Words by David C. Obenour
A combination of nature and nurture, Åland Islands is the product of years of collaboration finding a new voice through weeks of immersion. Having performed together and as part of larger ensembles, Jeremy Chiu and Marta Horner set off on a series of trips to the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. The initial intent was to help build a small hotel with mutual friends, but the new surroundings proved lush settings, full of inspirations. Reality shifts and bends in the roots of moss encrusted forest floors, abandoned modern housing, and ancient church organs – all part of an existence separated by drives, ferry rides, drives and more ferries. All art is informed by its surroundings, but for Chiu and Horner here it is imbued with it.
Off Shelf: Having first met as members of a larger musical ensemble, I was wondering if you could recall what initially elevated the other beyond just the context of that project?
Marta Honer: Yes, as you mention, our meeting was through our mutual friends (Bitchin Bajas), as they had invited both of us to perform Terry Riley’s In C at Constellation in Chicago. Our connection was quite natural as we were amongst a great group of people in the Chicago experimental, jazz, rock, and classical communities. I remember we had just gotten into a conversation about the different projects that we were working on and decided to find a time to collaborate.
OS: Since that meeting, you have continued collaborating with one another. Years later, what about your work together has evolved and what has remained central?
Jeremiah Chiu: It’s been about 8 years since we first met and both of our practices have dramatically shifted—myself focusing on production/composition and Marta on session work.
Working in the realm of electronic music, my focus today is on exploring and experimenting with human or organic expressions of synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers. That approach is explored through our collaborative performances where at any given moment, Marta’s viola can be live-sampled, manipulated, and extended through synthesis.
I suppose what has remained is our interest in continuing to push our own approaches and expressions, continuously seeking new and unfamiliar territory.
MH: When we started collaborating musically, I initially was using a large amount of fx pedals to explore ways to blend my sound with Jeremiah’s synths. As he’s mentioned and is exemplified on our record, I am now retaining much more of my natural acoustic tone, and am spending time altering that starting sound with through sampling and granular synthesis.
OS: In 2017 you both went to the Åland Islands to help Jannika and Sage Reed establish the Hotel Svala, a small inn that would host residencies and programs. What initially excited you about this project?
JC: I was initially excited for the opportunity to travel with a group of collaborators/friends to explore a place we had never been. I’m not a good vacationer. If I’m on vacation, I often find a way to start a project, to keep myself busy. For the hotel, Sage and I spoke a lot about the opportunity to forge a space for artists, for creative practitioners to come, stay, and create—a loose artist residency or workshop program.
The journey getting to the Åland Islands is part of its magic. You have to travel via a series of ferries and cars, constantly shifting from land to sea and back. There’s very few places left in the world that require such an effort to get to—and when you arrive, the landscape really forces a sense of quiet and calm.
MH: I had never heard of the Åland Islands before traveling there, but hearing the location, along with the time of year that we chose to go (around Midsummer) fascinated me. Jeremiah is a natural instigator so it took little convincing to get me and a handful of friends on board for a project that we knew little of, in a location we knew even less.
OS: What was your vision of the Islands before visiting? How was that challenged once you actually arrived?
JC: We had never traveled to Scandinavia before, so we were quite open to having a completely new experience and to see what might come of it. We traveled with our instruments without the intention of making an album, but instead knew that we might have some time on our hands to just play and enjoy. After several days, the island magic—specifically the summer sun—inspired us. Exploring the islands, a few chance moments catalyzed the initial recordings: playing in an empty pool at the hotel, finding an old pump organ in a house, the young boy monitoring the church allowing us to experiment on the church organ.
OS: Knowing we all bring our own history and perspectives, did your experience of the region diverge from each other’s in any meaningful way? In how you interacted with the people and settings?
JC: Much of the recordings on the album are improvisations, moments captured, and field recordings. Through the improvisations, I feel we were able to have a dialogue with each other without having to plan or structure a session the way one might traditionally do so when recording an album or song. Nothing was forced or overly redone, what you hear on the album are the moments that the music came into the world.
MH: Our first trip in 2017 was very organic, with no goal or aim musically, just naturally making field recordings and recording musical moments here and there based on how we were feeling in the environment. When we returned in 2019 to perform and compose a bit more, I think we were on the same page of wanting to simply represent the calm and beauty of a part of the world that now is very special to us.
OS: How did that experience translate into the inspiration for recording this album?
JC: In editing and finalizing the album, we made sure to leave as much of the reality of the recordings in place. This is why you will hear a boy cough at the :50 second mark of Kumlinge Kyrka or why the piano continues on into a conversation at the end of Stureby House Piano. When we listened back to the recordings, we could really feel ourselves transported to a place and hope that listeners could have a similar experience, even if they had not been to the islands.
OS: One of the sources for these recordings came from a performance funded through the Department of Culture at the Kumlinge Kyrka, a 14th century medieval church. Can you talk about performance? How the place shaped the music you made in it?
MH: Our travels back to the islands in 2019 were funded by a travel grant from the Department for Åland Education and Cult Kumlinge Ungdomsforening to perform at Kumlinge Kyrka, also known as St Anna’s. The Kyrka (church) is just down the road from the hotel and it’s an incredibly beautiful space with 15th century frescoes that adorn the walls and ceiling in a “Franciscan tradition that are unique in Finland”. The performance allowed our second trip to be more focused on creating an album and finalizing recordings. The Kyrka itself inspired a lot of the music as we were able to use the organ, to respond to the space, and to perform a lot of the ideas we had captured throughout the islands back into a space filled with people from the islands. It was also a really lovely experience getting to play a concert for most of the people that live on Kumlinge that we had been getting to know during out trips.
OS: What other locations for recordings stand out as particularly inspirational to the album?
JC: The forest, the sea, and the midnight sun. The forest is a lush bed of moss, lichen, and berries. The longer we were there, the more the color of the landscape comes alive—as romantic as that may sound, it really did take time for our eyes to adjust to the place. It’s surreal.
OS: Though you said the album is unlike anything you’ve done before, or will make in the future, what imprint from the experience as a whole do you think has had the deepest resonance?
JC: I think we mention this because the album is so site-specific. It is very much about our experience of these islands. What you hear is our response to the environment and time, and the moments of discovery. The pace of the record is slow, almost glacial, as that felt most accurate to the experience of time on the islands. Overall, I think the experience will continue to push us to consider ourselves in relation to our environment, our histories, and our time—to really tune in and let go.
MH: This record came together as it wanted to, from our snippets of improvisation in the moment, instruments we came across about our day and field recordings made by ourselves and friends. The result, I think, expresses a truly genuine experience, and I think that is an important thing for us to carry with us as we move on to writing more music.
OS: Isolation and distance have been themes of our shared existence over these past years of the pandemic. Did any of that play into the music you made? Does any of it inform how you hear that music now?
JC: I don’t think the pandemic really impacted our approach to this album, as most of the recording was done prior to 2020. Our time in isolation did, fortunately, allow us time to finalize the recordings and mix. What’s so interesting about it all is that the Åland Islands are fairly isolated already, and have been for a long time. It’s rural, it’s distant, it’s sense of time and space are very different from many other places. If anything, I hope that our shared existence of isolation and distance over these past years have increased our collective threshold for long form or slower-paced music. This album is slow, it’s what it wanted to be, and it’s best experienced by allowing time for it.
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