How Did I Become a Virus? Anohni’s brave, stark, unsettling Hopelessness

This piece was published on State on May 4th. I’ve edited slightly and added links.

In 2005, Anohni, then known as Antony, released the revered I Am A Bird Now. Antony and the Johnsons’ second album was, we thought then, a hard look at a difficult subject. The songs dealt with existential uncertainty and gender disquiet: “My lady story is one of annihilation / My lady story is one of breast amputation”, went a widely quoted couplet.

It felt raw and unflinching.

With the release of Hopelessness, though, the I Am A Bird Now era seems like innocent times. Anohni’s world view has darkened and it’s hard to see a way back.

Hopelessness is a haunted commentary on Anohni’s adoptive homeland, the USA, which she sees as corrupt and failed.

As an American she laments: We elected a president who was our last hope and who has let us down (‘Obama’); we stand by while children are murdered cavalierly from the sky (‘Drone Bomb Me’); we let state invade our privacy and we jail those who speak out (“Watch Me’); we condone torture because we fail to act to stop it (‘Crisis’).

That’s not to say non-Americans are off the hook.

On ‘4 Degrees’, over an urgent Hudson Mohawke arrangement, Anohni takes on climate change with an inchoate anger. She sings of a planet that is literally in terminal decline, at least as a home for animal life; the song is her taking her share of the responsibility for this. The title refers to the global temperature expected this century, which will bring about mass extinction. Up to 75% of animal species may ultimately die out and credible voices such as Elizabeth Kolbert have seriously mooted the possibility that the extinguished species, over the longer term, will include humans.

‘4 Degrees’ is an impressive display of ethical self-scrutiny. Anohni argues that if she acts in a way that causes extinction, then extinction must be what she wants: “I wanna hear the dogs crying for water / I wanna see the fish go belly up in the sea / And all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures / I wanna see them burn”. It’s moral rigour of a kind that is harsh, unforgiving, and head-turning; there’s no get-out on the grounds that she meant well or lacked power. She doesn’t deserve forgiveness. One has to infer the same for the rest of us. “I have grown tired of grieving for humanity,” Anohni has said.

The hopelessness of this album’s title is not figurative. In ‘Hopelessness’, ‘Drone Bomb Me’ ‘Obama’, ‘Execution’, and ‘Crisis’, as far as I can tell, Anohni has no time for hope at all. The prominent emotions are rage, revulsion, horror, and guilt. ‘Obama’ castigates Barack for failing to live up to his promises but arguably sets him an impossible standard – saving the world – while acknowledging the fatuousness of expecting a president to fix things: “Like children we believed”. ‘Hopelessness’, in an unusual move, contrasts the rapacious lives of people such as herself to the apparently ecologically sound, wise lives of pre-civilisation humans: “I, who curled in cave and moss / I, who gathered wood for fire / and tenderly embraced / How did I become a virus?

Hopelessness is unsettling. We still expect artists to comfort us. Even in apocalyptic art we expect some hope, some possibility for redemption, which we then expect will be ours. Anohni refuses this. She says it’s over: as she told Pitchfork “We’ve only got a few years left. The jig is almost up.”

I’m impressed that Anohni’s art raises these key questions with such stark clarity. But I’m not entirely persuaded of her premise.

Humans have been expecting the end for as long as there have been humans, and awful things have always gone on. In The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Steven Pinker wrote about the pre-civilisation peoples romanticised in ‘Hopelessness’: they were slavers and mass killers. The greatest decline in death by murder has come about since the birth of the all-powerful nation state that ‘Watch Me’ decries.

As time has gone on, says Pinker, humans have become more and more humane and, hard to believe though it might be, now is as good a time to live as there has ever been. This does not negate ‘4 Degrees’ and it is not an argument for state surveillance or Guantanamo, but I’ve had Pinker in my head as a counterbalance all the while that I’ve been listening to Anohni.

