of the track “Sing For Myself” one of the ones from the movie?
Sholto Dobie: I think that was not in the film. It was recorded at a baptism. We escaped the party and went upstairs with the lady. She’s the same woman who appears many times in the film, someone we got really close to.
Lucia Nimcová: There’s the song that’s kind of a bonus after Bajka where they’re singing outside. She sings in that one. But as I said, we were not always able to make a video, so when we had the rest to work with for DILO, I said “OK, Sholto, you have all these sound archives which we never used, so do whatever you like.”
That song at the beginning of “Sing For Myself” strikes me as very joyful. She laughs a lot as she’s singing it. Lucia, do you know off the top of your head what she’s singing about?
Lucia Nimcová: Of course! But now, when I went back in the last two months, I recorded this song a couple of times. For a certain type of woman who is over 85, it’s almost an introduction to herself: “I’m not capable of writing or reading, but I can sing.” This is the narrative of all the women who grew up there during the Second World War because they were too old to go to school afterwards.
There’s a lot of rain on the album. Were there any other sounds you used to set the scene by tracking them on top of sounds from other moments?
Lucia Nimcová: The guy who is singing in the end did a great performance for us, two hours improvising. When I came to Ukraine now for two months, the first person I met close to the road when I entered was him. And he had changed from a singer to a healer so he took my hand and he predicted my future while singing a song as well (laughs). Some people, you meet them and they stay in your mind. He works as a shepherd, so it’s not so easy to meet him close to the road because he’s usually in the mountains. But I would come to Ukraine after five years, and he would be the first person I meet from all the people I knew in the region. He would be the person I would always try to meet when I go back and just listen to his narrative—how his narrations change, how his songs develop. But Sholto, maybe you have a different one.
Sholto Dobie: For me—about the sound thing—the valleys are very particular, these echoes across the hills and fields were something I think we captured a bit in the recording process, because we were recording in the fields. But also, the interiors of the houses have these really particular sounds and feelings, and a kind of warmth.
Lucia Nimcová: The bells of the cows with the echoes.
Sholto Dobie: And the cowbells, of course (laughter). And there were some new sounds which I discovered in the making of the album. I found all these recordings I’d made of cheese dripping in a shepherd’s hut, this kind of squelching. That was a nice thing which I’d overlooked before.
I was asking Lucia this before, because she told me she set out wanting to make a Ukrainian folk opera: Do you think that’s what the end product of Bajka is? Because to me, it felt more like documentary footage. And that brought us to the relative truth of the film and the album. A lot to unpack there, but first, I’d like to ask you, Sholto, if you felt the end product of Bajka was more folk opera or documentary.
Lucia Nimcová: (pauses for a long time). That’s a very good question (laughs). When we started to work on it, I wanted to have a very open description of what we were gonna do. Because when you say “I'm making a documentary,” it’s very strict and it already has some kind of not-very-nice description for many people. But when you say “I’m making a folk opera,” it could be anything. It’s open ended. It’s an improvisation and it could go many different directions. It could end up as a visual without the sound, or it could be just a sound. It’s an archive you’re building of improvisation and experiences, and you can enter this archive any time you want with a different time scale, but this archive is going to be a timeless improvisation. And you can always work with it in a different way because you are changing with time as well, as a person. It also could be open to another artist who will use it to do something completely different. I feel more like a person who did research in a way I felt was missing in the region. But I don’t feel like I’m owning it as an artist with the results of Bajka and DILO; there could also be other things. And the poetry is at such a very, very deep level which is waiting to be used. But it takes time. I’m not at that level of knowing the language so well that I would make a poetry book, but maybe I will make a translation of vagina songs. But let’s say I choose to do it in English: I need someone who would write those songs as poems. It’s not an easy process, you know, because they are simple but very deep. And I’m not in a hurry.
In terms of DILO, Sholto, there’s a very blurry line between fiction and documentary. Did you think of layering sounds that were recorded at different times as a fictional device, or did you feel they made the environment truer to what it felt like when you were there in the Carpathian Mountains?
