Siavash Amini and Zenjungle (Phil Gardelis) have both secured their own recognizable niches in the halls of modern drone ambient, with several acclaimed solo and collaborative releases as well as appearances on various compilations. Greek Zenjungle’s long-form piece All of Our Yesterdays, which was reviewed at Heathen Harvest earlier this year, is a prime example of the potential ambient music has in igniting a strong emotional response. This is something that reflects on both artists. Amini masters the ability to pluck on hidden strings of feelings buried deep within our being, and gently woo—or, as it often ends with his work, forcibly compel—them to surface. His latest solo album, Subsiding, earned the Iranian high praise in several “Best of 2015” lists.
This creative pair has now teamed up for an anticipated collaborative album titled Topology of Figments, which is due to be released by Flaming Pines, which is a true gem of a label run by sound artist Kate Carr. In addition to gaining access to the album for reviewing purposes, I was happy to catch up with Amini and Gardelis for an exchange of thoughts regarding their collaboration, the ambient/drone community in general, if and how politics influence their work, and much more. The interview will follow after some impressions I’ve gained from my frequent visits to the imaginary world they’ve created on the album.
I feel ambient sound art is at its best when it either conjures strong inner visuals or moves the listener emotionally. I find myself gravitating towards pieces with a vivid story to tell, with some kind of a force in them, strong enough to turn thoughts silent and open wide the ‘inner eye’. On rare occasions, the pearls of the genre, which Topology of Figments by all standards is, will induce both—a visual and an emotional response. It is not often you come across an album with such vastness and depth of stereo-field. The mastering work by Lawrence English, a legendary ambient artist himself, is exquisite. Quality headphones guarantee a clear three-dimensional view of breathtaking yet daunting scenery. By combining their forces, these maestros not only achieve emergent magnificence, but succeed in opening these properties in the listener as well. This is exactly the kind of ambient I most enjoy—the kind that ushers forth a cavalcade of such strong experiences that it feels as if the music is flowing in unison with your imagination. And in the silent moments after the music ends, you are left to wonder just who played who.
The topology—the anatomical structure of these ‘figments’ that Amini and Gardelis invite us to travel amidst—is composed by the skillful layering of textures and decorated with woeful melodies. Zenjungle’s tenor saxophone sweeps subtle formations upon desolate dunes, stretching beyond the horizon. Distant harmonies continually morph into each other, either veiling the view in a nostalgic haze or getting engulfed by storms of soft distortion. Subtle frequency modulation and filter effects are like desert spirits, djinns flickering against the scorching sand, and familiar instrumentation fades as you attempt to grasp at it. There is no use for cognitive analysis; this world is here to blow you away, to churn you into one with the prevailing dim and dust. There is a mirage-like feeling to all four pieces of the album, enhanced by chords and melodies rooted in Middle Eastern scales. The tracks flow into each other with such ease that I would love to hear a version of the album with no in-between silence, which I feel in a few junctures stretches a bit too long due to slow fade-ins. As a seamless whole, the first three tracks off Topology of Figments might just be one of the finest audio representations ever made of wandering in a dystopian desert.
Amini and Gardelis also demonstrate finesse in how they close the album with ‘Figments’, wherein we are guided from the desert into the streets of a lively town. As with the longer drone pieces and their imagery, the feeling of actually being within the town is also strikingly vivid. Relaxed, jazzy, and surprisingly uplifting saxophone improvisations vibrate on a backdrop of traffic and indistinguishable language, creating the scene of an exotic marketplace or street corner. The sound design is pure, dreamy, and utterly captivating. Although lush in terms of production value, the desolate and barren atmosphere on Topology of Figments reflects on tides of emotions drenched in ache and isolation. That is why there is an exciting contrast in how the album ends with almost a feeling of a warm welcome into a safe haven of vibrant life in the middle of an awesome expanse of dust and longing. It is something that invites the listener to repeat the experience right over again.
I was fascinated by many aspects of the album, and even more so after gaining some insight from its creators. I’m pleased to now share their thoughts with you:
Heathen Harvest: I’ve followed both of your work individually for years now and have great respect for your talent and vision as solo artists. This is why I was extremely excited to hear you’ve teamed up for a complete collaborative album. You’ve both had previous releases on Flaming Pines as well as Futuresequence. Is this how you ‘met’ each other, through mutual labels? How did you decide on producing an album together?
