Estonian duo Maarja Nuut & Ruum create these strange otherworldly suites of electronic music that merge sound design, classical and folkloric music in compelling and completely unpredictable ways. Their 2018 album Muunduja on Fatcat offshoot 130701 recordings, is a simultaneously complex and hypnotic experimental work with vocal layers, pulsing electrics and violin all combining to sound like nothing else around. Maarja Nuut is a vocalist and violinist with a strong interest in rural Estonian village music. She had released two solo albums that emphasised her folk leanings prior to working with Ruum (aka Hendrik Kaljujärv), a theatre composer and sound designer who has also worked with Cubus Larvik. With the duo about to tour Australia for the first time they were kind enough to answer some questions via email.
Cyclic Defrost: What is important to you in music? In your own, in others or both?
Maarja Nuut: Woah, what a question to start with..! I guess it depends on what am I listening to, where and why. Musical experience consists of so many inner and outer factors, also the function why am I listening to, watching or creating something. In music making I very much try to take care of the presence – that is what drives me. The freedom of interpretation comes from the feeling of standing on the borderline and flirting with the idea of flipping towards one or another direction and creating tension through that. To be able to do that, I have to be ‘here and now’.
Hendrik Kaljujärv: This is a difficult question, it could be anything. Sometimes even a cover art or the title can be just as important as everything else. Experience of listening to music or creating music (that is also in a way listening, just with a little different angle) can be so diverse.
Cyclic Defrost: In your press release it says you’ve studied “the modal sound of the pre Soviet, Estonian ‘village style.’ Can you tell me a little bit about this traditional form of music? Do you think it relates to your approach now?
Maarja Nuut: It’s a musical language that can’t be explained well within the frames of Western Art Music theory. At first it may sound very minimal and rough, or even primitive as some feel; it does take some effort to learn the vocabulary and to apprehend its inner logic as that way of playing and singing doesn’t sound familiar to our ears anymore.. at least not in that genre. I’ve been very much inspired by the rhythmical thinking of that style – repeating patterns with constant minimal variations that could shift the sense of meter while always just following the pulse, different musical modes that are embellished with microtones, extremely detailed ways of articulation that make the same pattern sound different each time., important is the process not result.. It all certainly relates to my approach now too. And I find many similarities with some of the electronic music done nowadays.
Cyclic Defrost: When people talk about traditional music or folk traditions there’s often an assumption that the music is fixed in time, pure, and it’s a kind of sacrilege to alter it, or put your own personal stamp on it. I don’t get that sense with you.
Maarja Nuut: I actually find it pretty weird to assume that traditional music is or should be fixed as it heavily relies on people’s self-expression and we’re all unique. Why preserve something just for the sake of it? It’s a very sensitive subject, I know. Some things are kept unchanged regardless of many years so people think it must be right. Ironically, recording of an old song from archive is only a documentation of a specific moment. Moment that is affected by different factors and a wider traditional context vs someone’s personal interpretation.
But also, there’s not much of traditional music in its ordinary sense on this album..
Hendrik Kaljujärv: Traditional music is to be recreated every time you perform it. This is the core and essence of music that has reached us from times way before printing was invented. It is alive only as long as life is given to it by the people who take the courage to reinvent it again.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk about your collaboration with Ruum? How did it come about? Was it about searching for something musically, or more about his personality and wanting to make music with him? How do you work together?
Maarja Nuut: After releasing my previous solo album I was offered to create a special collaborative project for a festival in Estonia. I had long thought about working with electronics, imagined something but couldn’t really articulate it.. In spring 2016 I went to see Hendrik’s performance and found myself thinking “I recognise the feeling but what is this” or something. So a few days later I called him up and there it started.
The way we work together is an ongoing process and there’s no rule really except that we keep on developing the compositions over time. So what you hear on the album might sound very different in the live situation. I guess it’s to do with the need to dig deeper and keep yourself fresh.
Cyclic Defrost: What was it that attracted you to working with Howie B? What was it in his productions that you thought he could bring to your sound? What do you think you took away from the experience of working with him?
Maarja Nuut: Curiosity. We had never worked with a producer before and as Howie’s agent approached us it seemed like a great opportunity. The timing was perfect as we were just discussing about recording an album yet found ourselves struggling with the little bits and pieces of material that were there.. (naively) hoping that he will make it all come together. None of us knew that the two weeks in studio were only the beginning of the process. I personally learned a lot from how Howie pushed us out of the comfort zone, it opened new doors and perspectives.
Hendrik Kaljujärv: Howie B has a style and sound. He’s not a faceless producer. He is going around in his own flow and has done so for quite some time. In a way it was an “accident” that we ended up making this album together and a good one for sure.
Cyclic Defrost: I understand too that you did more work to the pieces, or that Evar Anvelt did some extensive processing. Can you tell me a little bit about this process? Why did you think they needed more work and is it possible to quantify what changed?
Maarja Nuut & Hendrik Kaljujärv: There was no concept as we submerged into the recording process. A few pieces were there, some structures too but a lot was still to be discovered. The few days of rehearsals with Howie made us experiment and explore a lot of different sounds but there was no time to digest. So we recorded and due to different reasons the material was set aside for awhile. Coming back to it made us realise that changes were necessary – there was a lot happening on the recordings but the core of this music somehow kept hiding itself. Then Evar stepped in with his imagination and suddenly things started to evolve. “Muunduja” feels a bit like an invention created with intuition (which needed time to grow).
Cyclic Defrost: In listening to Muunduja the way you structure your pieces is not immediately apparent to me. You create these really unique sonic worlds that feel partly informed by sound design, electronic music and I’m not sure, folkloric traditions maybe? How did you decide how to put things together?
Hendrik Kaljujärv: Yes, it was very intuitive and feels like it. Not much of mathematics, rules or voice of reason were under consideration. But there is a logic behind the structure and I would say a certain language. Quite a poetical one.
Maarja Nuut: Ha, there’s quite a bit of mathematics in what I do with layering but at the same time it’s all very intuitive indeed. Searching for the right dynamics has been the key as the amount of frequencies we sometimes manage to fill up with all our instruments can be quite challenging to mix.. nevertheless, I often feel that playing with Hendrik actually gives me more space to express than playing solo, and I love it.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you talk about your vocals, what do you enjoy about layering and looping yourself?
Maarja Nuut: In some ways I started looping and layering already as a child.. finding comfort in repetitions – listening to a ticking wall clock and then making up different rhythmic patterns in my head or sing a little melody over and over again while walking (rhythmically) on the streets. I know it sounds a little weird but it made me somehow focused and also attentive towards the environment around me, a feeling I enjoyed.
I started singing much later and that has been a bumpy road to explore. At first I only used vocals while playing violin at the same time, as it felt more secure. Little by little I got to know my voice and now it’s certainly my most sensitive and therefore maybe also most powerful musical tool.
There are people who are biased about live looping as the outcome might sound passive and non-challenging. There is that potential danger but for me it is the opposite – creating tension between layers while using different pattern lengths, micro-tuning, timbres; looking at repeating phrase from different angles and recreating its meaning.
Cyclic Defrost: The album is so precisely crafted I’m just wondering how you go about beginning to bring that to live performance? What are some of the challenges?
Hendrik Kaljujärv: There are many challenges, starting from the technical side and followed by the substantive side. In the end it really comes down to delivering the state and value. If you but energy into crafting and giving meaning to every sound and every gesture it will fall to the right ground. This is the core.
Australian Tour Dates
Howler in Melbourne on Thursday 7th of March
505 in Sydney on Friday 8th of March
Womadelaide in Adelaide on Friday 8-11th of March
You can find Muunduja here.