In The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century poem written by the renowned Persian mystic Fariduddin Attar, a flock of 30 birds set off to find the legendary bird king Simorgh. At the end of their long and arduous journey, the birds reach the destination, only to find the king does not exist – but that they themselves have become kings in the process.
For Matthias Koch, the founder of Hamburg label 30M Records – thirty is pronounced ‘si’ in Farsi, while ‘morgh’ means bird – the story offered an enchanting allegory for his project. When Koch first flew to Iran in 2016, a landmark nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers had just been implemented, lifting multilateral sanctions on Iran and promising to open it up to the world. Various international artists began performing in Tehran, including modern classical composers Ludovico Einaudi and Ólafur Arnalds.
Then in May 2018, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and, instead, began pushing through waves of vituperative sanctions on Iran, as well as his notorious travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Shortly after the announcement, a series of highly-anticipated performances by Grammy-winning Japanese artist Kitaro was cancelled, reportedly due to concerns that the American members of his band would face difficulties acquiring future travel visas if they visited the country. More cancellations followed. The international cultural renaissance appeared to be over – or at the very least, on hold.
With ongoing sanctions prohibiting Iranian musicians from releasing their music worldwide, Koch founded 30M Records in January 2020 in order to publish some of the most exciting new electronic and experimental music coming out of the country. To Koch, it was about more than just a philanthropic gesture. “It’s not a charity thing. I don’t do it because I feel pity for the musicians,” he says. “I really think it’s great music which comes from the country – and as a secondary matter, I can help these people, because they’re limited in what they can and can’t do at the moment.”
We’ve stopped briefly on our walk through the Italian countryside, on the way to a local restaurant, because Ludovico Einaudi wants to eat some flowers. He beckons the press over and begins to speak about the qualities of this particular specimen, encouraging us to pick a few to garnish our salads and risottos later. Various members of the international press in attendance begin collecting them, stuffing a handful in pockets and the occasional one or two in their mouths. I chew on a few petals and watch as the composer sets off again, down the road to find the next adventure. Are they poisonous? Nobody asks. Today Einaudi is the pied piper of Piedmont, and we follow him wherever he takes us.
As it turns out the 63-year-old is an excellent walking companion, which is exactly what makes his new album cycle Seven Days Walking such a compelling work of art. Inspired by a succession of mountain walks taken during the darker months, the project is intended to illustrate the capricious nature of both the environment around us and our perception of it, each subject to change at any moment, however much we grasp at commonalities. If it sounds like the work of an experimental artist on the fringes of modern classical music, that may belie the fact that Ludovico Einaudi is something of a superstar – well beyond the remit of where his genre typically extends.
In the music videos for ‘Lilith’ and ‘Loomis’, the first two singles to be taken from Faith Eliott’s debut album Impossible Bodies, a glorious and near-constant duel plays out between the sparkling and the mundane. Flashes of electric pink and lightning gold illuminate the washed-out scenes around them, and we taste both senses of the word “impossible”: not only as frustration towards something that can never be achieved, but also as something thrillingly beyond the limitations of the present. We live in our own impossible bodies, but we also yearn towards wilder ones.
The glory of it all, of course, was that none of this needed to happen. “The hacienda must be built” was the mantra, a Situationist quote from Ivan Chtcheglov refashioned by Tony Wilson to lend the project an additional veneer of counter-culture chic. But the Haçienda didn’t need building. Peter Hook supposedly once ventured that New Order would have been better off if they’d given ten quid to everyone who ever came to the club and sent them on their way; by all accounts, it was a financial disaster, tentatively propped up for most of its lifespan by the band’s record sales. Not that it matters now. “Some people make money,” Wilson observed at the time. “Others make history.”
“Bloody foreigners,” the shopkeeper gestures towards me, before adding a wink to convey levity. As a progressive student city that prizes itself on inclusivity, it’s fair to say that Groningen’s warm hospitality is matched only by its puzzlement at the events unravelling in the UK, a series of spread-legged power stances that appear both hostile and ludicrous to the rest of the world.
Later that evening I’m sharing a cigarette with another local outside a bar, who visibly rallies himself to present the question in the way that one might ask out their high school crush: “Do you like Brexit?” I do not. I like watching European bands and drinking cheap gin at equally unsustainable rates. Thankfully I’m at Eurosonic Noorderslag, the finest new music showcase in Europe, where my remit extends to both.
