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A World Beyond: An Interview With Širom
Jaša Bužinel , July 27th, 2022 10:22

Jaša Bužinel speaks to members of the Slovenian "imaginary folk" trio responsible for the astounding The Liquified Throne of Simplicity album. Feature contains the premiere of the Širom documentary, Rural Underground

“I find that Širom, when playing, is making itself. It keeps on building and building. Sometimes it's knocking on these rocky walls and the door almost opens, but not all the way. And thank god not, since it's death that lies there. But death is a miracle as well, and that is Širom.”
Janez Škof in the documentary Rural Underground

Širom is a mystical entity self-described as an imaginary folk act representing the rural underground. Consisting of three self-taught musicians and experienced improvisers, their acoustic music ingeniously connects the dots between past and present. The trio employs various techniques, practices and more than a dozen instruments, taking reference from vast libraries of ancient, new and made up sounds. With their imagination completely off the leash, Širom conjure some of the most thrilling and mysterious music of the moment. Their fourth album The Liquified Throne Of Simplicity was recently voted as this site's album of the year so far.

This trio could not have been conceived anywhere else on this planet. Like fellow Slovenians Laibach, they are a lovechild of place, day and age. Their musical expression is informed by a nexus of historical circumstances, local and global traditions and distinct personal sensibilities. While its members Samo Kutin and Ana Kravanja come from the western part of Slovenia (the former from the idyllic Alpine foothills of Tolminsko region and the latter from the Karst Plateau, known for its expansive underground cave systems), Iztok Koren is the son of the flatlands surrounding the Mura River in the northeasternmost part the country. The invisible forces of these breathtaking landscapes cannot be separated from the musicians’ inner landscapes, which ultimately take form in Širom’s esoteric soundscapes.

Like Vonnegut’s intergalactic time traveller Billy Pilgrim, Širom seem to be unstuck in time. Their imaginative pan-global music feels like a shortcut to astral travel, offering out-of-body experiences triggered by arcane sounds that make you revisit long-forgotten ancient rituals and traverse primeval lands, all made up and fantastical, yet giving the impression of being based on some kind of tradition. Unsurprisingly, foreign journalists tend to think that they play a modernised version of Slovenian folk music, which could not be further from the truth. “Ana and I learned to play folk music from various regions like Istra and Rezija because we were interested in it, but it only influenced a small fraction of our musical expression. What our music unintentionally has in common with it has more to do with its openness and constant change,” says Samo.

This is one of the reasons the band decided to adopt the genre tag imaginary folk (originally coined by Serge Moreux in the 1950s to refer to Bartók and Kodály’s creative approach to traditional Hungarian melodies). “It’s folk music but it’s not geographically determined. I guess it’s similar to what Jon Hassell was referring to with Fourth World music,” says Iztok. “I see the folk dimension in our relationship with life, things, nature and history more than in actual practices. There is a connection with the Slovenian landscape, old folk tales and local mythologies,” Ana adds. “I have no problem if someone calls it new folk music. The basic elements are there. Someone has an idea, which then grows organically. It’s never completely fixed. The passing of time brings about changes to the original idea. I think it’s the kind of music that people always needed. They step into it and go through various inner rituals,” says Samo.

Even though they come from different regions with distinct histories, dialects and legends, there is a common sensibility that connects all three on a deeper level. “We come from the underground so we understand the importance of having a DIY attitude. We’ve always been interested in experimenting. Love for different musics is what we all have in common,” says Samo. Ana and Samo (whom I first saw live back in 2015 at a solo show in a small baroque church near my home village) used to play in a kalimba duo called Najoua and were involved in various experimental projects while Iztok has been a member of the post rock act ŠKM Banda and noise/industrial duo Hexenbrutal for almost two decades. Their bands crossed paths on a domestic tour and they decided to meet for a jam session. “The initial idea was to play acoustic drone music on various acoustic and homemade instruments, but things started to take shape on their own,” says Iztok. “I was more interested in playing melodic and rhythmic trance music, so we decided we’d better talk less and play more,” adds Ana. “Things progressed spontaneously. We decided not to define things too much so it became this kind of free-floating enterprise,” says Samo. During the interview, they often emphasise their personal differences. According to Iztok, it is exactly the way in which they find common ground and cultivate their differences that makes Širom special. “Our music is about the cancelling of individualism, taking a step back and joining forces,” Iztok says.