Sholto Dobie: What I felt quite strongly about was to show that this was part of a process, and that we as the recordists—as the people who spent these three years going around these villages—are part of that process also. I feel strongly on that point, and I think Bajka and DILO are small outputs from one thing which is still continuing. I don’t have a clear answer on the documentary or fiction or truth of it. All I would say is that it’s kind of personal. I don’t feel like I was trying to get to a truth, but I also think me and Lucia have different approaches. This thing is based on navigating that experience I had, which was a rollercoaster (laughs).
Lucia, I know one of your past projects was looking at banned films and censoring them yourself, in some cases. With this music, which is so raunchy and which people haven’t historically wanted to archive… for instance, there’s the woman in the movie who sings about a young woman who sleeps around a lot and “would even sleep with a grandpa,” but then later she sings about how she would give her whole life for this woman. With a song like that, do you think it’s coded, that it’s one of the ones that’s self-censored so it can be sung in front of men without causing suspicion?
Lucia Nimcová: In the region, I heard that when a child was born, they would have the child drink a little bit from the puddle. You had to drink, as a small child, a little bit of dirty water from the puddle, and then you understand that your life is not gonna be just milk. You have to understand at a very early age that many strange and terrible things might happen in your life, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of your life. It’s just the beginning, and you have to go through it with humor and happiness somehow, because that’s the only way you can survive.
The coded messages are a long discussion. Many of the women were raped. They went through horrible things. They almost died in many different circumstances. But when you are singing to a young girl to make her learn something, you’re not gonna sing it as a trauma. You’re going to sing it with a certain effect which in four words could mean two different things: that it’s the end of your life or that it’s just the beginning. You say “It’s up to you. You decide: is that the end or the beginning?” It’s a horrible, traumatic beginning, but you went through it. You survived, and now you have to continue. That’s why I think the messages are very strangely coded: because it’s also your decision if you want to live or die.
You are taken at 12 years old to a prison for cooperation with the partisans—a child in the middle of the night. And in this week, you go through horrible experiences. You are brought to different places in the mountains, and you have to decide how you behave, how you survive that week. You are always very close to death. But when you think about this one week of growing up as a 12-year-old girl, you say “I survived.” And because it’s in the mountains, you think through every word. You are walking up the hill, and you need your breath to survive, so every word has a survival message. How would you do it? Every song gives you space to decide: you either survive or not.
That’s what’s so fascinating to me: they made it! They are 90 years old and self-sufficient. They have quite a lot of knowledge you can learn from, but it’s not forced. You choose to get the message or not. It will take some time to play with the translation. Every year, every month, the longer I spend with these people, I learn a lot, but I’m struggling to share it. But we’re trying (laughs). Bajka and DILO are just simple tries in a certain moment and a certain context. Let’s see what happens next.
Lucia Nimcová & Sholto Dobie’s DILO can be purchased at Bandcamp.
Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share thoughts on albums and assign them a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.
Jana Rush - Dark Humor (Planet Mu, 2022)
Press Release info: Jana Rush follows up 2021’s intense masterpiece “Painful Enlightenment” with a new mini-album “Dark Humor”. This 7-track release continues where she left off, opening with a new nine-minute remix of last year’s groundbreaking ‘Suicidal Ideation’ subtitled ‘Aural Hallucinations’, an almost nightmare-inducing, woozy journey across fractured beats and pulsing bass with percussive sound effects fluttering across the stereo field. Another highlight is the jazz-infused ‘Lonely’ made with DJ Paypal, where they let loose on a horn sample for six minutes of syncopated ecstasy. Jana also returns to ‘Break It’, remixing the classic footwork track from her debut album 'Pariah' on Objects Limited, giving it a more laidback, half-time feel. The remaining tracks are all new compositions with Jana concentrating on a more manic, dancefloor-focused style with punchy, panicked vocals, hip-hop beats and humorous, self-effacing samples, all amounting to a worthy follow-up to one of the most innovative releases of last year.
Purchase Dark Humor at Bandcamp.
