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A Quietus Interview

What Will Remain Is Love: Marta Salogni Interviewed
Kat Lister , May 9th, 2023 09:05

Music For Open Spaces is an album inspired by landscape recorded by the late musician Tom Relleen with partner Marta Salogni. She talks to Kat Lister about the 'long journey' this music has taken

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a melancholic writer and a frustrated physicist meet a shaven-headed loner in a derelict bar. The pair are looking for a guide. But maybe they’re looking for hope. It is, after all, a film of deep longing with its doorways and its thresholds, and, at its centre, a barren wasteland sealed off with barbed wire. Known simply as "the Zone", this forbidden marshland contains a room where a person’s innermost desires can be granted. "But what do I want?" the writer asks himself. On the one hand, the room is an elegy to all the things that are beyond our reach. On the other hand, it exists as some kind of entreaty, urging us to keep reaching, regardless of what may (or may not) come to be.

Going into the recording studio is a little like journeying to “the Zone”, Marta Salogni tells me, as she looks around the room. There are a trio of hefty tape machines to the right of us, and row upon row of neatly shelved keyboards and amps to the left. “Sometimes my job can be as transparent or involved as the role requires but it’s never the same,” the Italian-born producer muses, sitting wide-legged on a swivel chair, her mixing desk peeking behind her. Looking at its dizzying grid of knobs, switches and faders, I’m reminded of Salogni’s eclectic CV with its credits as wide-ranging as producer, arranger, instrumental performer – and even vocalist. As a producer, engineer and mixer, Salogni has worked with some of the most pioneering and innovative artists since she first arrived in London in 2010: from the percussive etherealism of Björk’s Utopia, to the wild cross-pollination of Black Midi’s Hellfire, and onwards to Animal Collective’s spiralling Time Skiffs. Earlier this year, she engineered and mixed Depeche Mode’s fifteenth studio album, the saliently-titled Memento Mori. Other collaborations include The XX (I See You), Goldfrapp (Silver Eye), M.IA, Lucrecia Dalt – and so the list goes on.

“Sometimes a record ends up being different from what the artist expected – and that’s pretty much Stalker,” she says. Salogni loved the late-70s sci-fi film for its beauty, but she named her East London studio after it for its deeper metaphors. “This is ‘the room’,” she says of Studio Zona – a room that can be just as unpredictable as Tarkovsky’s when you’re tasked with shaping a record. “When you depart, you do so with the notion that you will return changed in some way. But you don’t know what that change will mean, what it will look like.” Professional shrewdness aside, one gets the sense that she is also talking from painful personal experience. It’s the record we’re here to talk about. Not an engineering assignment, or a production venture, but an otherworldly collaboration with her late partner, the musician and artist Tom Relleen, recorded before his death from gastric cancer in the summer of 2020 – set to be released on Hands in the Dark this week.

“It’s been a long journey,” Salogni says of the three years she’s spent painstakingly piecing the fragments together. On the afternoon we meet, the April rain is finally waning, and she is striding towards me, partly pulled along by her dog: a sprightly Persian greyhound called Mirage. “He’s new,” she smiles as she scoops him up, leading me up the concrete stairs of a red-bricked industrial unit, and into the studio that she built and soundproofed in 2017. “I spent most of my time here when the world seemed to be falling apart,” she says, handing me a mug of tea. When everything shut down in March 2020, Salogni would look out of the two windows behind her tape machines, and focus her gaze at the building across from her, seeing people like herself. Separate, yes – but together in isolation. She was working on Black Midi’s third studio album when Relleen, one-half of the experimental duo Tomaga, became ill. But she was also making something intimate – and, at that time, largely secret: an album of eleven composed pieces of experimental music inspired by the places they had travelled to and loved – the Mojave desert, the Cornish coast – titled Music For Open Spaces.

