Between intercultural wonder and inspiration on the one hand and cultural appropriation and exoticization on the other, it is risky undertaking making music. It's a twilight zone that has become all the more treacherous in recent years, adding fuel to the flames of the “you-can’t-do-anything-anymore-nowadays” rhetoricians. A thin line, which Zoë Mc Pherson, with her futuristic, cosmopolitan techno, walks with unrelenting dedication.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: Caroline Lessire
One of the tracks on Mc Pherson's EP Irizajn was called 'Eskimo', then released under the youthful pseudonym Empty Taxi. “I now know that's not the right word,” she confesses from her temporary home base in Berlin. But it's where it all started, as a fascination with North American Inuit culture has had a hold of her since. She read the book The People of the Polar North (1908) by the Greenlandic-Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen from cover to cover and in this way Mc Pherson became acquainted with string figures, an age-old creative pastime and game of skill that would later become the title and core inspiration of an ambitious audiovisual art project.
Mc Pherson has never been to Canada, let alone Nunavut, the heart of the Inuit community, but judging by the enthusiasm radiating through the Skype call, she feels connected on a spiritual level. “Maybe I have a grandmother there, I really have no idea.” She has friends there anyway, and with them she regularly talks about how national governments have historically been guilty of both negligence and overt aggression towards the Inuit population: until well into the 1950s, assimilation, forced integration without cultural preservation, was the standard solution to the 'Eskimo problem' and even with the very progressive governments in Canada today, the very existence of the culture is still seriously threatened. “White people fucking up,” Mc Pherson simply calls it. She tells me that one of those friends in Toronto works at a school where the Inuit are re-learning their own traditions after they had been stamped out in internment schools for decades. These are traditions that Mc Pherson admires, and to a certain extent also romanticizes. “What moves me is the humane, the carnal – that bond they have with animals, with hunting and with each other… You can say that it is terrible to kill an animal in their way, that it is better to be vegetarian or vegan. but it's amazing with how much respect they kill an animal. The massive slaughter and trade in meat, that's fucked up.”
Mc Pherson took that animalistic approach to String Figures. The so-called 'Katajjait' throat singing feels almost shamanistic on 'Inoui (and Free)', which was recorded partly in Brussels and partly above the Arctic Circle and here embedded in an overwhelming volley of oscillating percussion. But Mc Pherson also likes to emphasize that this is much more than an Inuit project. The Northern Irish Frenchwoman was born with a cosmopolitan view of the world: her mother is a folk musician in the broadest sense of the word, her grandmother lived in Africa as well as in multicultural Harlem, New York. As a result, Mc Pherson has already lived in several world cities and, in the run-up to String Figures, traveled to Indonesia, Turkey, Norway and the Pacific Ocean, among others. The field recordings she collected along the way formed the organic beginnings of what quickly became a musical-ethnological study, from which the geographical component has been deliberately removed. We hear the rustle of cicadas from Bandung, the hum of southern French bees and the trampling of horses from the Turkish Princes’ Islands; we hear Tibetan wind instruments, the aforementioned Inuit singing and a Hardanger violin recorded in Bergen. Mc Pherson kept track of it all on a long list that can be found on the back of the record and comes in handy every now and then, because all those sounds from all those places merge right into each other on String Figures, gradually transformed into something that is barely recognizable.
"And after a while it is as if you do not form the figures yourself, but the figures tell you how and where to move.”
“I want it to be clear that I'm not defending all traditions, or saying that we should keep everything as traditional as possible,” Mc Pherson emphasized halfway through the conversation. “That's the point. I fucking love my computer and everything related to it. I'm not retro. But I do want it to be a good marriage – between those animalistic, those human values on the one hand and science, the digital world on the other." String Figures is heavily electronic, at times futuristic, “but it still sounds organic” – and so it's like a vision of the world as it could or should be. A world that recognizes, values and learns from marginalized cultures such as the Inuit, says Mc Pherson. Or, like a journalist of A Closer Listen in an article (which Mc Pherson quotes enthusiastically) writes about String Figures: “As we listen, we don't quite know what country we are in now, and that's exactly the point. We envision a world where we never created borders, never applied travel taxes, never enacted laws to exclude our neighbors — instead, we’re invited to one big sonic buffet.”
A world as one, where the universal and not the specific is emphasized. This is how everything comes together on String Figures and in the creative activity it is named after. “There are so many reasons why I chose those string figures, it's such a symbolic thing. But I especially liked how simple it can be. You can make thread out of anything – hair, leather, whatever you can find – and then you can simply create whole worlds between your hands, there's something magical about that. Whether it has a spiritual or shamanistic purpose, or whether it is just a school playground game for children.” And so Mc Pherson soon found out that not only the Inuit still made string figures and used them to tell stories (string stories); She also encountered it on Nauru, a small island state in the Pacific Ocean, as well as with the Dineh (or Navajo) in the south of the US, as in this video that Mc Pherson shows of one 'Grandma Margaret'.
And so an age-old, very simple pastime becomes the core – the common thread, if you will – of Mc Pherson's audiovisual project. A project with countless dimensions, because the Italian director Alessandra Leone quickly became involved and gave the music of Mc Pherson, a world in itself, a visually overwhelming and eye-pleasing translation, including macro photography, 3D animations and own choreography. “The choreographer, who spent a month or two figuring out the dance with wires around her body, told me how difficult it was. She kept getting tangled up, but she finally made it through. And after a while it is as if you do not form the figures yourself, but the figures tell you how and where to move.” She bursts out laughing for a moment. Mc Pherson has been involved in the world of string figures for years and although the accompanying album was released in March 2018 and the visual part in December, it is not over yet. As befits a project of such a transnational nature, it is still spreading to all corners of the Earth. Just last week, a String Figures exhibition opened in Melbourne and the visuals at 'Inoui (and Free)' were screened in movie theaters as part of the Berlin Independent Film Festival. What started with an exotic fascination gradually became the opposite: a story that strives for the universal. Or, as goes the whisper in the String Figures prologue: “It's not just a child game, but a weapon for restoring harmony.”
Zoë Mc Pherson will play a club set on Saturday February 16th at Uncloud in EKKO.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.