Mark Cutler: Well, it is dark. On this brief, blistering gem of a record, Jana Rush bends the jazzy, sample-laden sound of last year’s Painful Enlightenment more explicitly in the direction of conventional footwork, yielding tracks that are surprisingly both more danceable and more personal than before. Jana’s seen clowns from both sides now, and Dark Humor feels like the gleeful, goblin-mode counterpoint to the melancholic interiority of its predecessor. The drums hit harder, the bass is deeper; the whole thing feels like a claustrophobic funhouse. True, perhaps the strongest track here remains the stunning rework of P.E.’s “Suicidal Ideation,” but it is also better served here by the smattering of brief, abrasive, and genuinely funny tracks that Ms. Rush has crafted in the intervening year.
Gil Sansón: Footwork’s off-kilter beats, often run through filters that render them aleatory and with syncopation being the main feature, sound like a gauntlet being thrown: They challenge the dancefloor to come up with new ways of corporeal expression. To my ears, there’s always a link to ’90s drum & bass, even though this newer genre takes far more liberties with rhythm in its quest to liberate the dance from its four-to-the-floor roots into something more fractal.
Now, even though the sound makes me imagine how dancers can take and run away with it, my main interest is musical, so apart from the rhythm mulching and grinding, I focus on hooks, like the six-note riff in “Don't Want No Dick,” which could be remixed to fit other genres of music and retain its character. As it is, the music has little dynamic range, but Rush knows what she’s doing, exploring a genre that insists on basic materials that are sparsely layered. On tracks like “Break It (Remix)” she emphasizes rap and hip-hop roots, while on “Lonely,” the spotlight is on jazz, using “Lonely Woman” by Ornette Coleman as basic material, possibly as a way of reclaiming the role of footwork as another step in the lineage of US Black music. Dark Humor is brief and to the point, but it offers multiple possible avenues still available for footwork.
Marshall Gu: Footwork landed in my lap in the fall of 2013, when DJ Rashad’s Double Cup introduced me to the genre’s distinctive, militaristic drum programming. Listening to more and more, I was struck by (1) how visceral a lot of footwork is, and (2) how strangely versatile it is. You can dance, sure, but songs were also, by turns, funny, cerebral, sexual, profound, and of course, banging. Sure, a lot of that is from producers deploying instantly-recognizable samples and barely treating those samples (if at all), and just letting the nostalgia hang. From memes to films to popular songs, it seems like footwork producers wanted to prove that they could move anything onto the dancefloor.
The same applies to Jana Rush, who, after bringing Art Blakey’s famous “Moanin’” into footwork on Painful Enlightenment, sets her eyes on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” on Dark Humor with jazz-minded collaborator DJ Paypal. Using a network of unstable drums and detuned synths, “Lonely” is proof that genres as radically different as jazz and footwork could be merged together. Elsewhere, she isolates brags from 2Pac’s “No More Pain,” originally a very tense song with a haunting piano line, and loops it until she removes that dread and it’s pure “Bitch I want some ass tonight.”
It’s the other songs that I’m less convinced by. The original “Suicidal Ideation” from Painful Enlightenment was already a mix of aural hallucinations—full of strange yelps and highly sexual moans—that are downplayed on this remix that takes up most of the EP’s real estate while I’m not sure what Rush was going for on “Clown” with its neither dark nor humorous “I’m just a clown” sample. “Lonely” aside, the songs on this EP don’t convince me that these aren’t just extra tracks she had lying around after Painful Enlightenment and ultimately a stopgap release until her next album.
