Name: Marja Ahti
Nationality: Swedish & Finnish
Occupation: Sound artist, composer
Current Release: So far, Marja Ahti has released two albums under her own name: Vegetal Negatives, released in 2019 and 2020's Current Inside. These works present a sharp break with her past publications as Tsembla, not just in terms of their aesthetics, but also with regards to the underlying concepts and philosophy. Sound turns into a raw material for the construction of worlds that are as intimate as they are vast and which feel remarkably real despite their abstractions. A few remaining copies are available either from the website of the Hallow Ground label or from Marja Ahti directly.
Recommendations: I’ll recommend the last novel I read because I’m still under its spell: Peach Blossom Paradise by Ge Fei, translated to English from the Chinese by Canaan Morse. My other recommendation would be Éliane Radigue’s Feedback Works. It’s a music that I never get tired of.
If you enjoyed this interview with Marja Ahti, visit her website. Or head over to her soundcloud account for more music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started relatively late, at 27. I had just dropped everything and moved from Sweden to Finland to live with my partner and to learn the language of my mother. I grew up playing instruments and studied music in high school, but that never led me to making something of my own. When I later got back to music, I was drawn to the work of self-taught artists and people with eccentric practices in different art forms. I wanted to do something with sound, in music, that was intuitive. Literature was my other big interest and that’s what I mainly studied at university.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
My early music education was all about being encouraged to emulate others. This is how music is often taught. But when I set out to make my own music, that kind of development seemed a deadlock for me. I needed a reset first and the only way to start over at that point was to begin from an as outside and intuitive position as I could summon for myself. Now that I’m confident in what I do, it’s not a problem anymore to learn from the work of others. Whatever I do tends to end up sounding as my work anyways, for better or worse.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I feel like what I’m doing with sound is not so much about me making the music, expressing myself and my identity, but more like facilitating new constellations of sounds, listening and making use of what’s in front of me. Of course all the things I’ve been exposed to somehow feeds into my music and the choices I make. Still, identity as I understand it is how you describe and define yourself, and my work is not focused on doing that. On a personal level, I’m more interested in how my creativity influences my identity than the other way around. How they both keep changing together.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I realized I didn’t want to be an instrumentalist I dived happily into a technology oriented approach to making music. Technology can be endlessly liberating, but in many ways also limiting. One challenge from the start has been to use technology to create something organic. I’ve approached this in different ways throughout the years. It’s a paradox that inspires me.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first instrument was the alto saxophone since I was twelve, then I learned the guitar as a teenager. At 27 I sold my saxophone and bought some cheap recording equipment and a sampler and made my first recordings with whatever sound sources were available, flea market Casios and percussion, my boyfriend’s electric guitar, samples from records and YouTube instrument demonstration videos, some effect pedals. A pretty standard DIY setup, which I refined over the years.
After a while I started to find sampling ethically questionable and my methods creatively limited in other regards as well. It was a kind of crisis and it led me to switch methods completely. The world of shaping electronic timbres was opening up to me as I was learning analog synthesis and I increasingly preferred capturing sounds from my immediate physical environment instead of from within a circuit of cultural ready-mades.
I started to travel to Stockholm to work with the Buchla systems at EMS, which is where I really fell in love with electricity. Around the same time me and my husband, Niko-Matti, were starting to work together doing field recordings and gathering sounds from our travels and daily life, as well as experimenting with feedback and other hands-on work with sound waves. All of this was new territory for him as well, so we both got a lot out of learning things together. Recently, I’ve also collaborated with instrumentalists and written for musical instruments.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
One would be a tiny Sony PCM recorder that I got in 2012. It’s so small that you can always carry it in your pocket, but the microphones sound pretty decent and it adds very little noise. It’s not functioning properly anymore so I bought a new model that unfortunately is a bit bigger and clumsier. Capturing field recordings while traveling and making a habit of always listening has changed my way of working with sound.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I especially like collaborating with people with whom I share an interest but who come at it from a different angle and bring something to the work that I could never come up with myself - instrumentalists, visual artists or writers for example. It’s great to find resonance across different methods or media. Or to work with someone you know extremely well and build up a universe together, like what me and Niko-Matti are doing together.
At the moment I have a few other different collaborative projects running on slow speed in different cycles and they all somehow highlight different ways of doing things. One is a file correspondence recording with the amazing cellist and composer Judith Hamann, in which we feed each other material to respond to. Another is a piece I’m writing for a Helsinki based electric guitar quartet, which is more traditionally about me creating a piece for them to work with. Then we have a very process based chamber opera performance together with visual and performance artist Essi Kausalainen, poet and painter Jenny Kalliokulju and a few performers from various backgrounds and age groups. Mine and Niko’s duo work is always ongoing and involves a lot of shared listening and talking about ideas.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
This past year of the pandemic has been different. Less traveling means more peaceful studio time but also missing the energy that you get from new places and people.