“Sometimes it’s easier to think about it backwards,” Salogni tells me. Such is grief, I reply – and so backwards we go. For a long time, their record existed surreptitiously, something privately held between them. “I haven’t been able to see it as a finished entity until quite recently,” she admits. Last year, she returned to the house and studio, in the Joshua Tree desert, where she and Relleen first started making the album together in 2018. The final pressing of the record could only be listened to here, looking out onto the parched desert plain, under the fierce, burning sun. She filled up a cattle trough with cold water, dunked her body inside, and with her best headphones in position, “just stared into nothingness.” Amongst the brier and the dust, she felt ready to let it go.

“I have left these compositions unaltered, unmixed. Just as they were the last time we listened to them together,” Salogni commented when Music For Open Spaces was first announced earlier this year. After Relleen passed away, she finished the record alone. Months went by before she could summon the strength to find the raw sessions she needed on the laptop he’d left behind. Even the idea of going through his passwords seemed like an invasion of privacy. “Who do I ask for permission? Where am I allowed to go?” When Salogni finally acquiesced, she was faced with another existential question: “What should I do?” Like a skilled conservator, she gently brought it to life - Slowly, attentively. “The only way for me to be at peace with this record is to know it was done in the right way. And sometimes it took me some time to figure out what the right way was.”

Listen to its first track ‘Internal Logic II’ and these circulations can be heard in every chime: a scattering of twinkling sounds that illuminate a vast and dusky sky. Are we grounded, or is there flight? The diaphanous sound of chorale cooing suggests that we are airborne. And yet the subterranean organ drone pulls us downward, as if toward the earth. On closer inspection, these celestial voices aren’t voices at all, but spooling reels of magnetic tape. “The tension sometimes drops, and so it causes a ‘wooo’, a wobble, that sounds quite human,” Salogni explains. It’s a strange and spectral effect that permeates the phantasmal dreamland of Music for Open Spaces, and goes some way to explaining her love of looping, a lifelong fascination that began when she bought her first tape machine – a Revox PR99 – in her early-twenties. She uses these machines differently, she says: not only to record, but to compose in new and experimental ways. Years ago, she blindfolded her friend while she was playing the violin, running a tape machine behind her as they “dueted”. The loop of the tape is a lure for further adventures, “because it reminds me of the way memory operates”, she says, “how distorted it gets the more you remember.”

Like the looping tape machines, memory in grief can be a capricious thing. “I don’t remember which stage we were at with the record when Tom became ill,” she says. But she can recall the journey that sparked their decision to make it. Years previously, while on holiday in California, they borrowed a van and drove to their friend’s house at the edge of the desert. When they arrived, they went straight into the studio “and just improvised.” Relleen played bass; Salogni did some slow frequency feedback. There’s a sense of wonder, she says with a smile, when she listens to it now. The day before they recorded opening track ‘Desert Glass’ – a brittle thing, like the flapping of wings in a bell jar – Relleen took Salogni to Joshua Tree National Park to show her his favourite rock: “It has a big hole in it that looks like a portal. He took my hand and we stepped through it.” Last year, she retraced her steps to try and locate it again, but without him there to guide her: “I didn’t know where it was, I didn’t have any coordinates. Gosh, I went everywhere but I couldn’t find it.”

The Joshua Tree Desert by Marta Salogni

She recreated the granite doorway on the sleeve of their record, the record she’s holding now as she speaks. Set squarely in the middle, a large circle has been cut out from the outer sleeve, flanked either side by the column-like typography of their names. Remove this outer sleeve, and you step through the portal where a monochrome rock emits its solar waves across an arid terrain. Together with Hands in the Dark founder Morgan Cuinet’s collages, conceived as a visual mirroring of each track, the artwork consists of a blue map Relleen made – when exactly, no one really knows. Salogni found it after he died, but it was only when his Tomaga bandmate Valentina Magaletti filled in the blanks, that she realised how it was drawn. The interstellar grooves were scratched onto the cobalt surface with his fingernails. She places it on the floor, and we both look down at its curves and lines, swirling pathways that take us to disparate words that scatter like stars. “Victory, empty, a gaze,” she recites, tracing them like constellations with her fingers. “The onset, salvation, my birth, terror, strawberries,” she laughs. “I can see Tom in this – all these words remind me of him.”

