Week of the festival: Days of Poetry and Wine, Slovenia

Music from Beyond Musical Memory

Review of Širom's album I Can Be a Clay Snapper

/ by Andrej Hočevar

It is usually agreed that instrumental music is—at least most of the time—defined by its inability to signify any particular, discrete meaning. Rather, the way listeners perceive it, charging it with their own ideas of potential meaning, is defined by culturally transmitted ways of making sense, of combining audible forms into meaningful patterns. That’s why noise, perceived as a disorganized sound, can be such a powerful political statement against the established norms, and why free improvisation is so difficult to grasp. But then, there is the vast, unchartable, and expanding area of the innumerable ways of careful deconstruction, which makes it possible to access the work of many artists, as varied as David Sylvian, Bill Frisell or Radiohead—and, to include some recent Slovene examples, Olfamož with his fabulous band Olfamoštvo, Rok Zalokar’s Kukushai, and many more—from the same viewpoint as, say, that of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Or, for that matter, Širom, as heard on the band’s second full-length album, I Can Be a Clay Snapper.


What is so fascinating about Širom is that their music seems familiar, even domestic, while at the same time maintaining a certain foreignness, otherness, emanating from the fact that it is not so much unfathomable as much as it seems weird, eerie, mystical and, most of all, uncanny. As the band’s beautiful, and quite untranslatable, name suggests, Širom’s music seems to imply a vast array of musical references from all over, fused into a peculiar, yet invigorating whole: It’s a mixture of different traditions of acoustic folk/world music, free improvisation, minimalism, and even free-floating post-rock textures. However, all these musical images, conjured from the intertwining sonic impulses, also seem to be utterly ungraspable: No sooner do they seem to morph into something recognizable than they splinter into tiny sparks, fluttering in many different directions at once. The music, at times, seems slow-paced or sparse, but intriguing and of the utmost sonic precision, full of surprising details.


This feeling is, after all, emphasized by the multitude of instruments the trio uses to create its unmistakable sonic landscapes: There’s the Turkish cümbüş, the South European brač (from the family of tamburica lutes), the African balafon (a kind of xylophone), the African/Asian bowed mono-stringed rebab, but also the banjo, the violin, various percussion instruments, the mizmar (a wind instrument), and others. But in fact, this doesn’t really matter: The banjo may not be plucked, but bowed by Iztok Koren, producing violin-like wails; the raw material for the bamboo idiophone came from a local plantation somewhere in Slovenia (who knew?); Samo Kutin’s throat singing is not Mongolian, but just as genuine (Kutin can deliver fresh dairy products from his twin brother from the tiny village Čadrg in the Alps); the coarse female voice, which might have been a recording of an old lady on some far-away mountain, in fact belongs to the rather charming Ana Kravanja. Finally, many of the instruments used are home-made: Replicas, interpretations or just witty inventions. On stage, Kutin can be seen playing a contraption that once couldn’t have been anything other than the door of a cupboard, while Kravanja is banging on pots someone might once have used for cooking potatoes.


All of this might be pertinent, but then again—it might not. The thing is, even though listening to Širom’s music evokes really strong images of a landscape passing by, it’s impossible to decide on any particular location. Or direction. What might evoke an Asian courtyard, a desert in Iran—where Kutin and Kravanja travelled to gather field recordings—could just as well be seen as a bright yellow field of rapeseed in Koren’s native Prekmurje region in the north-east of Slovenia. As befits the context of some of the instruments used, Širom’s extensive and expansive soundscapes indeed do seem to tell stories, a post-modern version of a long gone rhapsode. Only there are no words and there’s no shared memory to give it meaning.


This is, then, one of the band’s most important musical aspects: Širom conducts a certain cultural and sonic detachment, taking traditions and idioms out of their contexts, thereby destabilizing a supposedly shared cultural memory as a series of set values. Instead, curiously enchanting, wide-open sonic spaces are created, in which total freedom replaces cultural hegemonies and musical stereotypes.


Širom’s partly-improvised pieces are brimming with emotion without relying on any predetermined conventions. They might sound gentle, rustling, or even thunderous at times (Koren used to play in the brutal noise duo Hexenbrutal), create intricate rhythmic textures, based on interlaced repetitive patterns, or suggest some sort of absent harmonic movement. Still, their essence will be otherworldly: The musical images are really fascinating illusions, bringing new worlds into existence, kept together by seemingly familiar non-memories. In a way, Širom is always already beyond whatever we take it to be,, which takes its deconstruction even beyond deconstruction. Širom, thus, is neither from any particular place or tradition, nor from all of them at once, but from an imaginary world beyond worlds. It’s as much from anywhere as it is from nowhere. It’s a forever changing musical archive, at once vast and, alas, non-existent.

Andrej Hočevar

(1980) is a writer and editor. He has published six collections of poetry (the first being shortlisted for the best debut of the year award, the last, A List, for the Veronika award) and a book of short prose, Double Fault. For over a decade, he has worked as an editor at LUD Literatura, currently in charge of the imprint Prišleki and the online literary magazine www.ludliteratura.si.