Sunik Kim: The centerpiece of this mini-album is undoubtedly “Suicidal Ideation (Aural Hallucinations Mix),” an astounding, wind-tunneled take on the already head-exploding original from Painful Enlightenment (my favorite album of 2021) and a cut above the other more no-nonsense dance tracks. Here, Rush is pushing her sound in a direction that, honestly, feels like it will take years for its true impact to be felt and fully understood. She somehow manages to create a ghostly, inverted version of a footwork beat, making the listener fill in the blanks as she gouges and vaporizes the expected rhythmic signposts into flanged oblivion. In doing so, she merges the singular intensity of the free jazz drum into the rigid kick-hat-chop science of footwork, drawing out that careening freedom generated when the grid is humming at speeds above 160bpm—a freedom already present, but still latent, in the very first footwork tracks. Proof that the biggest leaps often stem from measured, focused tweaks to the template rather than flashy, often ephemeral fits of attempted genre de(con)struction.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Jana Rush called up the local Chicago radio station WKKC when she was 10 years old. They didn’t pick up at first, or the second time either, but she persisted until they did—she was dead set on being a DJ. While they laughed when she revealed her age, they invited her to come in the following Saturday to audition. Rush didn’t make the cut—she didn’t have any experience, naturally—but she did spend every weekend thereafter visiting the station to learn the ropes. After six months she landed her own show.
It was there at WKKC that Rush would meet notable footwork producers like DJ Rashad and Gant-Man. She’d release her first tracks on Dance Mania as a teenager, and even had a split 12-inch with producer DJ Deeon in 1996. Then, after relative silence for more than 15 years, she returned in 2016 with an EP on Objects Limited. She followed that up a year later with her debut LP Pariah, but it’s her monumental sophomore album, 2021’s Painful Enlightenment, that really showcased her adventurous spirit. While Rush’s music falls in the lineage of footwork, she always considered herself bit of an outsider—part of this came from being a woman in a male-dominated scene—which can explain her proclivities to move beyond the amorphous bounds of footwork.
Dark Humor is consequently thrilling as a moment of celebration and reflection. Here, Rush is both remixing her own work and communicating with a history of other Black musics. “Don’t Want No Dick” brings to mind footwork’s roots in ghetto house, and specifically “I Gotta Big Dick,” the Lidell Townsell-assisted 1988 scorcher from Maurice Joshua and Hot Hands Hula. Hearing Rush’s own track, which takes vocal sample stuttering into more caustic territories, feels like a serious (and seriously playful) response to the decades-old track. “Lonely,” which samples Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” feels like an acknowledgement of music as a conduit for generational dialogues; the Coleman piece was inspired by a painting of a rich white woman who nevertheless looked solitary, so Rush’s mixture of footwork and jazz feels like as an announcement of how her art, even when created alone, can feel communal (appropriately, the song does feature another producer, DJ Paypal).
Tracks like “Make Bitches Cum,” which samples 2Pac’s “No More Pain,” are exciting on a conceptual level: it’s exciting how the original track actually feels so well-suited for footwork, and relistening to the original even recalibrates the way you think about its slinking beat. It’s also just electrifying to hear the sample get flipped from “And fuck your boyfriend / bitch, I want some ass tonight” to “bitch, I want some ass tonight / And fuck your boyfriend”—Rush grants it an unexpected, delightful homoeroticism. Then there’s the actual hip-hop beat that makes its way into the “Break It” remix, transforming the Pariah cut from militantly minimal into a more nuanced exercise in rhythmic tension. The “Suicidal Ideation” remix is the longest and most major piece here: a massive IDM swirl that feels like it’s constantly folding in on itself. If Painful Enlightenment was a heaving, heavy depiction of depression, then Dark Humor is her acknowledging the grim realities of life but having fun in the process. In working with and constantly pushing beyond footwork, Rush is creating an aural representation of how many of us get through it all—acknowledgement, growth, and having a laugh. In at least one way, she’s still that same 10 year old: She won’t give up.
Dan Gilmore - Dutched at Swan Cleaners (Regional Bears, 2022)
Press Release info: none.
Purchase Dutched at Swan Cleaners at Bandcamp.
Mark Cutler: To my ears, the two musical forms which have had the most sway in experimental music in recent years are (I) the chamber ensemble and (II) the radio drama. The former I tend to associate with the Recital/Reading Group universe of composers, many of whom seem to be reacting to the preponderance of synth- and pedal-based noise which saturated both experimental and indie music in the ’00s. The latter I associate with the better Wandelweiser and emerging ‘non-music’ artists, for whom the recording medium is often the site of composition and whatever that may entail: these are records that I often think of as having characters, dialogue and scenes, rather than instruments, melodies and movements.