I’m reminded here of the dialogue in the late 1970s between Richard Hell and Lester Bangs. Hell was a pioneer of punk and a vocal nihilist. It’s hard to argue with a nihilist but Lester Bangs, a fan, confronted him in a passage of writing that comes to mind now, that I’ve intermittently had occasion to cling to:

Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don’t think life is a perpetual dive. And even though it’s genuinely frightening, I don’t think Richard Hell’s fascination with death is anything else but stupid. I suspect almost every day that I’m living for nothing, I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don’t like myself. What’s more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we’ve got and, simplistic as it may seem, it’s a person’s duty to the potential of his own soul to make the best of it.

We’re all stuck on this often miserable earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chickenshits who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner.

Hopelessness is an exercise in despair that is brave, bare, and often brilliant, and it asks questions of us in a way that art rarely does. It seems to have made up its mind that there’s no redemption, no way back – well, who knows? Wait long enough and every Cassandra gets proved right. I hear Anohni, but for now, I’m holding on to beauty and bedrock joy.

Slow Moving Clouds: ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ could easily be an Irish traditional tune

This is a slightly edited-after-the-fact version of an interview I published in State on May 4th, the day before Slow Moving Clouds played a gorgeous set in Bello Bar in Dublin.

Danny Diamond, Kevin Murphy and Aki comprise Slow Moving Clouds, and they were the authors, in Os, of one of the most accomplished and moving albums of 2015.

Danny Diamond, who plays the fiddle and strohviol, is Irish, as is Kevin Murphy, cellist and singer. Diamond also plays with traditional band Mórga and many will know Murphy from Seti The First. Aki, who sings lead vocals and plays the nyckelharpa, is Finnish. (Until now, I had wanted a Rickenbacker for my 50th in a few years. Right now, I’m torn between strohviol and nyckelharpa. Extraordinary instruments.)

The band draws on each country’s native folk traditions and many of the songs on Os are re-workings of traditional tunes or ballads, predominantly from Finland (‘Hiljainen Suru, Devil’s Polska, Rinda-Nikola); you can also hear traces of artists that Murphy and Diamond cited in emails to me, like Steve Reich, Arvo Part, and Philip Glass; Aki cited as his current listening the solo fiddlers Benedicte MaursethArto Järvelä, Erlend Apneseth, none of whom I’ve heard, but all of whom I plan to.

Describing Os in terms of its cultural sources can make sound like an academic project, a dry synthesis of musical forms, but it’s not; probably, it’s better listened to than read about. However Slow Moving Clouds managed to pull their influences together, internalise them, and rebreathe them, the results are transcendent. Danny Diamond’s fiddle, high and flying then soft and graceful, along with Murphy’s taut, rumbling, heart-quaking cello, surrounds the rich ache of Aki’s voice, and it’s not necessary to know where these tunes come from or what the words might mean; it’s just necessary to stop for a while, and take it in, and let the tunes move you, and let them still you.

Slow Moving Clouds are currently touring and in advance of their Dublin show on May 5th, Danny, Aki and Kevin took some questions. I asked all questions of each person by email – Danny Diamond did much of the talking.

You have three distinct backgrounds, each involved in a variety of projects over the years, together and apart. Could you say a little bit about how you came together?

Danny: Aki was the link between Kevin and I. Both of us knew and worked with him: before SMC he played nyckelharpa in the live line-up of Seti the First, while also working with me in a duo ‘Danny and Aki’, playing instrumental music from the Irish, Nordic and American folk traditions.

Slow Moving Clouds draws on Finnish and Irish traditional music. On the Fractured Air site last year I read you saying there are more differences between Finnish and Irish traditional music than there are similarities.

Danny: The differences are pretty fundamental: different musical structures (keys & time signatures) make it difficult to mesh Irish and Finnish traditional material together in their raw form. On top of that, the cultural differences between the two countries come through in the way the music is taught and played. Finnish music, for example, is taught in a very classically-influenced education system, compared to the more informal approach over here. And Finnish music almost totally died out before being revived by music scholars, whereas we’re lucky to still have an unbroken ‘living tradition’ here.

