Her musical journey is for sure an adventurous one, and on the way, she has created a musical universe with plenty of space for Estonian folk melodies, epic electronic soundscapes and mythical storytelling. Meet Maarja Nuut in the third issue of NWR.
by Mikkel Brandt
”I started to play the violin when I was seven years old. A few years before, I had already composed my first piece on the piano… For my rabbit.”
Maarja Nuut’s music doesn’t let itself define easily.
Drawing on inspiration from Estonian folk music she’s not afraid to bring its melodies and playing style into contexts which it has never been put in before. Both as a solo artist and during her continuous collaboration with the experimental electronic musician Ruum.
“What I do musically, is constantly changing and evolving. I do a lot of very different things at the same time.”
At this year’s Northern Winter Beat she will perform a solo set, in which her beautiful and transcendental compositions are brought to life by voice and violin together with various electronics.
“With traditional music, we tend to think of it as something very holy, you know. That we need to keep it in a certain way. But I was more interested in finding out how this language works and how to reach an intuitive way of using it.”
Maarja Nuut has a background as a classical violinist, and even though she grew up in Estonia, it was not until her early 20s she started to give her own take on her home country’s traditional music.
She describes how she after a period of studying Indian music in New Delhi came back with fresh ears. And when she was introduced to archival recordings of Estonian folk musicians, playing traditional village music, she was instantly hooked.
“The sound world, that I discovered there, was really psychedelic and mysterious. In some ways, it can be compared to Indian music. It’s a musical language filled with rules, grammar, semantics, and so on. And maybe because I had been to India, my ears were so open to microtonality and all the small details. So I think, I had a different view.”
This music had a huge impact on her. And even though the old recordings are nowhere near hi-fi and often are quite short (because the sound collectors didn’t want to waste too much recording wax), she was very fascinated by what she heard.
“I was interested in why it was sounding so captivating and so interesting, because this old music is rather minimal, and there’s a lot of repetition. But then at the same time, it’s constantly changing in details. It’s constantly evolving. So it’s, in a way, a kind of transcendental music.”
“It’s so full of details, I would say. Different players have their own style, their own character. You can really hear, especially with string instruments or with vocal, how much they play with their own voice. That they want to tell something.”
This musical discovery was followed by an intense period of studying the recordings closely.
“I knew, I could mime the recordings. And just always play exactly the same. But then it’s not living music. It’s sort of dead. It’s just copying someone’s moment from 100 years ago. But if you learn all the basic things, and if you’re lucky, you might one day be able to talk in your own way.”
“It took some time to get to the moment, where I got the satisfaction, that okay, I can now play all those little ornaments and thrills, the way I hear them, and then I asked yourself where to go next. Because I couldn’t just stay here playing exactly those twenty seconds the same way.”
Since then Maarja Nuut has taken the style to new places in her own compositions, and she has – among many other things – brought modular synth sounds, field recordings, and hypnotic vocal looping into the mix.
At the end of the interview, Maarja Nuut presented two of the songs, we can experience as part of her performance at Northern Winter Beat.
The first one is called “Haned kadunud” (meaning “Lost geese”). A rather macabre story originally passed on as a folk song.
“There are different versions of this story, andit’s very mysterious, in some ways. It’s about this young woman, who’s keeping some birds. Geese. But then a big wind comes and takes the birds away. So she goes home and asks her mother to bake some bread and make her hair nice, so she can go and look for the birds. But then, while she’s on her way, she meets all sorts of different creatures and people, hidden behind ordinary names. And in the end, she’s led to an old country house, and there’s a big party. There are food and drinks, and she’s asked to sit behind the table. And when she sits there, she realises that everything around her, the furniture, the drinks, the food, are all made from her own birds and that she’s actually ended up in the underworld.”
“Haned kadunud” / “Lost geese” (lyric excerpt):
“A seat of goose bones is brought to me
I am given goose meat to eat
I am given goose blood to drink”
“There are different interpretations, and if you read the story, it sounds like an average story. So what’s so interesting about those songs and stories is that you really need to know some context, and there are so many layers. Because those songs have been passed on for hundreds, hundreds, hundreds of years. So you read a simple story, but there’s actually something a very deep layer underneath it. And we don’t really know, what’s the moral of the story. Everyone can think of their own. Sometimes there’s no moral. Sometimes things just go bad and that’s it.”
Maarja Nuut & Ruum – Haned kadunud
Another song, Maarja presents, is “Kurb laulik” (meaning “Sad singer”).