If anyone required a reminder of music criticism’s intensely performative role in global culture, look no further than its reaction to ‘El Mal Querer’ within the US and UK. Much has been made of its reconstructive qualities, imagining that the threads of R&B, electronic voice treatment and Justin Timberlake samples weave through flamenco’s superannuated frame like so much scaffolding. In truth, mainstream pop has been swiping bits from Catalan and Latin quarters for decades, and this is perhaps why Rosalía’s breakthrough LP feels so natural: for many listeners, that sonic palette came closer to distillation than adulteration.
If siren mythology scatters the earth like dandelion seed, settling in different forms each time it lands, it is perhaps because it tells us the three stories we long to hear: enchantment, danger, and sacrifice. The deities of ancient Slavic folklore are no different, though their sense of loss is heavily pronounced. The alkonost flies around projecting a sound that is both exquisite and hypnotising, immobilising all who hear her until they can focus on nothing else. The gamayun sings to herself, undecipherable and permanently alone in knowing the secret fate of the world. The rusalka is a water spirit who sings a song to lure men to her in the forest; in a story that would essentially become repackaged as The Little Mermaid, she then sells her voice to a witch after falling in love with a human, her language the price of popular acceptance.
Upon exploring modern Katowice, I am pleased to report that there are very, very few demonic bird-maidens at large, though reflections on the value and utility of language remain. For Panieneczki, who I meet prior to their set at 2018’s OFF Festival, the past and present are united by language and music. “Our music combines Polish traditional folk songs with electronic music, something that begins in the past but is also very modern,” Anita Sobiechowska tells me backstage. “All the lyrics are from traditional Polish songs, and we’ve mixed it up with something new.”
The lover’s body is a constant source of fascination, but most of all when it is beyond touch, almost beyond memory. What is it about the physical terrain of the body that demands geographical expression? “I have flown the distance of your body from side to side of your ivory coast,” Jeanette Winterson wrote. “I know the forests where I can rest and feed. I have mapped you with my naked eye and stored you out of sight.” At the end of a relationship, as borderlines smudge and X-marked treasures are erased from sight altogether, we long for the stability of those lines. On Two, Geography, the second album from Italian artist Any Other, they remain painfully unfixed.
As Lucia Fairfull strides off stage, finding her way into the sunniest corner of Brighton Palace Pier, I’m still catching up with what’s just happened inside Horatio’s. Her band LUCIA close their set with ‘Melted Ice Cream’, rounding off a glorious racket that’s caught more attention than you’d expect for an early afternoon slot. Though the single came out last year, it seems destined to live on as a timestamp for 2018, as evocative of its era as anything by Weezer or Best Coast – perhaps the two bands most identifiable in its genetic make-up – immediately recalling a specific time and place in our lives, a history shared by our own experiences as much as the rock hagiographies that stack up around them.
We’re going to the beach. Not the clean, iridescent shores of film scenes or sepia photographs, signifiers of a landscape that privilege the temporal over the spatial — it is always the childhood or the honeymoon that we beckon toward, and whether the sand in the picture belongs to Blackpool or New Jersey is mostly irrelevant — but the real beach. The sun is not shining. It rained a few hours ago, in fact, or is just about to, because there’s a dull kind of sadness in the air that lingers either side of the storm. To your left is a row of shops and cafés, closed on Sunday. To your right is a parking lot, asphalt grey in keeping with the weather, littered but otherwise empty. In front of you is the sea.
The sunless beach is a powerful image for the same reason that suicide rates spike at Christmas: from early childhood, we are inundated with words and pictures reinforcing the idea that happiness is something to be manually allocated, that weekends and holidays are the ecstatic reprieves that we deserve from our institutional labor, and that these times and places represent our best shot at real joy. When reality doesn’t match the picture, our first assumption is never that the picture needs fixing, but that our lives are out of sync. The map supersedes the territory. Like no other artist, Grouper’s Liz Harris seems to sing from these points of dislocation, lighting up lost or forgotten neural pathways like a lighthouse in the fog. In contrast to 2014’s colossal Ruins, Grid of Points feels relatively slight, though it remains incredibly spacious.