The most outstanding characteristic of Širom are the diverse, exotic and obscure sound palettes and shiver-inducing timbres that make up their immersive soundscapes (hurdy-gurdy, banjo, tempura brač, ocarina, lyre, viola, balafon, ribab, mizmar etc.). Many of them come from unique homemade and prepared instruments (an acoustic resonator made from a spring and a frame drum) and found objects (bowls with rice). “We realised that our acoustic instruments offer almost infinite sonic possibilities. It was not meant as a trademark, it just so happened. You simply have to give a song everything that it needs to exist,” Samo reflects. “We do it to achieve new sound effects and affects, for example by making a violin sound like something else,” says Ana.

Their enigmatic collection of instruments has been growing steadily without any specific agenda. Iztok recently expanded his family of instruments with the three stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute guembri (or sintir), while Samo decided to include on the new album the spring reverb, which he previously used for improv sessions. There is a child-like fascination with spontaneous discovery in how they describe these artistic developments. A similarly playful approach can be attributed to the way in which they talk about arrangement, composition and improvisation. “Some think that everything we play is improvised, which of course isn’t true,” says Iztok. In fact, it is all about jam-like recording sessions, (re)listening, (re)arranging, recording and listening again. “We improvise, make hours of recordings, pick the favourite parts, arrange them in ways we like and so on,” Samo explains.

According to the trio, when a song is “finished”, it loses some of its primordial potency. But after playing it for so long, they tend to forget technique and again make way for improvisation. “It is important to leave room for unpredictability,” says Samo. Like their previous releases, the songs for their fourth album The Liquified Throne Of Simplicity (tQ’s album of the year so far) were almost completely recorded as one-take live sessions. “The process of recording undoubtedly changes a song. Ideally, we’d make a song, record it for the first time, then play it for a year and then re-record it. That would make for one hell of a record,” Iztok adds.

All three have a close relationship with improvisation. “There are some parallels with free improv and our music in terms of flow, but we have cues and transition points. You follow a tonality and improvise with time and dynamics inside a frame,” Ana explains. In their case, improvisation functions more as a creative tool than as an end in itself. She believes that an individual’s musical expression depends on various circumstances. “It’s almost as if something is guiding your fingers,” she says. When Ana sings, she is like a Homerian siren singing 19th century arias. “As a kid, I thought I didn’t know how to sing, but later I started to accept my voice. When I sing, I want to express something that I feel at that particular moment. It’s as if I release a feral part of me. I’m interested in the crudeness of the human voice. The more you train it, the more you conceal this. I like to keep it raw,” says Ana.

Discussing the concept of trance music, the trio talks about repetition, being immersed, losing sense of time, floating freely and altering consciousness. “In Morocco, I experienced something similar listening to gnawa music for four hours non-stop,” says Samo. But even though their music is repetitive in structure, there is so much going on. “I feel that repetitive music allows you to listen on multiple levels. After being immersed in it for some time, you feel relaxed, which makes you hear details you didn’t notice before. I feel like music looks after you and lets you have your internal processes. You can reach various states of trance in different ways,” Iztok explains, and continues: “I once saw a Japanese grindcore band play a 30-minute show with 100 songs, which also tranced me in a way.”

Their musical philosophy stems from the idea of being present in the moment (or, in new age newspeak, mindfulness). It is about the ability to listen to your musical comrades, to lead and be led. Talking about music’s therapeutic functions, Ana says that she often plays just to take the edge off. During the last lockdown, she would play the frame drum a lot, expanding on her rhythmic vocabulary. They do not tend to practise on their own too often, though. “Something has to be going on in your life in order to turn it into music,” Iztok explains. It sometimes happens that they improvise and make a complete song at practice in one take, while on other occasions they just go around in circles.

There is almost a sacred dimension to their approach to music making. “Music isn’t only about sound, technique, ideas. It’s often also about a kind of magic that takes place, which is independent of the actual sonic material. It’s about capturing something deeper,” says Samo. “It’s about vibration,” Ana adds. Their intimate relationship with music is encapsulated in the way the trio attempts to describe how they experience it. “I think that our music is a reflection of our separate lives, which at some point dovetailed and found a new expression in sound. Our lives are like circles that overlap. Some parts are just our own, but sometimes all three circles overlap, that’s where the magic happens,” says Iztok. “I feel like various currents run through and out of us, social, personal and unconscious ones, and sometimes our currents synchronise and become waves of sound,” he adds.

