Marja and I met in January 2017 in Turku, Finland, where she lives and works, when I was there for a residency. We became friends through our different approaches to similar interests, and have stayed in conversation ever since. This conversation, centered around Marja’s 2020 record The Current Inside, explores some of those shared interests more broadly. This interview began in Spring 2020, was delayed and delayed again, finished in Winter 2020, delayed again, and finally published in June 2021.
Marja Ahti (b. 1981) is a Swedish-Finnish composer and sound artist based in Turku, Finland. Ahti works with field recordings and other acoustic sound material combined with synthesizers and electronic feedback in order to find the space where these sounds start to communicate. She makes music that rides on waves of slowly warping harmonies and mutating textures – rough edged, yet precise compositions, rich in detail. Ahti has presented her music in many different contexts around Europe, in Japan and the United States. She is currently active in the duo Ahti & Ahti with her partner Niko-Matti Ahti and in the artist/organizer collective Himera.
Leah: You just released a new record, “The Current Inside,” on the Hallow Ground label. I’ve been going on early morning walks here in Providence, where spring is in full bloom, to listen to it on headphones. I have really enjoyed it! It’s been great to listen to it outdoors, too, as the entire record brings the listener straight into a series of environments. In the record’s five pieces, you guide us through each “medium,” if we can use that word.
Several things about the record struck me immediately. Each piece feels quite narrative, or descriptive. This was true of your last album, too. But “The Current Inside” references more specific elements, whereas your last record, “Vegetal Negatives” (2019), felt more associative or abstract. The titles on the new record are clear cues, but the sounds do incredible work to transport us into, and through, five generally un-inhabitable environments: different altitudes of the atmosphere; electrical currents; within fluctuating streams; beneath a lake; within, or around, a sundial. I also noticed that each of these sonically lush pieces, despite mostly being named after “natural” referents, weave together both natural and machine-like sounds. Some parts feel dark, ominous; other parts, less so. To me, the record seems to acknowledge how inseparable nature and machines/technology now are. But you don’t seem critical of that fact; electricity, after all, is part of nature.
Marja: First of all, thanks for listening so attentively. Now that the album is finished, it does feel like a coherent narrative. For a long time it was more like a mystery box to me and I had a lot of material that seemed to form a kind of question. I usually start to compose intuitively, then gradually start learning what “it” is saying, which then allows me to finish the pieces. So, with this in mind, I wouldn’t say it’s descriptive, maybe rather explorative. And narrative in a very loose sense of the word. For me, narration is almost synonymous with composition – the way you combine things that unfold in time. Not really narration as in storytelling, more in the sense of poetry. “Vegetal Negatives” was an experiment with form, so I guess it’s only natural that it feels more abstract. “The Current Inside” simply started out from the wonder of how phenomena emerge and shift forms.
What you’re saying about nature and technology being inseparable – that’s just our everyday experience, isn’t it? You’re putting a cord into the wall and water into your water boiler to make a cup of tea. Electricity is after all not a human invention, we’re just harnessing it. Everyday sensations like touch and friction are interactions between electric fields on the atomic scale. The Earth’s magnetic field is a natural dynamo of circulating currents that are interacting with electromagnetic action in the sun, affecting the winds in the atmosphere, affecting the oceanic currents and so forth. It’s very basic, everyday experience, and at the same time planetary scale phenomena. I like looking at the most basic things. I’m exploring what is at hand in my immediate surroundings and use it as a spring board or sometimes metaphor for seeing how a seemingly remote phenomena is also inside you as well as the other way around. Constructions of something large and far, made up of pieces of something small and close. There’s no ‘over there’.
I actually don’t see my music as dark nor ominous, but how you experience the record is of course very much valid. I’m not actively trying to make either dark nor light moods. What interests me more is something less clear-cut, something in between finished or agreed upon emotional signifiers. I like music that hasn’t already decided what the listener should feel, but rather nudges you somewhere else. It doesn’t really have to evoke emotions at all, it can also be just the beauty of forms or a poetic way of combining things. I guess my approach is to neither try to create emotions nor avoid them. On my end, I like to keep the focus on exploration rather than expression. The latter will arise anyways as my body, my habits and the technology I’ve ended up using are inevitable filters in the process.
L: I’m curious about your idea that music doesn’t need to invoke or label emotions, and that it can rather be about the forms themselves: how these different elements combine into musical narrative, loosely speaking. That approach prioritizes giving the listener a full aural experience, and asks them to find their own meaning in that experience.