Siavash Amini: I first listened to Phil’s music on a compilation from Futuresequence called Sequence8. I really liked what he did on his track; I thought it was a truly unique blend of styles. Then I listened to his other releases, and I was hooked. We kept in touch, and Phil did a track for my label’s compilation called Kollektive 1. It was around that time that we decided to work on an album. I think it was on both of our minds at the time because of mutual admiration for each other’s music.
Phil Gardelis: Siavash is one of my favorite artists in the drone scene. It was indeed around that time of Bitrot’s compilation, but I think the idea of doing something together came up when we were both invited by Kate Carr to do a track for the Tiny Portraits series on Flaming Pines. At first, Kate wanted it to be a paired release by me and Siavash, but then the plan changed to separate releases. I remember that we started the discussion right after that because we loved that first idea of being together on a release! It was just natural to release this album on Flaming Pines because it all started from there!
HH: Although I’m closely familiar with both of your individual styles, this collaboration is so seamless and such a well-balanced whole that it is impossible to decipher which parts and layers are created by which artist, excluding the obvious sweet saxophone performances of Zenjungle. What was your approach on composing the music? What instruments and methods were used?
SA & PG: Apart from the tenor saxophone, we both used electric guitar, an old acoustic guitar with two strings and a bow (you can hear much of it on ‘Northern Winds’), alto clarinet on ‘Descending Days’, field recordings and not only in ‘Figments’ but also in the other tracks mostly as noises, very few synths (mostly as noise sources too), and a lot of processing, effects, etc. Actually, some of the atmospheres are solely layers of saxophone (e.g. ‘Gegenschein’). We both want to make sounds from scratch and not use the easy way of preset pads, for example.
Part of making the album was also a lot of talking to each other on Skype, mail, etc. From track to track, we used different approaches. Sometimes one was sending some main guitar chords just to inspire the other to play upon them; sometimes one was providing multiple recordings so the other would add his own stuff or process them to create something different.
It’s always a bit tricky with distant collaborations because you don’t sit next to one another making suggestions on the go about a certain passage or a small change. But it really works, especially when both participants have the same taste, ideas, mutual respect, and trust for each other. We really didn’t have any problems at all. We were on the same page the whole time; communication was great and we both love the outcome.
HH: Siavash, in your foreword to the wonderful Iranian experimental artist compilation Absence (also released by Flaming Pines), you are very articulate in stating how Western mass media reflects only a small portion of local artists and portrays only those interesting in a political context. I imagine this might in some ways also apply to Zenjungle since in the past several years, Greece has had its share of political drama. So, when taken out of a political context, is there some way you see your music portraying your geographical location or your national/social heritage? Where are your musical roots, and how do you feel your environment reflects on the music you produce?
SA: Actually, as I have mentioned many times, it’s a certain type of political situation that is attractive to the media, not the political context in general. I believe there are many forces at work when it comes to politics and art, especially in the Middle East. Things get really complicated to grasp and understand for certain types of news item producers.
I believe everything I do is political. Since my album Storm Leaves Us Quietly, you cannot separate what was going on socially and politically in my country—and, in general, the whole world—from what I was producing or the way I was doing things. However, I don’t believe in defined political engagement through music—the kind that attempts to address a certain situation as a newspaper article would. In my view, that becomes outdated or forgotten when the situation at hand resolves. I believe you are engaging some sort of social or political action by the choices you make, even if you like it or not: for example, by distancing yourself from certain types of mainstream music (big labels or government-supported) and by making certain aesthetic choices based on that. You may say you are apolitical, which again makes you an ally with certain conservative politics mainly coming from academies.
In that way, I believe my music is a reflection and sometimes an expression of a certain social and political situation. If you see my work in connection with other kinds of music produced in Iran, you’ll see how the political forces in my country are manifesting themselves through it, and you can interpret to a degree what my stance on the situation is. I’m really interested in how certain textures of sound as well as images in cities shape people’s perceptions of reality. I like to explore that in my work by reflecting and going deeper into these textures and images. As for heritage, I am what I am because of it. However, what our generation has faced from the day we were born is not our heritage but the insufferable cruelty and inequality of global capitalism. We have all inherited ruins left by the systematic destruction of this planet for the benefit of a few.
