– An immigrant always negotiates his position in some way. There are different strategies: mixing languages, preserving traditional costumes or seeking a place through speculative anthropology. This works at the university and in a gallery, but I believe it can also provoke something outside of them – says musician and composer, Wojciech Rusin.
It seems that Syphon, released by AD93, brought Wojtek Rusin to peoples’ attention the most. An unconventional artist, musician, and composer. He has been active for over a decade, but he is more widely recognised outside of Poland (which is gradually changing), especially in the UK, where he works on a daily basis. His skilful stylistic equilibrium attracts us not only with original musical solutions, but also with a concept that is drawing from a wide range of early music, electronics, everything that is neatly produced, which proves the unusual character of his work. If you are interested, I recommend my introduction to the history of this colourful personality, about whom I wrote three years ago on the occasion of the release of the album The Funnel. And then, you should listen to the latest release of Syphon. I wrote about it on the pages of The Quietus:
Rusin juxtaposes operatic vocals with electronics created in the Orange Milk aesthetics using hyper pop elements, field recordings and synthesis in the spirit of Sote. He uses self-made 3D instruments that create a multi-layered story – dehumanised electronics meeting sounds of nature and strings. Sometimes he ventures into song-like compositions with Eden Girma, Emma Broughton and interesting chamber music, at other times into quasi-folk.Inner Ear: Polish Music For January
Below, you can read our conversation about boundaries blurring, speculativeness, alchemy, theatre music, recording albums, but also about challenging the orders of tradition.
JAKUB KNERA: In Fabruary you released Syphon, a second album under your own name. The first one, The Funnel, came out in 2019, but earlier you had recorded under Katapulto moniker: Animalia cassette on the Sangoplasmo label in 2011 or the Powerflex album on Olde English Spelling Bee in 2015, among others. When did you decide to record under your own name?
WOJCIECH RUSIN: The Katapulto project expired naturally. It was inspired by the German new wave, hysterical experiments with pop – I was testing how far it can be moved towards absurdity, overdrive, fast rhythm and absurd lyrics. I was discovering my voice in it, there were a lot of vocals. I also released an album in this aesthetics as Obsidian Teeth in the Ceramics label in Bristol – it was post-industrial music with beats, no vocals.
Releasing music under my own name was the aftermath of the invitation to Glasgow’s Radiophrenia festival that is dedicated to the art of sound. Its organisers commission a 20–30-minute block to an artist that he or she is asked to develop.
At that time, you were also composing music for theatre.
While I was trying out vocal experiments in Katapulto, I was working for theatre all the time. Composing for the Radiophrenia festival coincided with preparing the music for the National Theatre of Wales’ play We’re Still Here. The whole piece took place in a 130 meters long abandoned factory in a steel mill in Port Talbot. The performance was related to the steel industry of Wales: I installed electromagnetic hammers that I combined with a tonal, minimalist string sound. As a result, I created a contrast between the elegant sound of classical instruments and the industrial music.
While working on the production for Radiophrenia, I developed this formula. I took an interest in Renaissance vocal music, alchemy, gnostic texts. I developed this idea and the result of it was The Funnel album.
How did composing for theatre influence your thinking about recording music for an album?
I notice how working methods repeat themselves ever since I have been working with the Commonwealth Theatre company. Transitions between scenes and emotions that accompany them are significant – the music has to be transparent, it can’t be ambiguous. I transferred it to the way I work on records.The Funnel became a soundtrack, something that could potentially be made of very different musical material, but somehow interlocks. There are absurd songs, funny songs, there is random humour, but there are also scary and extremely dramatic moments. This theatre also offers an emotional rollercoaster designed to jolt you out of your everyday life.
You mentioned alchemy and Gnosticism – how have they influenced the way you think about music?
When I was preparing the music for We’re Still Here, we went with the theatre company to see the steel mill in Port Talbot. It’s an alchemical laboratory on an industrial scale: there’s silver dust everywhere, huge boilers with liquid metal are running over your head, everything feels very psychedelic. You’re able to assess the scale of the place only when there’s a human in the hall.
As we were standing in front of one of the boilers where metal was being melted, one of the engineers told us how the quality of the steel that came out of it was identified in the 1960s and 1970s. Well, they used sound – there was a man who listened to the flame and was thus able to tell whether there were enough ingredients in the material. Nowadays, microphones are hung above the boilers – the iron samples flow and a spectrogram of sound allows for the quickest analysis of the material.
Have you taken interest in alchemy after this visit?