In general, I love how your work is conceptual but feels primarily experiential. I try to make work that walks that line, too, which is probably why I relate to yours so much. I also very much relate to work that is simultaneously serious and full of wonder. After all, I believe that “to wonder” is a serious pursuit, even though the word has such nostalgic and romantic connotations. Would you say that making this work allows you to more deeply investigate the world around you?
M: I’m glad you hear it that way. At the bottom I think about making music as a form of play, moving about in a sounding world and improvising responses to it. The music that results is just an invitation to listen actively. It’s more like a question than an answer. What happens next is the listener’s own business.
Having a conceptual approach to sound is something that I’ve come to relatively recently and something that has helped me in the compositional process. But just like you say, it’s primarily experiential. I used to be interested in completely intuitive making, but finding and developing thematic undercurrents has, paradoxically maybe, let me discover another way of linking my music to my life and experiences. It’s not about exploring interesting theories, just about making sense of the world. For me this needs to start in practice. After that it’s a wavelike progression between involving and bypassing the rational parts of the mind.
L: I’d love to hear more about your recording and studio choices — and how the ways you actively listen to — and record — the world intertwine with sounds you build or create in your studio.
M: I work with sounds from different sources; field recordings in a loose sense of the term, synthesizers and other electronic devices and occasionally musical instruments, but my approach to all of them is quite similar. The sounds that I work with often come to me quite spontaneously, either going about my daily life or experimenting in the studio. Something catches my attention or surprises me. Sometimes I carry a recording device with me, sometimes I become aware of a sound and then come back later to record it. When a sound is recorded, it is like a new entity or event bearing traces not only of the situation recorded, but of the recording act, the positioning, the technology and all the other innumerable events that affected the outcome. I like to think about it like this, because it corresponds to the fact that the original sounding event, too, was a complex reaction of events leading to something that could be heard with someone there to hear it. Assembling recorded sounds into a composition, I usually let the sounds lead me to whatever interventions they seem to invite. Sometimes it’s just about which two sounds you put next to each other and the effect that produces. Finding the relations and the threads between the relations. Other times I draw from the classic palette of concrète treatments. I gravitate towards unstable textures, organic rhythms and alternative tunings. During the past years I’ve had the privilege to do studio residencies and work with technology that would otherwise be unattainable to me, so this has also brought new sounds into my work.
L: I like that your processes for recording and combining sounds in the studio allows you to intuitively discover sonic relationships that create effects and experiences. You give us — your listeners — sounds that engage us intellectually, emotionally, physically. This ties back to my earlier use of the term “descriptive,” which stemmed from the titles you chose for each piece. The titles border on the specific, despite how open-ended the music actually is. Yet it should certainly go without saying that just because something is called “The Altitudes” does not mean it actually describes altitudes, and so forth. I am someone who likes broad definitions of “description” and “narrative” — so I don’t see “description” in this case as a bad thing. Listening to the record creates such rich ideas, feelings, spaces, and images in my mind. Perhaps I should say that it creates an experience that allows for description, and expansion, rather than being descriptive in any limited sense. In a new video work of mine, I ask the question, “what is the difference between a form and a word?” I love the idea that a word relates to a set of elements in the world. And that a word can be the starting point for something exploratory, as you say… that a word can anchor an exploration… or, of course, that an exploration finds some grounding in a word. Or any combination of the above!
M: As you know, I studied literature before turning to sound, and the question you posed earlier about how words relate to things outside of language is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. There are so many ways to relate to that question. You might say that the core of existence cannot be reached through words. Then on the other hand there’s the fact that language actually shapes the world by changing our perception of it and affecting our actions. It all depends on what scale or axis you enter the problem, doesn’t it? Our culture is very language dominant though, so focusing on listening or other non-verbal ways of experiencing feels like a good counterbalance.
Naming something that works very well without words can, like you say, anchor an exploration or mess with the reception of it. I’ve usually tried to keep my titles elusive and open, but yeah, these are more concrete. As the pieces on the record are quite musical, I might have wanted to trick the listener into considering also other ways of thinking about them, like physical movements for example. “Fluctuating Streams” introduces a human voice, but the title could also suggest that it is just as much about the air flowing through the singer’s body or through the other sounding elements. “The Altitudes” points also to the structure of the piece, that it’s not going to unfold just according to the logic of musical form, but according to another logic as well. We tend to visualize a piece of music (or a stretch of time) as a vertical motion from left to right, but you could just as well tilt your head and look at it from down to up, as a circle or in a whole lot of other ways.
It would actually be interesting to hear more about how you relate to theory and experience. Do you think there is a difference between coming from a background of music compared to visual art? Or from having a formal education in either?
