Haiku is a short form of poetry that originated in Japan. In English these poems will often take the form of three lines that total 17 syllables.
Each week Naviar Records shares a haiku with their online community of musicians and noisemakers with the instruction to interpret the text in sound within seven days.
The results are fascinating, encompassing many genres and selections are collected in releases from the UK-based label, which also issues albums from their community and has developed audible contributions to exhibitions in London and, most recently, the Australian town of Narrandera.
As this community has grown in participants and a catalogue of dozens of albums, the inaugural Naviar Haiku Fest was held during October this year and brought together writing workshops and performances from musicians.
Cyclic Defrost writer Jason Richardson asked Naviar’s founder Marco Sebastiano Alessi about his interest in music and the development of this distinct creative prompt.
Cyclic Defrost: What are your early memories of music?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: My mother was a piano teacher and singer. She was teaching and practicing at home, so music has been with me since I was born. I consider it as an old friend: even if sometimes I neglect my artistic side I know that music it’ll always be there when I need it.
Cyclic Defrost: When did you start making music?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: When my parents divorced I moved with my father and, among other things, music disappeared from my life almost overnight. I don’t think I was particularly upset at that time: probably I had enough of listening to music 24/7!
A couple of years later I started high school, and met two friends who played the guitar and wanted to start a band. I never played an instrument before, but I was intrigued by the idea and decided to give it a go. I chose the drums, and simply fell in love with it. Over the years I’ve played other instruments, but the drums will always have a special place in my heart.
I played mostly rock and metal with various Italian bands until I was 20, when I started exploring new genres, especially ambient and electronica. I’ve released a few albums and EPs under the nickname Cryxuss, with music composed mostly with software and analogue synth.
Cyclic Defrost: What started your interest in haiku?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: It was in 2013. I was already living in the UK but was spending my holidays in Italy. I went to a local coffee shop/bookshop in my hometown Bassano del Grappa and found a book about haiku poetry. Immediately I noticed the connection between this form of poetry and music: a few words of a haiku can transport the reader into a new realm of sensations, which was exactly what I wanted to achieve with my music, using sounds instead of words.
Cyclic Defrost: How did the haiku challenge develop?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: I started making music inspired by haiku, but soon realized I had to be consistent if I wanted to improve my skills as music maker: so I decided to give myself seven days to record each composition. After that I thought that if there were others participating in this project, I’d be more encouraged to make music consistently: that’s when I opened the Naviar Haiku blog on Tumblr and invited other artists to join the challenge. It didn’t work for me (I’m still struggling with my creative side), but for others it seems to be a way of making music regularly, be inspired by other reinterpretations and explore new sonic territories.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve experimented with other creative prompts but haiku has remained throughout. What do you think is effective about using this format of prose as a creative prompt?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: The other creative prompts I tried didn’t work as well as haiku. I think a haiku poem can inspire so many different sonic interpretations because it requires a vivid imagination to fill the gaps left by words. Other projects like Soundbook (music inspired by an assigned short story, a project I ran in 2015/6) were not as inspiring probably because they had more constraints and required a different, perhaps less creative approach. I’m planning to start a new weekly challenge in January ’18: a poetry and music chain, which hopefully will be as inspiring as the haiku project.
There’s a similarity in the constraints imposed by haiku and music, such as the set number of beats in a bar for example. Do you think this economy is part of creative process? I’m reminded of a line attributed to Miles Davis: “Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.”
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: I believe that simplicity in any craftsmanship comes with constant practice (hence the regularity in Naviar’s projects). Most musicians, when they start playing, try to impress the listener with complex and impressive sound textures. As they become more confident, they tend to move towards a more minimalist approach.
The beauty of a haiku lies in its simplicity, but despite its apparent simplicity it can be interpreted in endless different ways. Some music genres, like ambient, instrumental or experimental music in general, require the listeners to translate those textures, drones and field recordings into sensations: without the listener, these compositions are often incomplete, if not meaningless. That’s what these music genres have in common with haiku: they are fulfilled only when processed by a brain.
Cyclic Defrost: What have been some of the memorable experiences or other outcomes you have had from sharing haiku each week?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: Like you said I’ve been sharing a haiku every week for the last four years. Looking back, almost everything in my life has changed since that January 2014, but somehow Naviar Haiku is still here, and has become such an important part of my creative life that I can’t imagine being without it.
For instance, when I shared naviarhaiku004 I was just back to London after a 2-month trip around Europe. I had no money, was working 12 hours a day in a coffee shop and living in a friend’s house in Croydon, almost 2 hours away by train from that nightmarish Café. I still believe that was one of the lowest points of my life. But then I remember posting that poem, and receiving music from people who didn’t know me but still were inspired by what I was sharing. In that moment I felt privileged, despite everything else: I started a project, people were responding to it, and that was enough to keep me going.
What collaborations have developed as a result of the Naviar haiku prompts?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: There have been many, and some which probably I’m not even aware of! One I can think of is “A seasonal quartet” by writer Andrea Cecon and composer earthborn visions, both longtime friends and participants in the Haiku challenge.
The there’s Naviar’s collaboration with the art collective Food of War. And of course the Crossing Streams collaboration with the Narrandera community.
Cyclic Defrost: There’s a lot of variety in the responses from musicians to the haiku each week. How do you approach collecting music for Naviar Records releases?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: It’s a bittersweet process. I always try to include newcomers, and regular participants who weren’t included in the previous compilations. I always keep an eye on variety, as well as of course on quality, which is incredible and has always been. For a while I thought I could invite other curators to choose the tracks to include in the compilations, but I fear that the amount of work may scare them! I’m still considering the possibility though.
Cyclic Defrost: Aside from the new challenge planned for next year, what other activities are on the horizon for Naviar Records?
Marco Sebastiano Alessi: We’ll start 2018 with a couple of compilations, including one for the fourth anniversary of the Haiku challenge. Next we’ll release a concept album by Lebanon-based music producer Maiya Hershey, inspired by a famous Japanese literary work, followed by another EP by a member of Naviar’s community. I’ll be traveling in Asia from February to April next year, so until I’m back releases will be mostly digital.
Podcasts and compilations will become more regular in the upcoming months, and so will our collaborations with young writers and creative groups. A friend of mine recently started organizing creative retreats around Europe, and we’re working on a music retreat together. An idea I’ve had in mind for some time is to involve filmmakers in our community, so you can expect more visual experiments in 2018.
As for live events, we’ve already confirmed a second Naviar Haiku Fest, which will be in London on 6 October 2018.
You can find out more here.