Front is media partner of Rewire – rom 7 to 10 April 2022 in The Hague. In addition to Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer, Alabaster dePlume, Mabe Fratti, bela, Leo Svirsky, and Oceanic will be performing. More information can be found at Rewire's website.
Experimental composer / modular synthesiser guru Jeremiah Chiu and viola virtuoso Marta Sofia Honer had been living and playing together for many years, but it took an impromptu adventure to a place without time for the two to finally collaborate on a full-length LP. Recordings from the Åland Islands offers both exactly what the title suggests, and a journey that far transcends its specific locale.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
In Alan Lightman’s 1992 novel Einstein’s Dreams, a small town in the Swiss Alps goes through a different configuration of time with every new chapter. Time runs in circles, or time is a nightingale, occasionally trapped. And in one of them, time stands still, but only in said town. “As a traveller approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow further apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminish, until he reaches dead centre and stops.” Such is the experience of listening to the musical scrapbook that is Recordings from the Åland Islands by Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer, which came out earlier this year through International Anthem. “An eternity of contentment,” as Lightman would put it, “Fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”
Until a few years ago, Chiu nor Sofia Honer had even heard of the Åland archipelago, an autonomous region of Finland, located where the Baltic Sea meets the Gulf of Bothnia. You can hardly fault them: Åland is home to a mere 30,000 and, due to its politically neutral and demilitarised status, has managed to mostly steer away from conflict in the last 150 years of European history. That a group of creative people from California ended up where they did, was largely the result of happenstance. In the end, it yielded an album that captures the place better than any brochure ever could; a boundless, yet oddly faithful ode to a place where time’s an eternity.
“We love travelling and we get inspired by travelling,” Chiu tells me, the both of them sat in their living room in LA. “But I’m also a very bad vacationer. I can’t do it. I’m always trying to think of a project to do.” And so, when Chiu reconnected with Sage Reed, an old friend from his Chicago days, and learned about her plans to start a hotel on the island of Kumlinge with her Åland born mother, he jumped at the opportunity. “She was like: ‘If you know anyone that wants to come and help make this thing happen, we’re open to it.’ And it sparked a lightbulb for me. Can we get a group of people to help her barn raise this small hotel – with the hopes that one day it might become this really beautiful place for us to visit, to go work on projects…?”
“I remember when we finished the concert, and one of the audience members was like: ‘I come to this church every week, but I’ve never heard this organ played this way, ever.’”Jeremiah Chiu
“Jeremiah is a very good instigator,” adds Sofia Honer, “We decided to invite some friends with us, some of which we were already pretty close with and some we weren’t as close with yet, so it was a surprise group of people. It really worked, because it’s a special kind of person that jumps at going somewhere unknown, not quite knowing what is going to happen.”
The couple brought some instruments to Åland, as well as a recording kit, “because there’s always a bit of a side project involved, whether we know it or not.” But recording an album was far from the intention. Chiu: “We set out to do demolition on walls, paint walls, rebuild this place…” Sofia Honer: “But we found moments where we just started improvising, writing a little bit of music, taking field recordings while we were exploring different islands, composing things and slowly piecing them together.”
Although their first visit lasted only two weeks, the hours seemed in abundance on the archipelago, located at the southernmost point on the Northern Hemisphere where white nights can be observed. Sofia Honer: “When we went, it was right around midsommar, when the sun never really sets, which we’d never experienced before. Even past midnight it’s just endless dusk. Along with the landscape of all the islands, the water, and the granite, the colour and energy of having that eternal sun was something new to us, and it was super captivating.” Chiu: “For both of us, there was this feeling of not having to regiment to any sort of schedule. It felt like there was no time happening there. Which is a strange experience, but one I love so much.”
A 14th-century church on the island of Kumlinge, with frescoes dating back to 1500, proved to be especially inspiring. In those initial two weeks, Chiu spent endless hours playing its organ, having had almost no experience with one before. (“They were so open to just letting us do that. Or well, the young boy that was monitoring the church was open to us doing that...”) Over time, it became clear that the organ, and the space it inhabited, would be at the centre of something larger. The two applied for a grant to perform and record at the church, and by the time of their return to the islands, two years later, that ‘something larger’ was slowly starting to reveal itself.