“Kurb laulik” / “Sad singer”:
”He who hears me sing Will think all is well He will believe that my days are filled with joy
I sing through my sorrows I sing through my mourning heart
Tears stream from my eyes to my chest From my chest to my heart From my heart to my knees From my knees to my feet From my feet to my toes From my toes, they flow to the ground
Then the village herd will get to drink The parish foals will get to drink The manor horses will get to drink”
Maarja Nuut & Ruum – Kurb laulik- live session
Maarja Nuut is playing at Northern Winter Beat 2020 January 31st at Huset in Hasserisgade.
With trance as a keystone, Jozef van Wissem is on an ongoing mission to prevent the lute from certain death. At Northern Winter Beat he will open the festival with a special concert in Budolfi Cathedral. We talked with him prior to his performance.
by Mikkel Brandt
“I wanted to take the lute out of the museum and bring it to the people.”
When Jozef van Wissem first picked up the lute, it didn’t seem like the average choice for a young punk musician. But Mr. van Wissem isn’t quite an average musician either.
”I got interested in lute music when I was about 14 years old because my guitar teacher gave me lute music to play on classical guitar.”
Now, four decades later, he surely has taken the lute to places it had never been before, and on the way he has made its tones flow into computer game music, dance shows and soundtracks – including Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” from 2013.
All this wasn’t in the cards when he gave up the electric guitar in favour of studying this ancient string instrument.
“Back then lute was not hip or whatever, and in a broad opinion, it sort of had this ridiculous Robin Hood image made by Hollywood. Back then, you were the village fool.”
From the beginning, Jozef knew that he didn’t just want to maintain some preconceived legacy. So instead of sticking to the classical repertoire, he wanted to give it his own take.
“I wasn’t interested in interpreting the pieces in a purely historical way. So what I did was this very dada thing, where I wrote renaissance pieces out backwards. So that became my first compositions. They were called ‘Retrograde’, and they were basically just backwards versions of renaissance pieces. Everybody thought that was nuts.”
He explains that he still uses this mirror image technique. For example by reversing small baroque melodies and incorporate them into his compositions.
You Know That I Love You
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Jozef ran a music bar in the Netherlands but says that he got sick of that life and moved to New York to start afresh.
“I lived like a monk after that because I needed to be alone and sort of reinventing myself,” as he puts it.
Through an ad in the alternative New York paper “The Village Voice”, he got in touch with lute player – and also ex-guitarist – Patrick O’Brien, who’d been a former student of blues musician Blind Gary Davis.
“He was such a personality. And one of the first things he told me was that if I wanted to make a living out of playing the lute, I had to write my own pieces. That opened it up for me.”
This advice stood in sharp contrast to the strict approach he had met from his former teachers, where experimentation and improvisation were not well regarded.
“In the early 90’s I was very influenced by transcendental and experimental music. I was, for example, listening to Coil a lot. That influenced me more than anything.”
Soon Jozef van Wissem will be back with a new album named ”Ex Mortis”.
Those two words (meaning “from death”) are inscribed on the neck of his lute and refer to the renaissance of the Baroque Lute during the 1920s – led by the German Wandervogel movement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandervogel). A back-to-nature youth community who protested against industrialization by embracing activities such as countryside hiking and communing with nature in general.
Before that, the lute had almost disappeared for 200 years.
“I have a theory that it disappeared because it became too complicated. The makers were building bigger lutes with more strings and experimented with tunings. And I think it disappeared because it was just too difficult to study and play it. And I guess the piano took over. Also besides that, they are fragile instruments, so there aren’t many ancient copies left. They are all destroyed. But then it came back at the beginning of the 1900s in Germany during the Wandervogel movement. It was the beginning of the comeback.”
”Ex Mortis” is out February 7th and is thematically inspired by “The Booke of Gostlye Grace” by the German nun Mechthild of Hackeborn and her sisters.
The book was written in the 1290s and contains Mechthild’s visions and dialogue between herself and God – which Jozef describes as “an intensely religious, but also erotic relation.”
“It’s really beautiful, intense writing, often written in a trancelike form.”
This material lays the lyrical foundation of the album, which also features Thor Harris and Jarboe (both with a background in Michael Gira’s band Swans). And Nikolaj Komiagin of Shortparis, who played at last year’s Northern Winter Beat, sings on the first single from the album, “Cold Corpse”.
“Trance” is a central word in Jozef’s musical universe, and he explains that he likes to use repetition as a musical gateway to a trance state for both himself and the listeners. This can, for example, take form as small melodies or themes that are repeated over and over to gain a transcendental effect, where the sense of time is lost.