Dan’s tastes—both in his own music and in the music he released on his impeccable and much-missed Careful Catalog—have typically tended toward the latter: albums which prod around at the margin between improvisation and unvarnished field recording, which contain long, unscripted and not explicitly musical speech, which sample entire other songs within themselves. This is my first time hearing Dan embrace instruments that actually play together, and the results are pretty remarkable. Dutched is a refreshingly relaxed, inviting sort of record, with frequent moments of genuine beauty. The unnamed players seem at ease with each other, like old friends, late on a weeknight. Their playing frequently collides with samples, overdubs, indiscernible speech and all manner of soft, scuttling noises, and yet the mix never reaches the point of abrasion or exhaustion. Just a really lovely, well-balanced record. 
Samuel McLemore: These are adventurous and accomplished instrumental pieces that range from chamber ensembles to far weirder and harder-to-describe collages of ephemeral audio. Different instruments pop in and out of the mix, jockeying for position amongst themselves: A snare drum is paired up with what sounds like a pencil furiously scribbling onto a piece of paper; a wind ensemble is suddenly cut off by a knife scraping against a whetstone. Such combinations could be harsh and unpleasant, and sometimes Gilmore uses them for shock factor, but he usually fits the parts together to make lush, pastoral instrumental music. In some respects, it’s in an artistic lineage with Graham Lambkin, Sean McCann, and Rosso Polare. But really, Dutched at Swan Cleaners is one of those albums where it’s impossible to tell if the recording was cobbled together by chance from leftover scraps, or if it was meticulously planned out piece-by-piece for this project alone—either explanation would fit with what Gilmore has accomplished here, but both do little to explain how excellent the music really is.
Vincent Jenewein: Another “improvisational classical collage cassette tape”? Dan Gilmore does alright and produces a pleasant listen, but, as with many of these types of records, the conceits of the concept and format seem to hinder the overall potential of the musical message. Dutched At Swan Cleaners channels a consistent rainy, mourning vibe and features an assemblage of vivid, room-like recordings. However, the pieces tend to lose themselves in playful curtness and forget their own strengths. For example, “Lost In The Wetlands” has some beautiful, dissonant string swells that can’t help themselves but drive into unnecessary, gimmicky-sounding distortion. The track’s arrangement changes course halfway through, only to rapidly end before it can develop any of its themes further, making the entire maneuver seem pointless. Individual tracks build narrative fragments but dissolve before they can take off and struggle to relate to each other in a more meaningful manner. Perhaps to some this curt, off-the-cuff nature comes as a strength, but to me—having heard a million of these tapes by now—it just feels like an easy opportunity for the artist to settle with slapping together a bunch of recent recordings on a tape, rather than going further and molding them into a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Sunik Kim: This is a truly remarkable album, the suspended, tangled density of 70s Miles gently pulled apart, warped and left to dry. The obvious presence of ‘the room’ as a character initially raises fears of an endless, formless ambient meander, but there is a distinct forward motion in these stitched-together movements—not portraits—that betrays a genuinely refreshing structural and compositional sensibility: from the murkiest swirls of tape clatter there emerge stunning bursts of clarity, like the Talk Talk meets ghastly Lambkin threnody in the second half of “Forced To Dive.” To push a stilted comparison even further, when listening to Dutched At Swan Cleaners I think about the hours of material Miles and Teo Macero boiled down to In a Silent Way, the swarming tapestry of ideas ranging from outright funny to hushed and sacred put to the blade and reassembled into a simultaneously impenetrable and porous whole that couldn’t have been anything other than what it is. A benchmark.