This map, like their record, leads her back to Relleen: as he is now, as he was then. “He was contained for so long,” she says. “Not just in spaces like the hospital room, but in his body. Because a body can feel claustrophobic – especially when it’s failing and the mind isn’t.” And yet, where there is contraction there is also expansion – something their music so movingly reflects, caught somewhere in the centre of it all: between the open skies and the concrete walls.

“Tom wished he could have been in a place where we could have opened the windows after he died. But we couldn’t do that in the hospital. So just that title, Music For Open Spaces, makes me think that’s where he wanted it to be,” Salogni says. The “big shatter”, as she calls it, occurred during the spring of 2020, a time when “neither of us knew what was going on”. Stomach pains led to a short-stay in hospital at the peak of the first major wave of Covid-19. Visitors weren’t allowed in and for many weeks their only mode of communication was via telephone. “When we understood what it was, that it was cancer, things came into focus,” Salogni says. She’d stay at home in the mornings. At lunch, she would come to her studio for a few hours, wearing gloves and a mask, bringing canned food with her so she could avoid the shared common room. At 2pm, she’d get on her bike and cycle to the Royal London Hospital where he was bedridden. “He was asleep for most of the time, but sometimes we would talk and watch some films.” She pauses. “It was enough just to be there.”

'Snarls' by Morgan Cuinet

Relleen finally came home on his birthday in May. Salogni learned to manage his pain, to feed him with an IV, and during a period where he began to rally, they finished a raw mix of their album. Some tracks were inspired by their Joshua Tree excursion, others were recorded in a Cornish Airbnb, overlooking the rugged Lizard peninsula, gazing out onto the waves. Relleen was also working on a record with his Tomaga bandmate Magaletti at this time: a pulsing score that was released posthumously in 2021, under the title Intimate Immensity. “I helped them finish that, too,” Salogni recalls – something she describes as “a beautiful record.” One composition, its title track, she singles out as a deeply personal one for Relleen. “I remember Tom telling me that he’d put a lot of sadness in it.” She still hears that sadness now. He didn’t just fight the illness, she says – he fought the subsequent depression, too. “What’s real, what’s true?” she asks rhetorically. For Relleen at that time: the ability to read a book, or to sit in the garden, without feeling sick. “The things we consider simple when we’re well.”

Just before he died, Relleen said to Salogni: “What will remain is love” – and so these tender words live on in her studio, words that continue to grow. She planted his favourite tree in London’s Victoria Park so that people have a place to visit him beneath its branches. The original, its mate, can be found in the back of their garden: a tall and slender skyscraper with round, wavy leaves. These trees are often referred to as “quaking” Aspen in North America “because the sound is different,” she explains – “the leaves have a very specific way of trembling in the wind.” Relleen was very tall, she tells me, and the same can be said of the tree that grows in his memory. A burgeoning cairn, a living thing. Or as Salogni calls it: a “fuck you” to death. Something that’s reclaiming itself in space and time “to defy what others think about grief.” Perhaps it’s even reclaiming a little of herself, too. “Expectations, right? Like, what am I supposed to feel?” She pauses. “What do others think I feel?”

The continuing bonds are all around her, she tells me – connecting them in these open spaces where Relleen is now, “unconstrained by form.” One of his final requests was for Salogni to be generous with his bass guitar. “I hate to think that there’s a kid out there who wants to learn, and doesn’t have the money for it,” he told her – “please just give it to them.” Three years after his untimely death, at the age of 42, Salogni wants to honour this wish for as many children as possible. In 2021, she established the Free Youth Orchestra: a charity that focuses on removing barriers between children and access to musical instruments – in memory of Relleen. Earlier this year, their first free music session took place at an adventure playground in Stoke Newington with microphones, pedals, synths, tape machines and drums. Relleen’s Tomaga bandmate Magaletti was there, and Salogni even recorded some of their improvised melodies as they thwacked and strummed and plucked. “It was such fun, the kids were amazing.” She smiles as she remembers. “It sounded like a track Tom would make.”

Music For Open Spaces is out on Thursday via Hands In The Dark. An evening celebrating the music of Tom Relleen and Marta Salogni's music will be held at Cafe Oto on May 29