Marja Ahti: Vegetal Negatives

Navel-Gazers #38 is an interview with Marja Ahti who is going to talk to us about Vegetal Negatives. I’ve had this music on regular rotation lately - I think of it not just as a record to listen to but as kind of a place or “realm” to visit and revisit, again and again… its four tracks - which are of various shapes and sizes - possess all the depth and variation of the soundscapes we might encounter in everyday life, but here it’s as though everything’s been somehow reordered, recomposed, and assumed a form all of its own. There’s a certain precision to this stuff, a sense that the unusual placement of these sounds is deeply deliberate. Yet Marja’s compositions always seem to arrive there naturally. It’s never achieved through heavy-handed edits or cuts but instead in the subtle selection and juxtaposition of the elements across the stereo field. As for Marja herself, I’m guessing she’s a bit of a surrealist? or perhaps a para-surrealist, given that she cites a text on “pataphotograms” by the writer René Daumal as the inspiration for ‘Vegetal Negatives”. But I really don’t know. She’s writing from Finland, a place which always holds a certain fascination for me. Aside from that I’m curious: what motivates this kind of sound making? And what is the story behind ‘Vegetal Negatives’??

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! I’ve been really immersed in this album the last few days, listening and also poring over the liner notes.. but before we get to that I wonder if you could tell us about yourself, your background, how you got started as an artist?

Marja Ahti: Hi Andrew! Thank you for listening. It's been a few years since I made Vegetal Negatives, so it'll be interesting for me as well to return to it from a new perspective.

I come from a small town in the north of Sweden, where I got interested in arts and music as a teenager. I grew up playing instruments, then later studied literature and languages at university. I was interested in writers that explored the margins of what is expressible with language and also drawn to the work of self-taught artists and people with eccentric practices in different art forms. Towards the end of my time at university I started to gravitate back to music, maybe because it seemed to be going to exactly those places. Moving to Finland after graduating, I met a lot of people that had an enabling impact in terms of learning by doing.

AC: Do you speak Finnish? It’s notoriously difficult..

Marja Ahti: I speak Finnish pretty fluently, with a Swedish accent. My mother is Finnish and I had a little bit of language lessons as a child, but I learned it properly in my twenties. It’s definitely a tricky language to learn from scratch. The grammar is full of complicated inflection rules and has 15 cases. But once you learn the rules, there are pretty much no exceptions to them.

AC: How did you connect with other artists after arriving in Finland? Were you in Turku from the start? What’s it like there?

Marja Ahti: Yeah, I moved to Turku and I've lived here ever since. It's a nice place to live, small enough that you can bicycle most places. It's by the sea and is close to some really beautiful islands. For a small town, there's quite an active art scene. When I first moved here I met a lot of people through my partner, who'd already been here for more then ten years and is also an artist.

AC: Ok so ‘Vegetal Negatives’, I don’t recall when I first encountered this album but it got my attention right away.. the cover image is striking and the title is so bizarre. What’s the background of this project, how did it start?

Marja Ahti: I think it all started with a kind of shift in my relation to sound a few years back, something I've talked about before as well. With it came a feeling of starting all over, learning new things and a new way of listening. I had been making music for a while already, but grown weary of my methods. I wanted to break free of even thinking about it in terms of music and to regain a personal experience of sound. Me and my partner had started to get interested in field recordings and it opened up a world of purposeless deep listening. I was also learning about analog synthesis, electricity, building electronic timbre from the very basics.

Around this time, I also had these questions in play of a somewhat existential or a philosophic nature. Like what is a human, what is nature, what is sound... and so on. I felt that I should somehow be able to come up with a response to them in my music. I came across this short text by René Daumal with this definition of plant versus human: just invert them. Green inverts into red, roots invert into intestines etc. I thought it was funny, both poetic and silly.

AC: In response to Daumal’s quote, I suppose you’ve got those field recordings of the exterior world, and the electronics constituting more of an interior world. And I’d imagined your treatment of that as a “reordering” but the description’s already there: it’s an inversion, a negative.

Marja Ahti: I don't actually make a separation between an exterior and interior world. What I'm hoping to do is to dissolve that kind of division. I think what happens when you're focusing on listening is just that - the internal and external cease to be separate worlds. Listening happens in a process that includes the whole chain of events that leads to a sound and the perception of it, without which they are nothing. So the inversions are there to show that, like with the plant and the animal, that in a way they are just temporary forms and their attributes and narrative content are something that we add. But they are also really nice forms (I think) and you should just enjoy them as such.

AC: Tell us about the contents of the field recordings.

Marja Ahti: I did most of the field recordings on Vegetal Negatives at Turku botanical gardens, during a road trip in Alaska, on the Greek island Skyros, in Unnaryd in the south of Sweden, and at home with its surroundings.

There is a recording on the track Rooftop Gardens from the Sheraton hotel in Anchorage, in which I enter the revolving doors from the street, move through the lobby and up to the top floor with a rattling elevator. This upward movement sets a narrative in motion, entering a fictive garden with all its greenhouse technology sounding. It finally ends in a sense of elevating or evaporating into a dense cloud. When I made the record I was interested in this kind of associative narrative, that's really based on the sounds themselves, but becomes a poetic event.