Their 2019 performance at St. Anna’s Church would ultimately be at the centre of Recordings from the Åland Islands – with the organ featuring most prominently on ‘Anna’s Organ’ and ‘Kumlinge Kyrka’, and the sonic qualities of the structure literally echoing throughout. Sofia Honer: “It was funny, because you do experience the gravity of its age. There’s not a lot of stuff that’s that old where we live. So it was special to be able to utilise that space like we did – with people that were so casual about it, because it’s just part of their everyday life. We asked them: ‘Can we move some stuff around and bring in a PA system?’ ‘Sure!’ ‘Oh, and can Jeremiah do extended techniques on your old organ?’ ‘No problem!’ We got to utilise a really old building and be joyful and exploratory about it.” Chiu adds: “I remember when we finished the concert, and one of the audience members was like: ‘I come to this church every week, but I’ve never heard this organ played this way, ever.’”
Chiu’s restless, exploratory nature shines bright on Recordings from the Åland Islands, as does Sofia Honer’s technical prowess. Nonetheless, it took some time for the two to find symbiosis in their disparate methods. Classically trained, and working as a fulltime session player for the likes Angel Olsen, Beyoncé, Fleet Foxes, and Kamasi Washington, Sofia Honer is used to “playing all the notes” and to do so many times over. Meanwhile, Chiu claims to have “never played the same show twice”, whether it’s solo or with one of his many alternating collaborators.
It took a pandemic for the two of them to realise that, perhaps, time was what was keeping them from collaborating all along. Without shows and studio sessions to occupy them, Chiu and Sofia Honer found that, many months after their last visit to Åland, the place where “there was no time happening” had met them in LA. Finally, the moment had come for them to start compiling the many, many snippets, field recordings, full songs, and experiments from their time in Åland – an album in mind.
Chiu: “It was really important for us to leave a lot of what was captured intact and not to go back to a studio and re-record and re-write to try and capture the essence of something. That essence is already present in these recordings.” What does that essence amount to, exactly? “You can hear human-ness. I always think about this when you hear a demo recording versus the final recording of a song. I love the feeling of hearing the room, the air, the mistakes, the happenstance of something.”
The specificity that inhabits the “surrealistic portrait of a place” that is Recordings from the Åland Islands, makes for a rather challenging live show – one that’s been evolving ever for a few months now. Chiu: “This particular record is so slow in its pace, because of that place. The place is such a calm and slowly paced environment, that when you’re playing these things out, it can be quite hard to keep people’s attention.” Using the familiar field recordings and melodies from the album, the two like to start by setting the scene. “So that we can all travel together.” But, as Sofia Honer is quick to add: “We want to meet the audience where they are too. Once Jeremiah brought a little bit of a beat in, the other weekend in New York, people were very excited. So I think we are adapting, expanding how to share this moment in time, but make it a relevant and special performance for everyone.”
Chiu: “To me, when improvisation hits is when you’re challenging the energy of the space in that time. It has nothing to do with me trying to show my technical prowess, but more with what’s appropriate for the space right now. What’s the speed and energy of this place, with all these people?”
Now that Recordings from the Åland Islands is out there, and the tour well underway, the collaboration is expanding. Sofia Honer: “With how great the reception has been, and how fun it’s been to be able to work together, it’s proving itself to be an avenue that we’re going to save more time for down the line.” Chiu: “I had a thought about this: If people are interested in this thing and they want to help us write grants and get us places to make records, we would do it. I always like the idea of site-specific, research-based projects, because they give you a framework to think about music and expression in a way that feels very focused.”
Sofia Honer: “Someone did email us that grant application recently for a residency by a volcano in Hawaii.”
Chiu: “Well, that could be volume two.”
Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer are performing at Rewire Festival in The Hague on Sunday April 10. You can order Recordings from the Åland Islands here .