L: I think a formal education in visual art does provide something unique. I believe that studying art creates a framework for thinking about the world in open-ended and complex ways — forming connections between things that might not be obvious. The structure and support that framework provides becomes a justification for thinking in those ways and for making objects, images, sounds… that respond to or expand upon them. That’s one reason I believe that art education is so important: simply put, artists think in different ways, and we need to structurally support and perpetuate that! I can’t speak as much for music, though I did study piano and guitar until I was a teenager. I would guess that being involved in music gives a similar support for expression without language, a translation/abstraction of things or ideas to sounds, a mixing of elements into new forms and spaces. Certainly, though, I can see studying literature and languages producing similar modes of thought. Do you think so?
I really like thinking about “The Altitudes” as a vertically-organized — rather than horizontally-flowing — musical piece. Lately I’ve been pretty obsessed by the idea that you can create narrative through changes of vantage point: I’m looking from here, now I’m looking from there, now I’m looking from there, and so on. Less about a sequence of “events,” and more about a sequence of perspectives. I love to play with how loose, or slow, narrative can be while still feeling narrational.
Finally, I like how you put it: “naming something that works very well without words.” I feel like this is true for things out in the world — a plant works very well without words, for example — or for artworks or pieces of music. Perhaps language comes in for us humans to help us describe — and thus externalize — our experience or understanding of something, our relationship to something. Because that is where language is rooted, right? But also where we run into its limits. And that’s where art and music come in, again. I guess the cycle is endless, and that’s ultimately a positive thing. Literature is an interesting in-between, though; I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.
M: What you mention above is exactly what I feel was lacking in my early music education – the sense of opening up to the world and not just to a system, like music could ever be an already finished universe of its own. With this I don’t only mean that the history of music is political, which of course it is, but also that listening and sound is much wider than the history of music. I do think that studying literature gave me more of that perspective, a perspective of opening up. Maybe the most basic lesson was the inseparability of what is expressed and how it’s expressed. At times I’ve amused myself with trying out tropes from literary analysis to the context of sound making. Like using the sound of a water boiler to represent condensation in the atmosphere – could that work as a kind of metonymy in sound, where a related thing or part of a thing refers to the whole?
Your idea about vantage points is certainly something I can see in your work. I didn’t think about it so much before, but your collage prints are precisely that – your seeings, perspectives, time layers put next to each other in a kind of multiview. I really like that. It’s like recording sound. Placing the microphone, framing sounding events as close-ups or larger perspectives. Working with views makes you think about the workings of attention, your senses, how limited we really are, doesn’t it?
Skipping back to your question about language now, sorry about the forking answers… I mean, in a way music and visual art can be considered languages as well, so in that sense literature is not all that different. It’s about communication, like you said. Then there’s the gap between the signs – that’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it? Of course it’s there also outside of the context of the arts, although it can inspire you to investigate it.
L: I used to work a lot with sound and field recording myself, as you know, and I think conceptually and structurally, that ‘collage’ approach you describe has infiltrated everything that I do. I also believe in the political and ethical importance of multiple perspectives, that there is never the view, but only a series or accumulation of views. Though I now work primarily with digital photography and media, I still think about everything I make — even sound — as drawing, in a broad sense. Drawing engages with the world in such open-ended ways — compared to, say, painting, which has more finality, or weight, to it. I think drawing and sound have a lot in common in that sense.
I’ve always been interested in making work that doesn’t fully resolve, or that doesn’t “close its gaps between the signs,” to use your phrase. I’d like to investigate that idea a bit more, though: the gaps between the signs, and why it’s so important that artists and their work create these gaps. Can you explain that idea a little more? And since I’ve mentioned politics and ethics, should we discuss that too?
M: I’d like to avoid getting prescriptive here announcing what is important and what artists should or should not do. The ‘we’ was just a careless generalization. As I see it, there is always a gap, it’s not something you create. I guess the question is to what extent you embrace and investigate that ambiguity. I relate the gap to a state of openness.
It’s the summer of 2020 and I can’t say that I always feel like my own work is the most relevant answer to the state of emergency in the world. I don’t think any single work should aspire to be the answer or change everything. But I’m still quite certain that art changes you in a million tiny ways, deconstructing your concepts, creating new connections.
On the practical level, I think there are great challenges ahead for the sound art and experimental music cluster in dealing with its centering of whiteness, certain geographies, alpha gatekeeping, other obvious or hidden norms and patterns. And to expose structures that turn artistic work competitive, individualistic and sterile. Developing an attitude of listening is something that should be put in much wider use than just within people’s art practices. Making art in times of disaster is still an act of hope, I think. To persistently claim that there is joy and possibility.