AC: With all the exotic locales you list, the lobby of the Sheraton in Anchorage seems an unlikely place to record! Did something catch your ear there? Could you talk about your field recording practice generally, do you travel with the intent to record, always take along a device, etc?

Marja Ahti: To be honest, I can't actually remember why I recorded in the lobby. Sometimes I record because I find interesting sounds. Sometimes I just record to see what happens. I think this one goes into the later category.

I usually take along a device when I travel. When you're in a new environment, sounds are unfamiliar and interesting. I don't usually travel with the intent to do field recordings, but rather record wherever I happen to be invited to play a show. Sometimes a residency, rarely holiday these days. But around home I often make little excursions to listen for sounds. I've done a lot of listening into structures with a contact microphone lately.

AC: You talked about constructing an associative narrative. What’s your process of composition? So say you have the recording from the Sheraton, it starts out on its own but on the record it’s contextualised - maybe you curated a specific clip, treated the sound, juxtaposed it with others, layered, panned etc. What are the decisions made along the way?

Marja Ahti: When I start to work on a piece all the decisions are intuitive, like swimming under the surface. The decisions are based on the sounds themselves, their shape and energy. Then maybe I come up for air, realize that a sequence works on another level as well, maybe in terms of associative meaning. That might nudge the piece in a new direction, make me look for the next sound according to the logic of this level. When I dive again, there's another layer added to my understanding of the piece.

The most important decisions are what sounds are put next to each other. Environmental recordings, for example, sometimes have a subtle sense of pitch and the right one after the other creates a kind of lift or harmonic shift, although not in a strictly musical way.

AC: I wanted to ask about Chora: at 4:58, it just… stops! Then starts again, almost like a separate piece. It seems you revisited this motif on The Altitudes (from your subsequent album The Current Inside) which has several such sections. What’s the thought process there?

Marja Ahti: Yeah, there's a pause to mark a transition. But I think silences in a piece is a great thing in itself. Especially when you get the feeling that whatever is going on around you opens up as music after focusing on sound that disappears. I just followed a discussion thread online where people recounted their experiences of listening to music (I think it was mostly Pansonic in this case) and not realizing the record had ended fully enjoyed the neighbor apartment's washing machine and such. So very common, yet always so nice. In 'The Altitudes' the role of the pauses is to highlight the transition between layers of sound. If you have sounds that are like physical entities or objects, a silence seem to make them feel even more so.

AC: That was exactly my experience of it.

Let’s discuss your other work, especially your latest release, the magnificent Still Lives. And of course you also do performances and installations… how do you think things have evolved after ‘Vegetal Negatives’?

Marja Ahti: I think I'm more and more drawn to zooming in on specific qualities of sound, which often means stripping away unnecessary elements and a slower unfolding. Especially sounds that have a tangible physical impact. Very low frequencies, very high frequencies. Elemental sounds. I'm less interested in the significance and meaning of sounds, more in what they do and perception of sound as such. I think 'Still Lives' is more restrained than my previous work and that feels like the direction I'm going in now.

I've also been more interested in working with instrumentalists and across the disciplines with people from other art forms. The past years I've been involved with an experimental opera project with performance/visual artist Essi Kausalainen and poet/visual artist Jenny Kalliokulju as well as doing installation work together with visual artist Mikko Kuorinki.

AC: What’s your role in the experimental opera project?

Marja Ahti: I composed the music. We performed it with a classically trained soprano, an actor, a performance artist, a cellist, a harpist and a couple of children.

AC: Sounds cool.

Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about the cover of ‘Vegetal Negatives’. Something about that image.. it’s reminiscent of a negative, while not being one. It has a funny sort of light to it, don’t you think?

Marja Ahti: I haven't thought about it as a photographic negative, but you're right, the colors are strange. I found it in an old Soviet travel guide to Jalta, which of course has a strange resonance these days. The shapes of plants and humans in that strange, artificial light appealed to me. As I used a lot of recordings of humidifiers and lamps at the local botanical garden greenhouses on the record, it also seemed like a nice echo of these.

Sound Studio 80s
AC: It's a curious and perfect fit for the music.

Well Marja I'd like to thank you very much for talking to me! 'Vegetal Negatives' is such a special work and it's been great to learn more about the background. Do you have any current or upcoming projects you'd like to mention, or final thoughts for our readers?

Marja Ahti: My pleasure. Thanks Andrew!

Me and Judith Hamann have been working on a duo LP for the past two years. A slow correspondence of sounds and thoughts that has been running alongside other work and that's been really enjoyable. It was released a few weeks ago. So if you're interested in hearing more, that's something you could check out.

Marja can be found at her website

Image credits

1) Laurent Orseau
2) Niko-Matti Ahti
3) Marja Ahti
4) Sorbus
5) Mikko Kuorinki
6) Hertta Kiiski

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