The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Inner Ear: Slovenian Music For May Reviewed By Jakub Knera
Jakub Knera , May 23rd, 2022 09:46

In his third report from the contemporary music scenes of eastern and central Europe, Jakub Knera looks at Slovenia’s underground scene including Širom's imaginary folk and string experiments by Tomaž Grom

Širom, portrait by Uroš Abram

The first episode of Inner Ear was dedicated to Poland, my home country, whose scene I know best. The second one focused on Ukraine, finding the country at war due to Russian aggression (something we did not anticipate when originally planning the series). In episode three, I explore Slovenian music, motivated by the recent premiere of another album by Širom, one of my favourite European bands.

Slovenia lies at the crossroads of various European routes, acting as a meeting point of cultures. The country regularly promotes its own creativity thanks to initiatives such as the MENT Lubjana and Jazz Cerkno, the venue Kino Šiška and the activity of Glitterbeat Records, which has roots there.

I decided to ask Širom about their musical fascinations and the influence of Slovene culture on their music; after all, they describe their genre as "imaginary folk".

“I discovered Slovenian folk songs quite late in life”, says Samo Kutin. “I knew a few from my childhood and learned to sing some others later. These are old folk songs from Slovenia and regions beyond the Slovenian border, Resia and Istria. I can feel some connection with them even if they aren't really kept alive as folk music should be. It makes sense to me to create imaginary folk in a country where folk hasn't really survived. Why? Because it's honest and made in the time we live in. Because songs have their own lives – they evolve from concert to concert like all folk music evolved throughout history. Because we need music and rituals to go through life.”

Kutin admits that he has been listening to punk and metal since he was seven, but the first concert he saw was Tuvan throat singing folk group Huun Huur Tu. He later travelled, discovering music in the Balkans, Mali and India, and listened to jazz, free improvisation, rock and folk from almost all over the world at festivals and clubs in Slovenia. “It's hard to say to what extent this influenced us because of the geography of my country. Probably to some”, he admits. With Inner Ear, I want to show that it's not just the place that defines music but also everything happening around it: culturally, geographically, socially and politically.

In the Slovenian scene, I’m most interested in an approach to folk music which is inspired by different cultures plus improvised music where it meets the avant-garde. But we will also look at noteworthy artists who experiment with sound and its deconstruction or incorporate collage methods, non-standard performance techniques and instrument preparation into their practice. In this part of the Slovenian scene, I am captivated by its rawness and rootsiness, a natural sound that seems close to nature. Perhaps this is where to look for that connection to the geography of the place?

Širom – The Liquified Throne Of Simplicity

I've been soaking in Širom's work since their 2017 album I Can Be A Clay Snapper. Their peculiar take on folk, ethnic music, improvisation and jazz quickly evolved into a truly original style. To catch a glimpse of the sheer spectrum of their sound, imagine a set that includes the mizmar, balafon, rebab, guembri, banjos, hurdy-gurdy, tampura brač, lyre and ocarina, among other instruments. Liquified Throne Of Simplicity, their magnum-opus, is a double release where each song barely fits on one side of vinyl. Širom draw inspiration from the raw bass and trance of Natural Information Society, stretching the narrative from meditative and soothing to a growing wall of sound in ‘Grazes, Wrinkles, Drifts Into Sleep’. In turn, ‘Prods The Fire With A Bone, Rolls Over With A Snake’ begins with a repetitive motif on the banjo, complemented by Ana Karanja's vocals through a stunning crescendo, where violins and choral singing combine into stereophonic polyphony on percussion. This ingenious balancing act is a fantastic counterpoint to the trance landscapes of the Slovenian trio. One of the best records of 2022 so far.

Matej Bonin – Gymnastics Of Non/Sense II

The eponymous gymnastics on Matej Bonin's album is a case study of percussion. Improvised, sonorous pieces search for different spectrums of sound: from metallic cymbals over dense bass hits to mechanical structures disappearing into noise (‘Part 4’). The album sounds a little like painting a soundscape or creating a non-obvious sound sculpture but gets more orchestral when more musicians join in (there are ten in total). The most captivating moments are when the word creeps in because we can't always distinguish it from the sound (is the beginning of ‘Part 2’ sung or played on the double bass strings?). Sometimes, the vocal directly imitates the sonorities of the instrument. During ‘Part 3’ and ‘Part 5’, Irena Z. Tomažin performs a graphic-textual, onomatopoeic score by Karl Hmeljak. In ‘Part 7’, it becomes a more specified, verbal narrative to the maddening multi-vocal exploration of “Ay" in the finale. A peculiar tour de force of the natural sound of percussion meeting the human voice.

Kaja Draksler – In Otherness Oneself

Solo piano albums are often steeped in cliché, using repetition until they become ouroboros-like – though there are notable exceptions that shine through. Such is Kaja Draksler's In Otherness Oneself, an amazingly multi-layered, focused piano study that showcases her compositional and performance skills. The album is based on improvisations, using sparse sounds minimally, creating a dialogue with silence. Draksler also explores microtonal possibilities, for instance on ‘Prst, roka, laket’. The Slovenian pianist, who lives in Denmark, is open about how her album is a search for language to be understood on many levels: her own identity, how to play and how to find oneself in today's world. In this quest, she is aided by the texts of Robert Frost or Witold Gombrowicz, whose recordings of readings complement this literary vision, describing the same struggle with form. Draksler emerges victorious from this effort: she shows confidence in her ideas, lightness of execution, and an openness to musical perspectives.