PG: Greece still has its political drama, and I don’t think that this will end soon. Although Iran and Greece are different as societies in many aspects, I agree with Siavash in that we share the same struggle. More or less, we suffer by the same things and we want to talk about the same things. I, too, believe that everything we do is political. It’s all a part of the way we reflect ourselves upon this world every single day. Yeah, the environment and everyday life/survival does reflect on my music, but I don’t think that my music actually portrays my geographical location, and my musical roots have little to do with Greek music.
HH: What are your thoughts on ambient/experimental music and sound art as a tool for individual expression as well as a collective way to connect people globally? Do you have any larger ambitions or goals you wish to achieve through the music you make?
SA & PG: It’s actually great seeing people creating more music than ever. Digital technology and the internet not only made it easier for people to create sounds and have decent results without having to spend much on the equipment, but they also made it easier to share the results. You can actually feel that there is a community, especially in the drone ambient scene, where competition isn’t such a big thing—meaning that you aren’t actually aiming for the charts as might be the case with dance/pop music, for example. What is also great is to see musicians collaborating with each other like we did. Of course, it still isn’t easy to get out there and be heard. You always struggle and get frustrated, especially when you want to find a good label to release your music.
It kind of feels luxurious to make plans for the future in these descending days we are living in, so our main goal is to be able to continue making music together and individually, and probably at some point achieve a state where you don’t have to struggle for everyday survival.
HH: The closing piece of the album, ‘Figments’, features some urban sounds and is very distinct from the other three drones with its jazzy, almost uplifting vibes. Where are the field recordings from, and did you have a certain reason for including this piece as the final track for the album?
SA & PG: We recorded the sounds from streets of both Athens and Tehran. We were talking about how the other tracks sound like a world that has elements from both of our music, but how it still has its own distinct characteristic. Then we had this idea of combining the sound world of the two cities we live in to create one imaginary dreamy place—a place that belonged to no one, and where we were both part of the passing crowd. This is what we imagined that place sounded like. Listening to it now, we can’t really pinpoint the original source of some of the sounds. They are part of a different whole now, creating a new city.
HH: How do you imagine or hope people listening to this collaboration would be influenced by it? Do you have any recommendations for a certain setting in which to listen to Topology of Figments? Any inspirational visuals in mind?
SA & PG: In Topology of Figments, we created a regional anatomy—a psycho-geography of an imaginary land. A land made with imagined elements mixed with reality: people, buildings, fragments of memory, distant sounds, hallways, valleys, night skies, etc.
We visited and explored this space, and we made a little soundtrack for it. We don’t actually want to dictate how people will listen to this soundtrack. Everyone should be free to visit and wander around this space, or in the end make their own.
HH: I can imagine the massive drones and overwhelming waves washing over the topology you’ve created; it would be an incredible experience when heard in a larger venue with a high-quality sound system. What are your thoughts and experiences of performing drone ambient in a live situation? Would you ever consider performing live as a duo?
SA: I have had both good and awful experiences playing drone live. Most of the sound systems we have in Iran are made for either dance halls or cinema, so we can’t find speakers with enough detail and clarity that don’t destroy the sound completely. In my music, a lot of stuff happens in the high-mid and higher regions of the sound spectrum. These speakers make it really muddy, so at some point I stopped performing my album material and started making music that suited these speakers better. I was partially satisfied by that, but I have yet to hear my music through a good sound system! I would love to play live and tour with Phil—it would be a dream come true. But I think the music would be different, in a good way, from what it is now.
PG: It would be great if we manage, at some point, to play live together. It would be a dream come true indeed, and I really hope it’s something that we will do in the near future. I don’t personally have much experience playing drone music live. I’ve played mostly other styles, but that was years ago. Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of saxophone and doing gigs with a dark jazz trio I have with some friends, and it’s going great so far.
HH: Thank you for this interview, and for delivering such awe-inspiring and emotionally gripping sounds! We hope the best for all your endeavours now and in the future. Do you have any closing thoughts to share with our readers?
SA & PG: We’d like to thank you, Utu, and Heathen Harvest for inviting us to do this interview. Seeing people care and support what we do means a lot, and is one of the reasons we stay motivated to continue.
01) Northern Winds
02) Descending Days