Spin That Wheel: BOWN By Mariam Rezaei Is Our Album Of The Week

Newcastle's Mariam Rezaei is at the crest of a thrilling new wave of experimental turntablism, finds Antonio Poscic

Turntables had featured prominently in experimental music through the works of a pantheon of stalwart composers and musicians – from the intricate installations of Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, and Christian Marclay to the freer investigations of Otomo Yoshihide and Paul Dennis Miller (DJ Spooky). However, the turn of the century saw the practice fall ill, plagued by rote and its own hermeticism. Alongside Maria Chávez, Shiva Feshareki, Nicole Raymond (NikNak), and Victoria Shen (Evicshen), Newcastle based composer, performer, and academic Mariam Rezaei is at the forefront of a rejuvenating wave in turntablism, one which is pushing the practice harder and farther out than ever before.

Chávez approaches the medium like a sculpture, extracting sounds and effects from grooves and broken records. Feshareki is a contemporary classical composer who has recently been reimagining the compositions of Daphne Oram through her own turntable experiments. Meanwhile, Shen’s turntablism is influenced by her fascination with DIY electronics and noise. Although their backgrounds and artistic interests vary wildly, they are united by a fearless artistic ethos, channelled through the desire to supplant the faux-accepting status quo with a truly supporting, thriving community.

That they are all femme-identifying people of colour is no accident. What better way to understand and then rebel against the predominantly white, male, and profit driven system than to have felt its suffocating grip firsthand. Akin to Canadian new media artist Darsha Hewitt’s project High Fidelity Wasteland II: The Proto-Plastic Groove, which decomposes vinyl’s material and semiotic essence down to atoms while questioning its ecological and sociological effects, they disassemble turntablism as if it were a malfunctioning engine, marvel at its cylinders and cogs, then restore it in the form of something new and strangely beautiful.

Rezaei is many things: a DJ and turntablist since early adolescence, a lecturer in music technology and composition, a former chief of TOPH, and contributor to The Wire and this site, among other publications. Thanks to erudite experience, her art is uniquely placed to turn a floodlight on all the failures of the experimental music scene from within, weaponising each bit of sexism, racism, and elitism into a sardonic sonic attack. The inspired, vital, and audacious tongue-in-cheek energy fills every pore of her recent series of releases, BLUD, SKEEN, and SADTITZZZ. Each of them reflects a different facet of marginalisation, similar to how Marie Davidson surfaces the patriarchal, unwelcoming environment of electronic music through snide vignettes.

As a result, Rezaei’s music is simultaneously funny and poignant, furious and calm, capable of breaking out from atmospheric drones into blistering jazz-punk attacks, and often bridging delirious humour with the emptiness felt after engaging in futile battles again and again. In the words of Rezaei herself, all of these inputs shape an “almost completely absurd artistic vision”, but one that makes total sense in its absurdity. In their essence, and despite the ambiguity of titles like ‘it COULD be jazz’, the nine cuts on her new album are informed by a structure, flow, and aleatoric framework reminiscent of free jazz and improvisation.

BOWN is the final part of a triptych, so it might be tempting to frame it as some sort of culmination or expected conclusion. In reality, each of Rezaei’s works is marked by perpetuity, left to be rejigged and resequenced as needed, much like the act and philosophy of turntablism itself. Regardless in which order you listen to them, they feel as if flowing from and into one another, conveying the same sense of anger, elation, spite, and optimistic acceptance. On BOWN these practices and emotions alternately take the form of boiling attacks, near ambient meditations, and moments of avant awe.

On the opening ‘HMMM’, Rezaei takes her own hummed lines and morphs them beyond recognition. The effect is very subtle at first: a tail end of a vowel pitch shifted by a smidgeon, a word pushed out of phase by a millisecond. Then, the manipulations become more evident. Her voice splinters into layers that intertwine and float above each other, uniting in voluminous interference, horizontal sine wave sweeps, and deeply reverberating bass textures. At a point, the vocal lines reduce to a choir of squiggly yelps, reminiscent of the gallery of shrivelled souls captured by Ursula, the sea witch from The Little Mermaid (who, like Rezaei, is a total boss).

This first cut also demonstrates Rezaei’s nimbleness at playing turntables. As she remarked in an interview with The Wire earlier this year, “the whole point of turntablism is to prove you’re fucking good!” Yet with her background in hip-hop and competitive turntablism, she is also aware of the toxic effects this showiness and competitive edge has on art – going so far to call it “the demise of turntablism” in a followup interview. For all her virtuosity, her own recorded music instead strays away from this bravado, and makes use of her skills for inventive transformations and digital manipulations of material sourced through other musical approaches.

On ‘GEORDIE SPICE’, she bounces the voice of longtime collaborator and Yeah You member/dad Gwilly Edmondez around the stereo field with prowess, turning it into a hypnotic symphony of broken words. Elsewhere, she tempers the flamboyant side of herself to lay down a crystalline, abyssal soundscape on ‘GLASS BASTARD’. Here she creates spaces that Guttersnipe’s Bobby Glew and electronic musician Teresa Winter fill with a nervous, free-wheeling snare/drum/cymbal slalom with stabs of noise, transforming the piece into something off of a Merzbow/Balázs Pándi record. Glew’s elastic spasms behind the drum kit make a return on the scorching, glitching, screaming ‘it COULD be jazz’ – a fired up fuck you to those who still try to gate keep what jazz is and isn’t. A bit later, this sentiment gets applied to left-field music in general, surfacing through the blistering barrages of noise on the aptly named ‘IDIOTIC MUSIC PEOPLE CUNTS’ and closer ‘SHORTIE SHORTS’.

Between these bursts of fully warranted and very welcome sonic violence, Rezaei injects a few melancholy, understated pieces. ‘BURNING LIKE FUCK’ is all angelic voices and wide-angle synth wooshes, with an arrhythmic beat buried within, while ‘MARIAMBA’ composes a tiny orchestra out of Lukas Koenig’s disgruntled marimba fragments then makes them play out a hazy, pulsing trip-hop track.

But the true centrepiece of the album is ‘I WANT U 2’, haunted by Alya Al-Sultani’s mesmerising soprano vocalisations and spoken word: “I want you female because civilization is female, because poems are female, because…” As these cyclical phrases and Al-Sultani’s voice splinter and stutter, the piece becomes a miniaturised representation of Rezaei’s mixture of moods and methods, from simple, earnest idealism to impassioned, noisy calls to action – as wondrous as the whole album.

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