The trio observes the outside world with the eyes of wonder. “Untamed nature and other forms of magic, these are things that have a huge impact on me, and I see them in connection with that magic moment when music happens. It’s hard to put it into words, and I don’t even think it’s necessary,” says Samo. Despite all the talk about nature and folk traditions, all three agree that their music is just as political as any other. “Like Laibach said at some point, there is no apolitical music. Our music is not just ours. It’s a product of our time and place, so I don’t think it’s that universal. Maybe someone somewhere could consider it abhorrent, depending on their cultural background,” Iztok reflects.

Even though they do get some inspiration from various local mythologies, folk tales and pre-Christian Slavic pagan rituals that survived well into the 20th century, they never use them as direct source material. It is more about the sense of mystique that surrounds them. It is about trying to but never succeeding in explaining the unknown. “If you live close to nature, this happens intuitively. It’s important to be aware that there are some things in life that can’t and shouldn’t be explained. It’s refreshing to accept how infinitesimally small we are,” says Samo. During the pandemic, they developed their own kind of ritual (“regular meetings”), which felt very meaningful and profound. “We didn’t do it so that we could then talk and boast about it. It simply happened out of necessity,” he adds.

Since their debut album I. (Klopotec/ZARŠ, 2016), they have been collaborating with the Slovenian academic painter Marko Jakše. His signature surrealistic illustrations, full of magical creatures, characters and landscapes, add another dimension to Širom’s music. The trio also puts a lot of emphasis on the track titles, which are constructed using a collective free-association writing technique. “We want all the three elements to complement one another,” Samo explains. “For titles, we all provide words without knowing if they work well together, unconsciously creating combinations that sometimes turn into little gems,” he adds. The idea that it is often better to let things take their own shape defines the whole Širom cosmos.

Talking about influences, they all agree that the residencies with Japanese sound/visual artist and steelpanist Yoshio Machida and Polish guitarist, composer and improviser Raphael Rogiński had a profound impact on the band. In terms of music, though, each of them has a distinct taste that cannot be pinpointed. There is no single band or artist that directly influenced their sound. “Journalists often reference various bands we don’t know, and sometimes I check them out, only to realise that they’re very different from us,” Ana explains. Names like Jon Hassell, Moondog, Don Cherry, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Steve Reich and Penguin Cafe Orchestra tend to pop up in their company, but they mostly function as simple reference points for potential newcomers.

Following their debut, they became members of the Glitterbeat Records family, releasing their last three albums on their sublabel Tak:til. “They trust us completely and we have total freedom,” Iztok explains. “We used to make compromises, but for the last record we simply realised that music needs time to take the proper shape. We didn’t want to be limited by the vinyl format. The new songs are much longer,” Ana says. “It’s the same at gigs. You first need 10 minutes so that the music really permeates the place and people accept it, and then you can proceed. This is the kind of music we make now,” she adds. “People need some time to open their third ear,” Iztok remarks with tongue in cheek.

Not all audiences experience their music in the same way. It all depends on the setting, weather and overall vibe. “Sometimes people really become euphoric and start crying for some reason,” says Samo. Such anecdotes are not that rare. “One time, a lady approached us after the concert and explained that she experienced a dreamlike vision during a song, describing it in detail and crying her eyes out,” Ana recounts. “This means a lot to us. That's the charm of it all,” Samo adds. Some people share with them the sketches and illustrations that they draw during the shows. Other times even more surreal things happen. An elderly man once approached Iztok after a concert and decided to give him his banjo as a gift. “In fact, we also sometimes experience the same kind of joy, listening to completely unknown artists who really shake us thoroughly,” says Samo. A simple melody, specific rhythm or even a tone or frequency can have a profound impact on an individual if the stars align. “It’s about this exchange. I, too, sometimes feel the need to give something to a musician because they gave me so much through their music. This way, you can complete the circle,” Iztok adds.

The Liquified Throne Of Simplicity is out now via Glitterbeat