Matthew Blackwell: The (dis)organized field recordings of opener “Trouts Tongue In Plastic” initially make Dutched at Swan Cleaners seem perfectly legible as a chaotic descendent of Graham Lambkin. Then we get something else entirely with “Crabapples,” which shares some of the melodic sensibilities of twee lo-fi Gothenburg group Treasury of Puppies. Here we get actual instruments—violin, percussion, guitar—and veer somewhat close to an actual tune as well. By the middle of the album, on “Forced To Dive,” these two sides of Dan Gilmore’s project come together. This inchoate, almost-song finally generates enough of its own power to seem intentionally composed, until at the 4:40 mark reversed gasps and sighs and wooden creaks interrupt and halt its momentum. The rest of the album can be similarly described, with some memorable (even hummable) melodies, as in “Lost In The Wetlands,” juxtaposed against more aimless musique concrète, as in “Shameful Experiments.” All of the foregoing is meant to be read positively, by the way, songs and melodies in general being, of course, overrated. If these half-submerged tunes were excavated and polished up they would lose their intrigue; alternately, if the field recordings were left to speak for themselves they wouldn’t be half so memorable. What Gilmore achieves is a perfect tension between the two, as if music were a natural occurrence to be caught on tape while the sounds of his surroundings were meant to be carefully composed.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: It is impossible for me to think of Dutched at Swan Cleaners as anything other than a music most emblematic of our times. In its false meanderings and seemingly slapdash collage work is a real anxiety regarding authenticity and experience. There are elements of musique concrète, something known for its meticulous craftsmanship and acousmatic shock, but that’s old hat now so it’s coupled with moments of domestic field recordings (though, in these tracks’ constant battles between prettiness and austerity is a recognition that that’s old hat too). This is also why the loose, adventurous spirit of free improv and “we don’t know how to play our instruments”-announcing rock end up channeling the ambient bliss of jazzy post-rock reveries. Every idea is labored over, nothing can feel genuine, and the result is Gilmore in constant search for something truthful. But that’s the beauty of it: so much of life nowadays can be about seeking out something spontaneous or authentic, and fretting about it not being just that. Dutched at Swan Cleaners is a reminder that simulations can be enough or, at least in some artistic spaces, are maybe the best we can hope for.
Gil Sansón: Experimental music (or how Other Music used to call it: “out music”) was once a territory brimming with tribalism. A handful of rock bands from the left side of the spectrum have been undermining this for at least 40 years now and artists today freely mix free improvisation with collage techniques and concrete music, happily developing their own Venn diagrams with improbable connections. Dutched at Swan Cleaners inhabits a terrain in which concrete music elements and “out rock” coalesce in brief tracks, taking delight in exploring melody in a wide range of modes. At times, the guitar seems to follow the metal spring sounds for melodic or harmonic cues, but at the same time it’s easy to discern the many hours Gilmore seems to have put into editing; the Faust Tapes and late Talk Talk, but also Luc Ferrari can be used as references to get a hold onto the many cues the music provides. There’s a pastoral feeling here also, and this is somewhat uncommon; the tightrope between the pastoral and the shambolic is very carefully and gracefully balanced, sounding both deliberate and a consequence of serendipity. It may sound a bit contrived in a few places, but it’s always engaging at the sonic level, and the short duration of most of the pieces works in the album’s favor.
I’m particularly taken by the approach to the guitar, avoiding effects and focusing on seemingly lazy and loose strumming, sometimes employing a bow, and the use of wind instruments, always measured. A narrative undercurrent is inherent to the music and is highlighted by the titles, but everything remains abstract enough for the music to become mere illustration. There is a willingness to toy with the expectations of the listener, with moments that point at grandioseness being cut short abruptly and replaced by hesitancy, suggesting ironic distance without losing the earnest character of the music. One could call this “experimental folk rock” but I believe this music deserves to remain uncategorized. Even more, the music has enough emotional content to engage purely at that level.