In the meantime, I read Hermes Trismegistos and Corpus Hermeticum, classics of Gnostic philosophy, written by the Greeks around 2nd or 3rd century, that were often misinterpreted by Europeans as texts from before the Christian era.
The Funnel was like a piece of alchemical laboratory, an excuse to follow this path. Around that time, I visited the Fronteira Palace in Lisbon where I saw alchemical drawings from the 17th and 18th centuries. It reflected the irrational paradigm that coexisted with the rational one after the Age of Enlightenment: Christian symbols on one side, Saturn eating children or lizards playing the organ on the other.
Tell us more about what you have read.
It’s a subject that develops in parallel with rationalism, trampled on by the Enlightenment. Gary Lachman, a member of the band Blondie, has written a plethora of books about esoteric beliefs and figures like Hermes Trismegistos, a Swedish esoteric thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, or Madame Helena Blavatsky, who used to evoke spirits. He also described how Jung, Newton or Goethe got interested in alchemy. Goethe had an alchemical laboratory in the attic of his parents’ house, which was not mentioned in the Enlightenment paradigm. Meanwhile, William Blake wrote that rationalism is not the only way to know the world.
This irrational path allows us to return to forgotten beliefs, buried things – The Funnel is an attempt to unearth them, a vehicle for speculative archaeology. And when I take this theory directly to art, I imagine something that used to happen, trying to present speculative early music.
We talk about The Funnel, it is 3 years later, and Syphon comes out. How was this album created?
At that time, I moved from Bristol to London and started MA studies in Sound Arts at Goldsmiths University. The dynamics of the place changed, also the people, the gigs, and the possible collaborations. It turned out to be a new step to invite new people to collaborate, who later appeared on the album, like Eden Girma, who is trained in soprano singing. I recorded her vocals and had to digest it for some time to find the right context for it. Quick experiments with such material can end badly, wander into something around new age, something on the edge of good taste. It’s a risk I take when I enter an aesthetic space where everything can collapse, but if it works, it works perfectly. Syphon may not be as bold as The Funnel, but it balances all the time – one sound too many and everything could collapse.
To me, Syphon goes beyond the album format: a part of it could be a sound installation, a mini recital or a radio play.
This is a very diverse material. I’m fascinated by the blending of styles, the fantasies of the sound of the harpsichord blending with an acoustic, completely abstract piece. This record is the aftermath of my work in theatre: you’re in some situation you’re comfortable with, then you seamlessly move somewhere else, and then more elsewhere – seemingly they are different places, but you discover why it makes sense dramatically.
Some recordings from The Funnel functioned as a three-channel installation Cyphonium for voices and the sound of pipes in the ‘Luminality’ exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery in London. There was also one of my 3D printed instruments hanging on the wall.
We’ll get to your instruments later, but this is exactly the sound environment I was thinking about.
I remember reading Brian Catling’s The Vorrh Trilogy – I’m not into science fiction, but one scene inspired mein particular. There was a figure levitating in a garden, emerging from the smoke, and its mouth was printing a paper with text on it. A perfect space for me, and my music could be its soundtrack. Listen to the composition “Swedenborg in the Forest” – you can hear the sound of birds, water, then there is a flute, the aftermath of the chamber music of the earlier piece “Words into Shapes”, all of it is quite unobvious, psychedelic.
You mix these orders, you balance on the border of worlds: you incorporate old music, futurism, you mix instruments with synthesis, sometimes they are played by real musicians, sometimes by samples. Speculum Veritatis: you don’t know what is real and what is not, you can get lost in the speculations.
That’s the point! I don’t want to bring back anything from the past and preserve it – it’s exactly the opposite. I can imagine how in a few hundred years someone will want to recreate early music, and everything will start to mix in a strange delirium, the boundaries will become even more fluid and – for example, baroque will become close to power-electronics music. I don’t study early music. I also get mixed up by recordings – sometimes I can mistake a composition of a hundred years because something sounds modern and it turns out to be early renaissance with improbable vocals. My music is a suggestion of a false past, an idea of a certain historical time.
Not just music, but your 3D printed pipes too. Bright colours, strange shapes, supposedly ancient instruments, but they look modern, it’s not clear how to play them and what sound they should make.
This whole idea of speculativeness goes even better with these instruments than with music. As you say, they contain several conceptual elements that intrigue me personally. On the one hand, they use a double reed, also present in a bassoon or an oboe. R. Murray Schafer mentions Homer who wrote about the archetypal sound of such a reed, which can later be heard in pipes in the Middle Ages or in bagpipes. I use the same technology, only the instrument is made of plastic. I take some archetypal sound from a long ago and evoke it, reaching into the past through something that is already rooted in literature and musicology. My pipes look like instruments made by the Memphis group in the 1980s, except that the sound doesn’t match those sweet colours. The result is a dissonance between the design and the sound.