Bakalina Velika – Zviezdna Srebruo

The musicians active in Širom can be found in more than one Slovenian band. Two years ago, Ana Kravanja & Samo Kutin, who also co-founded the band Kačis, released another album. This year, Kutin brings a new album by his other band, Bakalina Velika. They play folk like a small orchestra: from soothing melodies and lyrical songs that are an apotheosis of nature, through catchy blues in ‘Ki bi dau’ to mantric, Swans-esque forms in ‘Zima’. In the title track, they remind me of the spirit of Dirty Three. The lyrical melodies are wrapped up in sound ornaments, the wailing sound of the flugelhorn, trumpet or horn accompanied by bluesy-sounding electric guitars. A band of wanderers, players who search for sounds by the riverside, in the mountains, caves or ruins of buildings – just take a look at their album cover or the Take Away Show recorded in Triglav National Park in the autumn.

Rok Zalokar – Speak Your Body
(Nature Scene Records)

Like Kaja Draksler, Rok Zalokar is a pianist who searches for his language in musical post-modernism. He plays with his trio or the Zhlehtet collective, but Speak Your Body is his only (fully) solo album, densely filled with collected ideas. Based on the principle of collage, the artist selects the effects of various works: spontaneous live sessions, small orchestrations, experimenting with beats or sound sculpting. At times, the starting point is a field recording encased in a compositional structure that reminds me of the achievements of Philippe Petit (‘Doors And Staircases Of Perception’). At other times, Zalokar delves into Caretaker-esque hauntology (‘I Can See Why That Guy Gets Into A Lot Of Trouble’) or adds beats to sonic trash in the style of Flying Lotus or Philip Jeck (‘Sidereal Time’). There are moments when there's too much of everything, but one can definitely take away a few intriguing concepts from this non-linear narrative (dominated by a rather surreal drama).

Kje So Roke feat. Duet Za Radio Kaki – For Development Purposes Only
(ŠOP Records)

Kje So Roke is an electronic duo that spent the last few years on the independent ŠOP Records roster. The label gathers the strangest phenomena from the local music scene: avant-garde, electro-acoustic, experimental, stretching all the way to electronic avant-pop. For Development Purposes Only is a dark drone form, with the Slovenians burying themselves deep in a grainy, dense, monotonous sound, searching for nuances in details or hazy vocals. Think an industrial soundscape in which, time and again, there emerge vocals, a Beethoven recording or a metronome. It reminds me a little of Claire Rousay but instead of her lightness and brightness, the whole thing oozes heaviness nuanced with light miniatures. Sometimes, these come in song-like forms – a non-obvious Pocahaunted style can be heard in the improvised ‘Inter Ljud’ or emerging from the noise of ‘Vsak duo je duet, ni pa vsak duo’.

Tomaž Grom – Solo Kiss

Tomaž Grom: Solo Kiss from zavod sploh on Vimeo.

Tomaž Grom is the one-man-band on Slovenia's jazz, improvised and experimental scene. His latest release, Solo Kiss, was originally conceived as music for a dance performance by Kristina Aleksova. This video does a great job of demonstrating the double bassist's methodology and his different approach to the instrument. In a way, it reminds me of Ex-Easter Island Head's take on guitars, but Grom also makes great use of the sonoristic techniques by rubbing the bow across the soundbox. The fact that his instrument has been through a lot is evident from the damaged case. Grom rubs it, knocks it, hits it, builds long sounds, and blows a tube in the middle of the box. From high notes and droning sounds heard in the distance to bass sounds and rustles, produced as if someone was holding something right next to our ear. Grom plays with the dynamics of the recordings and the volume; he immerses himself in the noise and skilfully builds sound plans, reminding me of Felix Kubin's collaboration with Ensemble Intégrales. A little over two minutes are available online; I have heard a little more. The whole piece will be available in the second part of the year. 

Rouge-ah – для даши
(MENT Session)

When writing this column I usually choose albums that were released during the previous six months. With Slovenia, it is worth breaking this rule. In this case it is because of the relatively rarity of harpists on the alternative music scene. On the one hand are those who take a more classical approach to the instrument, such as Brandee Younger or Nala Sinephro, and on the other, those who electrify it, such as Lara Somogyi or Marysia Su. Recording as Rouge-ah, Urška Preis is closer to the latter. She employs her instrument for electro-acoustic compositions, using effects and loops to transfer the delicate string sound into the realms of noise and drone ambient, which you can hear on her debut Bare. ‘для даши’, much fuzzier in its original version, is based on a looped motif, gradually strengthened by successive layers of electronic passages. An intriguing preview of an album inspired by nightmares to be released by the end of this year.

Žiga Stanič – Slovene Alphabet

The intense Roj Le Treh trio are just recording an album, so I decided to take the opportunity and recall a track by one of its members, Žiga Stanič, making an exception in terms of the release date. ‘Slovene Alphabet’ is fascinating, not only as an introduction to the language of the country from which the scene described here originates. It demonstrates, mainly thanks to the brilliant collective improvisation, the diverse vocal possibilities corresponding to the successive letters of the alphabet. At times resembling the scores on the aforementioned Matej Bonin album, it is very often close to the vocal techniques of Phil Minton or Ute Wasserman. The song is an open dialogue, playing with the possibilities of sounds, squeaks, calls, buzzing, tearing or even choral wailing. A thrilling alternative to boring lessons from school desks.