Jinhyung Kim: There’s an effortless fluidity to the way this album’s sonic layers coalesce and unravel that immediately drew me in; it has a phenomenal fullness and clarity of sound that eschews the more uneven bricolage of last year’s Pulped Memoir. Here, instrumental sketches, grooves, and fragments make up a fluctuating stream that weaves bits of field and object recording into the holes of its patchwork. Said instruments seldom play in time together, but their ensemble forms a consonant whole—jam by way of collage. Gilmore elicits phrasing and overall continuity from timbral adjacencies and interactions, rather than structural coordination or the development of any one part on its own. Concomitant quirks in the mix—e.g. the in-your-face snare ostinato on “Fig Leaves,” or the mirroring of guitar distortion in scraping reeds and strings on “Unknowing a Rope”—are quite charming. Just as consummate as the patchwork continuity are the music’s points of rupture: the abrupt reset to an impure sine tone halfway through “Trouts Tongue in Plastic” is a moment of utter serendipity, and the bursts of assorted clamor (a mob’s din, detuned instruments, a phlegmy gargle) that disrupt the tranquil piano chords on “Public Bathing” are reminiscent of juxtapositions found in Sean McCann’s chamber music. But for all its juts and rough edges, Dutched at Swan Cleaners persistently lulls, pulling the listener along with the gentle insistence of a current—and the occasional jolt of its whims.
7FO - Ran-Bouten (Conatala, 2022)
Press Release info: 2021 brings a new album by Osaka electronic musician / producer 7FO. This work is a departure from the recent global ambient / new age approach, and the unique sound aesthetic created using only hardware equipment is a new frontier of 7FO or a return to his origin. Ran-Bouten is a new electronic music album with a poetic sensibility using machines. Discovered by overseas labels such as RVNG intl., Bokeh Versions, and Metron-and with the release that followed EM Records in his hometown Osaka, it's like his personal folk craft that was once quietly played at his own pace. Music has reached listeners around the world. In recent years, he has been touring from a famous performance with Tapes at the Belgian "Meakusma Festival 2019" to a Japan-Korea tour. Ran-Bouten was born as a result of facing the sound alone without being asked by anyone to cool down the heat when the steaming and intense experience had settled down. Inside the cool electronic sound like a water bath, you can feel the maker's heart sending hot blood.
Purchase Ran-Bouten at the Conatala website.
Maxie Younger: Ran-Bouten doesn’t insist on much; it speaks for nothing but itself. Its eight tracks weave a quaint universe all their own out of off-center synth timbres, plucks, bonks, and shivers that stutter and crawl like wind-up toys, fourth world-adjacent fascinations viewed through a frosted store window. Beyond this novelty, however, lies an artifact that, likable and charming as it might seem, inspires little more than apathy; it’s as difficult to talk about as it is to internalize. Songs go on for minutes at a time where seconds would do: the dingy A- and B-sides linger incessantly, liminally, between half-awake moods with the slack glance of an out-of-focus camera.
Across multiple listens, I’ve found “Gekko,” the track that starts the album’s second half, to be the most representative of this phenomenon. Opening on a tapping, metronomic rhythm, the piece quickly establishes a soft presence, a loop of eerie, halogen-bulb chords that ring out into a quiet ocean of analog hiss; the song continues in this way for four dreary minutes, refusing to expand beyond the addition of bassy tom-drums and a snarling topline that mostly serves as a pleasant harmonic echo. There’s nothing outright offensive about this style, per se, but none of the rhythms or melodies that 7FO has collected here are memorable or beautiful enough to justify such a stolid, hands-off approach to composition.
These complaints might be a failure of context more than a genuine deficiency; this is an album that perhaps isn’t meant for the glare of close scrutiny. I can see it working played quietly on speakers, as mood music, background noise; in headphones, it did nothing but disappoint me, even as I turned my attention away to focus on other tasks. 7FO likens the process of creating Ran-Bouten as something akin to “dropping a fishing line into a quiet lake”; as it stands, there’s very little substance to what has been dredged up from the depths.