What was their purpose?
I proposed creating them while writing my MA thesis as speculative Eastern European instruments. I wanted to start a discussion about how the West perceives the East, but I also referred to Jennifer Walsh’s project to create Aisteach – a fictional archive of the Irish avant-garde. It includes i.a. Sr Anselme O’Ceallaigh, a nun who allegedly played minimalism on the organ even before Le Monte Young or Tony Conrad did. Walsh’s lexicon also includes, for example, the Reverend Joseph Garvan Digges, who recorded noise music on wax cylinders. I’s all accompanied with academic texts!
Walsh wanted to draw attention to Ireland’s heritage, so she reinvented it to change the perception of a province. From London’s perspective, this country lies on the periphery. When she creates an archive like this, there begins a dialogue, some questioning, speculativeness. I was going for something similar – I made pipes and proposed that they were the output of the Carpathian region. I juxtaposed them with medieval engravings, sketches or illustrations of shepherds playing flutes. Next to it I put my 3D instruments, suggesting that they were based on these archives. I even went to the Bieszczady Mountains and recorded melodies played on them, suggesting that they were reconstructions of medieval shepherd music.
That’s a bit like “Destroyer of Worlds”.
At some point, this project went beyond the field of sound art and entered the field of speculative design that is a part of design practiced at Goldsmiths University. They make non-utilitarian objects, they are not art, but they draw attention to a certain problem, a theme, they question reality, or they spread confusion and terror (laughs).
The key is that I came out of the practice of design, not the practice of making instruments – unlike the microtonalists or Harry Partch, who were looking for sounds or intervals. The pipes are not meant to produce any spectacular sound, I want to bring them into the context of performance and live acts. They can be played by people who don’t usually deal with wind instruments – I would be interested not in virtuoso, but rather strictly amateur performances. Some pipes are out of tune which makes a different effect, like when several oscillators play – it creates a cluster, a fluctuating drone. The pipes are open in meaning, unlike, let’s say, a violin, the cultural baggage of which is so huge that it’s paralysing at first. Either you play early music, or play like Tony Conrad, or free-jazz – you cannot be free from this aesthetics. The aesthetics of pipes encourages you to experiment.
You have opened an online shop with pipes. Has anyone used them to record music?
Two people have recorded albums using them, they are on Bandcamp. They sample the pipes, use them a bit like a synth, and deconstruct them on Ableton. In my degree course at the Goldsmiths University most of the stuff in sound arts are compositions and installations, sometimes they get into visual arts, but not like pipes. Here the visual concept is just as important as the sound concept. At one point I even thought about leading this project to absurdity and starting to print instruments that won’t make a sound at all – you’d be looking at an object related to a sound that you can only imagine.
And what was the response to your speculative theory of their Eastern Europeanness?
It is not so much Eastern Europeanness itself that is the key here. The British are extremely sensitive when it comes to diasporas of various kinds and the history of colonisation in the academic community. The Black Lives Matter movement shows the complexity of colonialism and changes mindsets. When I showed pagan deities to my thesis supervisor suggesting that I would put their heads on a pipe and it would become an old Polish pagan instrument, he laughed out loud. He doubted if it was true, but at the same time he didn’t know if I was really joking. I asked him: what are you going to do about it now? You’ll have to do some research to see if I’m telling the truth or if it’s complete bullshit.
Such provocation is important, and so is the conversation that it initiates. A teacher begins to question his or her idea of Eastern Europe, something that is not at the centre, and whether we should believe in it or not.
An immigrant always negotiates his position in some way. There are different strategies: mixing languages, preserving traditional costumes or seeking a place through speculative anthropology. This works at the university and in a gallery, but I believe it can also provoke something outside of them.
I associate this transgression in your music and design with Julia Ducournau’s Titane, a very strange film that poses more questions than answers, just like Syphon. Questions, not answers, are the key.
Thank you. A non-obvious thing is the most interesting. It’s a naive return to a child’s perspective, when you want to be surprised and don’t quite know what it’s about. You don’t know if something is authentic or not, synthetic or organic, you don’t know what period it is, if the voice is physically modelled or if it is processed – when I sing, I level the vibrato which makes me sound like a synthesizer, and the harpsichord is sampled. I explore blurring the boundaries.