But at the same time the similarities are pretty fundamental too. They’re both Western European folk traditions, based on music built for dancing, played on acoustic instruments; 150 years ago the two traditions would have been providing the same social and entertainment functions in both countries.

What attracted each of you to the other musical tradition?

Danny: What attracted me to Finnish music was that I find the melodies to be particularly beautiful, typically gentle and melancholy in character; also the musical patterns are similar-but-different to Irish music and it is intriguing to try to figure them out. All that said, in our music we only really draw on the traditions for melodies to use as raw material, and they’re re-written, re-arranged to fit SMC’s sound.

Aki: I discovered Irish traditional music as a teenager. The main attraction for me at the time was probably the energy and soulfulness of the music.

Aki’s singing, given its unshowy virtuosity and its subtle shading and complexity of tone, has often had me thinking of sean-nós. Are the Irish and Finnish singing traditions comparable?

Danny: Aki’s vocals draw more on popular music than on either tradition. As we had to create our own sound to bridge the Nordic and Irish traditions, Aki’s taken a similar approach to the vocals to make them sit well with the overall SMC sound, rather than going for a traditional Finnish style.

Aki: There really isn’t any Finnish equivalent to sean-nós singing, although there are solo singing traditions both in the West and East Finland.

It was not obvious to me initially that the album was in any way a blend of different types of music. The songs seemed on first hearing and still seem to have a unity of tone and texture with a unique distinct voice at play throughout. So it didn’t occur to me that there was “fusion” of any kind going on. How do you manage to bring together these elements to produce a coherent sound throughout the record?

Danny: We’ve been working at it since the Danny & Aki duo days, for five or six years, learning by trial and error basically. The key thought for us is to create new music, which draws on these older influences but can stand on its own. Rather than fusing existing traditions, we’re trying to draw on them to create something unique and contemporary. The traditions inform the overall sound, but so do other influences like minimalist & electronic music. That seems to be the trick, for us at least; the way to satisfactorily bring the two together is to find a third sound and reshape them to fit it.

Kevin: I would say that the sense of coherence you mention is I guess our contribution or the third element, which draws the two traditions together. I suppose it is a filter or a lens through which Irish and Finnish elements are drawn. For my part, this lens is constructed from many aspects, though probably the strongest influences are My Bloody Valentine and the Velvet Underground. I always felt that these two bands had something in common with the types of backing that was introduced to Irish trad in the 1970s, specifically the use of open tunings. I always felt that ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ could easily be an Irish traditional tune. I also draw on contemporary classical composers such as Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Tim Hecker, and so on.

I’ve seen you mentioned alongside The Gloaming, who many would see as signifying a revival in popularity for Irish traditional music. Is traditional music in a good place?

Danny: Traditional music in Ireland is in a strange place in my opinion. There’s a shortage of informed listeners who are tuned in to the nuances of the tradition, while at the same time there’s the oft-touted statistic that there are more kids playing than ever before. Also for years it’s been suffering from a lack of public critical discourse, and mainstream media attention, and it’s seen by so many Irish people as background music for a few pints. All this brings us to a point where perspectives around the tradition can be very inward-looking and insular, those who know and play it can be possessive, and the scene has become ghettoised to the point where the audience and market for traditional music in Ireland relays heavily on other musicians and music students. I find this disquieting but it seems to be changing at the moment, especially in Dublin where the traditional/folk scene is really healthy, drawing new audiences, lots of daring creative music being made.

I think The Gloaming are important because they appeal to a wide audience and give the traditional/folk genre a boost in profile. But the music that excites me the most is the stuff being played & sung around Dublin at the moment. I was at a session on Sunday night listening to members of Skipper’s Alley and Moxie along with a bunch of their mates: some of them ten years younger than me, playing in bands, writing and playing interesting music, but really grounded in the tradition as well. I’m excited for what’s coming down the line in the next few years.

Slow Moving Clouds play the Bello Bar, Dublin, on May 5th and the Crane Bar, Galway, on 20th May. Os is available here.