Samuel McLemore: The press release implies that Ran-Bouten was recorded solely using vintage Kawai synths during a time of personal and artistic flux for producer 7FO. You would be hard-pressed to gather the latter detail given how safe and boring the record is. Each track is a simple and unremarkable loop, with the types of textures you would obviously expect from the given instrumentation, and then there are bland, unremarkable progressions both within the songs and throughout the album. Mastered by Makoto Oshiro, it sounds absolutely stellar: exactly like a batch of extremely well-mastered demos, dragging on from track to track (eight of them, each indistinguishable from the last) with no connective tissue or spark to give the package life. What holds the album back is the variety and strength of its compositions and the scope of its artistic vision. A frustrating listen.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: 7FO’s Ran-Bouten has the endearing charm concomitant to this strain of spacious, “fourth world”-lite ambient. “Umi, Weed” is especially emblematic of that: Every percussive synth blip reverberates with an air of nostalgia, and it bobs along with such carefree simplicity that it’ll make you long for a purer world. There are moments when 7FO allows you to crave this utopic atmosphere, but these tracks are often too busy to let you settle into contentedness. “Fiction,” for example, moves at a brisk pace, and has flurried melodies that feel like it’s dying to shove sincerity down your throat. “Gekko” is similarly rushed, and its insistent synth melodies aren’t dazzling enough to make the journey worth it. Instead, every noise is reduced to their texture and timbre, the emotion sucked out of everything to reveal hollowness. Ultimately, the arrangements are poorly considered, as everything either congeals into mush (“Denshin-Uta”) or just arrives as a smattering of random sounds (“⊃_▱●〻”). Nothing is allowed to breathe, to mean anything; when you’re dealing with a sonic palette this readily garish, such thoughtlessness makes cuteness a punishment.
Adesh Thapliyal: I happen to have a lot of affection for New Age electronica (a misunderstood genre!), and even I couldn’t make heads or tails out of Ran-Bouten. The structure of each track is vaguely cyclic, vaguely extemporaneous, a watery imprecision reflected in the oceanic trappings of the synths and sound effects. The best tracks swim towards chill-out IDM (“Fiction”), the worst just flounder around until they reach their dull conclusion (both title tracks “Ran” and “Bouten,” unfortunately). In a better world, this would have been the cryptically beautiful soundtrack to Seaman, but as it is, Ran-Bouten is missing a core idea to wrap its pretty trappings around.
Mark Cutler: Once every couple of years, I will briefly take up again my search for a PC game my parents bought in the late 1990s. It was a casino-themed, anthology-style game which included chess and checkers, backgammon, as well as (I believe) a few simple card games. Everything about the game was peak-90s, skeuomorphic out the wazoo. The interface and buttons looked carved out of fine walnut and mahogany, your AI opponents were lushly dressed, the music was all schmaltzy MIDI jazz on an infinite loop. The only element that didn’t fit seamlessly into this virtual atmosphere was the final and hardest AI character you could play against: a giant, grotesque alien.
Anyway, if you also remember this game, please click my name above and let me know. All of my searches have ended in frustration, an experience bitterly familiar to most amateur historians of ’90s computing. Yet I was compelled to take the search up once more while listening to Ran-Bouten. Never mind the vintage hardware; these are tracks that feel like music from that era and style of games, designed to loop endlessly and inoffensively in the background while you play on a virtual, marble-and-granite chessboard against the predator from Predator. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the experience of listening to Ran-Bouten, but I think I might like the album more if it were presented as a platter of eight locked-grooves. Each track feels insulated, in a way that makes it difficult to have any strong feeling about the album as a whole.
Vincent Jenewein: This one appears to channel the “genre” of 1980s and 1990s synth demos and presets—made by engineers instead of musicians, and designed not for musical purposes but to show off the inherent capabilities of the technology, there is something strangely referenceless and genreless about them. With its minimal, almost unfinished instrumentation; naive, childlike patterns; and sickly sweet ’90s FM tones, Ran-Bouten catapults itself into the same hauntology of bygone technological utopias and sonic no man’s lands. Just like in the presets and demos of old, it remains immanent to the synthesizers it came out of and appears to be entirely unconcerned with the musical world at large; bypassing the ironic, meme-ified interpretatory surplus of genres like vaporwave. It is rare for “nostalgic” music to sound this genuinely naïve today.
Thank you for reading the eighty-third issue of Tone Glow. Let’s see what happens next.
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