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Music as religion: the healing sounds of Lyra Pramuk

As if an old religious choir is transported to a future full of technology and AI, that is how the music of the Berlin-based artist Lyra Pramuk sounds. There’s no words on Fountain, her critically acclaimed album that came out a year ago, only her looped vocals. They are melancholic and hopeful, built up in layers of reverb. Pramuk’s music goes hand in hand with Holly Herndon’s electronic AI sounds, but also with Cocteau Twins’ elusive Elizabeth Fraser and Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. It’s mysterious, liberating and oftentimes spiritual.

This piece is also available in Dutch.

Written by Loulou Kuster
Photography by Joseph Kadow

During The Hague’s Rewire Festival, in Paard’s dark music hall, Lyra Pramuk appears on stage as some sort of white angel. She often feels like the leader of some sort of religion on stage, she mentioned in an earlier interview with Factmag. That idea is palpably present around her, while she hypnotizes her audience with her thrilling vocals and rousing dance moves. Nevertheless, Pramuk does not think of herself as a religious person at all, she writes in an email exchange, not much later. On the contrary: “I am not a religious person in that I am not part of an organized religious body. I am inspired by certain aspects of spiritual practice in religion, but I would not say that I am a religious person. I think that spiritual practice can be vast and diverse as nature itself, I do not believe that what works for me will work for everyone else. I am a spiritual person but my complex of spiritual belief is multiple and nuanced, probably more similar to some pagan ideas than to anything else, but with many elements of modern and scientific thought embedded there too.”

A year ago, she released Fountain, the title referring to the translation of her Czech last name. The album not only documents the idea of spirituality in Pramuk’s own way. It also captures her idea of rituals and the power of ancient folk music. For Pramuk, it is an avenue to communicate with other generations; to tell the stories of the current generation, but also to listen to what ancient generations have to say. “For me folk signifies a connection to a land and a place and a people – folk as a social practice, a practice of recording or transcribing history, a way of telling stories. Thinking of music as a folk practice rather than as a commercial practice makes necessary that it is about community, connection, and storytelling. “Folk” signifies the deeper utility of music in human culture. If we think beyond and before the music industry, what is at the core of music-making? It’s about connecting people; it’s about bridging divides, telling our stories, connecting to the vast unknown that surrounds us.”

The seed for Pramuk’s futuristic approach to folk music was planted in her youth. She grew up in the small town of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother was the pianist and conductor of the local church choir, so Pramuk has been singing in choirs since she was five years old. But as she got older, she began to explore her sexuality and gender identity more and more. The internet became a refuge for Pramuk, as she found her way in the community of online video games where, with different avatars and costumes, she got more and more insight into the possibilities of a fluid identity. Pramuk further developed her musicality when she was accepted to the Eastman School of Music in New York. With her solid foundation in classical (church) music, she learned to break with the traditional forms of classical music and reinterpret them in her own way.

“To be in a choir or at a rave is to connect to a trance state in some way”

In 2013, Pramuk, who had just graduated, moved to Berlin, where she found her way in the world of ecstatic raves and club culture. There, she quickly made the connection between singing in a choir and getting completely lost in a rave. “To be in a choir or at a rave is to connect to this trance state in some way. I think it’s about being vulnerable enough to leave your ego behind and allow the energy of your breath and physical body to coalesce into a networked and coordinated pattern of expressive movement, song, dance, ritual. We become pure energy enmeshed with each other. What is it that writer Anaïs Nin said? “Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.”

Letting go of the ego and especially immersing oneself fully in the music can have a healing effect, according to Pramuk. In a world full of inequality and darkness, Pramuk believes it is important to learn from music and to let music heal you. “The world we live in is inhumane and dark, we encounter tragic news about how messed up our society is constantly. Being alive is a trauma. Being alive in this society is ultra-traumatic. When we really feel deep down into ourselves, what are we denying in order to maintain a status quo? What pains are we suppressing, what truths are we hiding, just in order to survive? To excavate, uncover, learn through and heal from these pains and truths is the ultimate gift.”

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