Morning is often my best time to work and I go to the studio every weekday after breakfast. I cycle between different routines depending on what I work on at the moment. Last spring I made a habit of going on recording walks every morning. At the moment my day looks something like this: I wake up without an alarm clock between six and seven, make some oatmeal for breakfast and then walk to my studio. When I arrive there I meditate, then open the window and let in the sounds from outside, make some coffee.
I often start with listening through what I’m working on at the moment. After that I dive into recording or editing. If I exhaust my ears, I do other things like answering emails or go outside for a walk. If I have the same schedule for more than a week or two I usually feel the need to do something completely different not to fall back on habits too much in the work.
I typically have a few different projects running side by side, so I can switch between modes. Last month I started each day playing guitar. Sometimes I just go to the studio to read books, listen to records and drink tea. Everything you do feeds back into the work, whether or not you realize it at the moment and I think it’s very important to have time when you’re not thinking about the work at all. After I’m done for the day I go home and do some cooking or some kind of exercise. I spend time with Niko-Matti, maybe read or watch a movie. I share an allotment garden with a friend and the season is just starting here for growing vegetables, so I often bike there in the evening.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Vegetal Negatives was my first record under my own name. I started to work on it in 2017 and it was released in 2019. A lot of it was made while traveling and in residencies. I have very vivid memories of recording in different locations, editing in bus terminals and ferry cafeterias. Different smells, lights and atmospheres that I still connect to the sounds. I spent two weeks traveling in Alaska with a rented car in early spring and that experience is somehow inseparable from the record. I really feel like I was discovering sound all over again during the time I was working on the record. For this reason it feels special to me.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me, the ideal state is one in which I listen and react intuitively with a relaxed mind. One of my strategies is to work in the morning when the world is new. If I at some point get stuck in habits, I do something else for a while, then get back to the listening and see if I can find a new entry. When making a record, for example, at some points you also need stages of critical examining as well, especially towards the end. It is really important, but it can also be exhausting.
I’ve slipped into a pattern of doing the final work on my solo albums during the darkest winter, which is not always so good for me. It’s a time when I easily fall prey to a certain kind of miserable perfectionism. But then again, it’s lovely to start each spring with a clean slate.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I find the healing potential of music in the unknown depths of experience. Surrendering to the strange beauty of sounds is a kind of healing. Diving into this same ocean together as an audience in a shared space or creating something together makes it even more potent. This social dimension is what I miss the most these days.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think music is about giving and communicating, not about taking and benefiting. Cultural exchange is great and has resulted in amazing music and ideas, but the balance of whose voices are heard and who gets the credit is extremely unequal. There’s a terrain of delicate relations to be navigated while trying to see both your own position more clearly and the deeper roots of whatever you’re engaging with.
Appropriation, even copying, is not negative by default. It can also be used creatively, critically, in an empowering way. It’s good to check if that’s what’s actually going on or accidentally the opposite. We all have our blind spots. I’m all for engaging and learning while aiming towards awareness and sensitivity. The more discussion we have, the easier it gets for people to see their own roles in harmful structures.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to others senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Sometimes when I walk home after intense listening in the studio, I might look at something like a wall or a cloud hanging in the sky and feel like it’s directly connected to hearing and walking, like a moment that’s frozen but alive and continuous. The senses seem like filters or membranes mediating aspects of the same thing. Hearing and touching are both oscillations vibrating in the body with some shared receptors in the brain. For a musician this is probably the most obvious overlap, but I think it’s an endlessly fascinating one.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art can never be separated from everything else and of course it has a direct influence in the world like every other occurrence. But it doesn’t work as art if you just use it as a means to an end. When you make music you surrender to it. It changes you, but you’re not doing it in order to change yourself or others into something particular or preconceived. The feedback is nebulous, unpredictable and exciting. There’s an ambiguous and anarchic dimension to it. It might help you explore primordial or unstructured experiences, deconstruct your concepts, create new connections.
It doesn’t replace learning about what’s going on in the world or taking action. But I think it would be wrong to say it has zero influence.
On another level, being a part of a collective that has a place in society, dealing with people and structures, you’re also continuously involved in tiny acts that radiate in larger circles than you might think. How you talk and treat others makes a difference. Gathering around art, building friendships and alternative structures, could at best be an antidote to rigid social roles, hyperindividualism, depression, the void of late capitalism.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
All kinds of things. It just resonates, it doesn’t describe. It’s kind of a mystery why music works the way it does, isn’t it?