Homesick Astronaut: Hinged By Maarja Nuut

On Maarja Nuut's latest album, Richard Foster finds a restless sonic explorer

What should the average listener make of the Estonian musician Maarja Nuut? It’s not a question that gives an easy answer. The records she has made over these last six years have the quality of running water, recognisably there but forever flowing past us before we can get a handle on their core properties. More mundanely, hers is also a sound forged by a negotiation of deep-seated and slow moving challenges driven by assumption, circumstance, geography, and other socio-cultural factors. These issues, combined with Nuut’s determined, sometimes cussed temperament, have resulted in a series of sharp stylistic changes that have been difficult to plot for her listeners. Her latest release, Hinged, featuring the Swiss jazz percussionist Nicolas Stocker, is possibly the most shape-shifting and intriguing to date.

Despite once thinking that Maarja Nuut was a restless soul looking for a creative anchor, or one trying to throw off the shackles of expectation, I am now more inclined to think she is a sonic astronaut in search of her long-lost home planet. But she can’t go home alone. So she looks to others, alive or dead, to help her find it. This search was instigated right at the beginning of Nuut’s time as a musician with her studies of violin and Hindustani music under Delhi-based cellist Saskia Rao de Haas, some extensive field work in Poland with a multitude of village fiddlers, and her obsessing over archival recordings of pre-Soviet Estonian village music in Viljandi. This early field work led to the establishment of a sound that is still a blessing and a curse.

The success of 2016’s debut LP Une Meeles (‘In the Hold of a Dream’), and acclaimed performances at Womex and Womad offered a career path as a successful folk artist on a relatively secure circuit. A course others would have looked to consolidate and cultivate. But not Maarja Nuut. Une Meeles is a brilliant and much-loved record but Nuut began to see what it represented as a trap. Being lauded for a particular style and, worse, being expected to act it out was increasingly wearying to her; an example of fighting the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the biz. Hence a series of collaborations to sidestep expectations with the brilliant Estonian sound designer Hendrik Kaljujärv (aka Ruum), Sun Araw, and most recently, Nicolas Stocker.

The modern music industry doesn’t allow much space or time for this kind of quicksilver pig-headedness. It may sound odd for an increasingly recognised artist, but Maarja Nuut doesn’t really fit in – anywhere – despite numerous attempts to “launch” her. To compound matters, Nuut doesn’t consider herself part of the industry. Recently she told me, “The world doesn’t need my music, but I need to make music – for me.” She also admits to feeling unsure about performing live in this bumpy late-Covid world, concerned that bookers, promoters, and audiences can’t, or won’t, see past the idea of the “mysterious folk girl from Estonia” or the “Baltic Björk” – appendages that sound as if they were plucked from the pages of Scoop.

Maarja Nuut moves her hands across the screen in a video call, mimicking how she uses her new instrument, the Eurorack format of modular synthesizer. She has a modest set up and she wants to keep it that way: two cases consisting of different modules for sound design and sequencing, and so on. Nuut says her experience of using the Eurorack format is primarily a tactile one, a movement of hands that engineers a connection and then creates a sound. Maybe it’s a weird electronic simulation of how she plays the fiddle. She is an intuitive composer, and the genesis for her new record has been a slow process of collating sounds and ideas. In love with the “random voltage” created by sticking mono jack cables into sockets, Nuut admitted the results initially “sounded like a madhouse”. But the Eurorack eventually proved its worth, it is the driving spirit of Hinged.

The instrument works as a puzzle solver and determines nearly every sound, including how Nuut’s voice is presented and where she employs her violin. Those still weaned on Une Meeles and the folkier parts of 2018’s Muunduja will be disappointed to know that there are “only three notes of violin” on Hinged. Though the track with a recognisable violin passage, the beautiful, two-part reflection ‘Mees, Kes Aina Igatses (A Man Who Ever Yearned)’, reveals Nuut’s magical grasp of her instrument, she is a supreme sketcher of mood, able to populate a sonic world ignited by simple, direct draws of her bow.

As noted earlier, Maarja Nuut is often grateful for a co-pilot to plot a course through her own head. The latest is Nicolas Stocker, who makes an appearance on three tracks. On opener ‘Hinged’, his sympathetic playing circles round Nuut’s modular gloop (replete with muffled voice samples) like a sheep dog keeping track of a restless flock. The follow-up track ‘On Vaja (In Need)’ sees Stocker taking Nuut’s electronic “puzzle solving” head on with a counter rhythm that has a very psychedelic element to it. It’s the sort of drum shuffle you hear at the end of ‘Strawberry Fields’ or on a Syd Barrett solo record. Nuut’s headless voices, processed beyond human form by the Eurorack and a raft of other sequencing, swoop now and again like harpies from a high cliff. It’s over far too quickly.

Stocker’s other contribution, ‘Jojobell’, is brilliant rhythmic avant-pop, the percussionist uses the timbre of the percussion to set the mood and allow Nuut’s madhouse noises to creep in, like a teenager coming home after an illicit night on the tiles. Nuut also provides some beats, heard on ‘Subota’ which, at times, is as avant-garde a take on Belle Stars’ ‘Clapping Song’ as you are likely to hear.

Other forms of field work inform Hinged. Nuut recently took possession of her grandmother’s farm near the provincial town of Rakvere, which she has spent lockdown renovating. Cutting down five hectares of scrub and going through old documents has led her to “play hide and seek with myself”, a process that has found form in some of the more mysterious, multilingual tracks on Hinged, where mixes of Estonian and English form a new kind of phonetic language. Estonia’s turbulent history may have a part to play, too. Regardless, Nuut delights in this “automatic writing” of language and memory.

“Hinged” in Estonian means departed spirits and the soul in Estonian, and in English a link that holds things together. Playing with languages and memories and the phonetic bywaters these create is the other key takeaway from the new record. There are a few striking examples on Hinged: such as ‘A Scene (Merevees)’ is a beautiful thought bubble that floats over the land like a Jack-O-Lantern. It’s also noticeable throughout how Nuut’s gloriously clear voice sometimes melts into her instruments to become indistinguishable from them, maybe even becoming them – such as on the waking dream, ‘Vaheala Valgus (I Hear Behind the Moon)’ where her voice and Vermona organ seem to fully plight their troth.

With Hinged, Maarja Nuut strengthens her reputation as a fascinating artist. Weirdly, it is Nuut’s dedication and complete lack of creative artifice in making and presenting her music that makes her at once easy to listen to and hard to get a handle on. Endlessly poring over her subject to find the essence of it, she then works back towards us, using her music as a form of rope bridge. Rope bridges, however, as anyone who has crossed one will know, are tricky to negotiate and take patience and pluck. But new listeners should be assured, it’s worth the effort.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today