“The sound can be quite diverse, and I love to play the same pieces again and again, and hear how they sound different in different rooms. Sometimes I play on stages infuriated with a lot of smoke. It sort of becomes this metal thing. And there can be low-end feedback from the bass.Then it’s almost like a Sunn O))) show.
Backed by that quote, we’re not afraid to say that transcendental lute music never has sounded so interesting, as it does when Jozef van Wissem plucks the strings.
Experience Jozef van Wissem at Northern Winter Beat 2020, January 30th in Budolfi Cathedral.
On their 5th studio album, “Altid Sammen”, Efterklang mixes new sonic discoveries with an unexpected lyrical turnaround. And after almost two decades of musical exploration, they seem more adventurous than ever. NWR had a chat with the band’s singer, Casper Clausen.
by Mikkel Brandt
When Efterklang kicks off their upcoming European tour at Northern Winter Beat 2020, the ever-curious trio is once again on to something unique.
Not only does their new material include some of the barest arrangements the band has ever done, but it also introduces Danish lyrics for the first time in their career.
Singer Casper Clausen:
“For Efterklang, one of the most important ingredients has always been moving forward. That there’s always some kind of new challenge in what we do. There must be some excitement. Something we haven’t tried before.”
Under broen der ligger du
The band consists of Casper himself and his two childhood friends Mads Brauer and Rasmus Stolberg. And apart from a ton of musical collaborations – including scoring an opera with composer Karsten Fundal – they have recently joined forces with percussionist Tatu Rönkkö and mutated into the band Liima.
Now they are back as Efterklang with their first studio album since 2013, “Altid Sammen”.
“When we came back to make music as Efterklang, we were turned on by the idea of scaling things down. We hadn’t tried that much before in the band. To scale the songs down to just a few instruments.”
The first sketches for the album were made in Casper’s studio in Lisbon, where he and Mads experimented with Baroque-inspired chord progressions, which eventually made their way into the album’s last track, “Hold mine hænder”.
Hold mine hænder
Casper mentions intuition as a central part of their creative process, and that he prefers to think as little as possible when he writes songs.
But how did Danish words begin to sneak into the lyrics?
“It’s not something that comes out of the blue. It’s something that has articulated over the years. I’ve been thinking that it might be interesting to sing in Danish at some point, and wondering what it might be like.”
In this process, he says that living in both Berlin and Lisbon has influenced him.
“I have spent most of my time during the last ten years living outside Denmark. So it has got a little ‘foreign’ somehow. But on the other hand, I can also feel at home there in a very special way. I think I needed to be in that place to look at the Danish language with new eyes. It felt like a whole new language to sing in.”
In relation to lyric writing, he mentions inspirations like C.V. Jørgensen and Michael Strunge.
He also tells that writing in his native language gave a sort of comfort, which allowed him to be “wrong in the right way.”
“In English, I can feel hampered by the fact that the language must be correct. So I have been very pleased with a sense of indifference, and that I can say things that I want because I feel completely confident that this isn’t what it’s about in this context. This has been a pleasure.”
Casper explains that both this approach to lyric writing as well as the idea of downscaling the songs have enabled new ways of working with the songs in the studio.
“There are still 40-50 musicians involved on the record. The difference is just that by scaling the songs down to something very simple, we could communicate more freely with the musicians.”
He explains that this open starting point – that these simpler songs represented – allowed the guest musicians (an extensive troop including the Icelandic choir Kliður and the Antwerp-based baroque band B.O.X) to contribute in a great extent, contrary to bigger pre-written arrangements with more defined roles for each instrument.
“It was possible for the musicians we invited to act more freely, and we could communicate in a more free way. It felt very new for us and ultimately created a barer musical universe.”
At Northern Winter Beat the band will present both old and new material and will be flanked on stage by Norwegian drummer and singer Øyunn and Christian Balvig on piano and synth.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place right now. And I think the new material has a different tranquillity than the earlier. So for us at the moment it’s also about cultivating that condition.”
Vi er uendelig
By the end of the interview I asked Casper to give his (from the top of his head) recommendations from this year’s festival lineup:
“I’m a huge fan of Kali Malone. I recently saw her live in the Netherlands, and I listen to her music a lot when I travel actually.”
Kali Malone live
“I also think that Iceage are fantastic. There’s a kind of danger in their universe. It doesn’t stand still. Things are vibrating. And Elias is just a wild frontman, and they just play tremendously well together.”
“I’m a huge fan of Michael Gira’s bandSwans and have seen them live many times. But I’ve never seen him solo. I would love to experience that.”
Efterklang will be playing at Northern Winter Beat 2020 January 31st.