Zen Sounds 042: èvia
Wintry lowercase sounds from an anonymous Berlin based sound artist
I’ve spent the last week in the city, and it’s honestly been a bit draining. Having the opportunity to meet people is great of course, but towards the end of my stay, I was craving solitude and silence.
After long days of meetings, business lunches and chats with friends over coffee, I played the 1994 compilation »Ambient 4: Isolationism« on repeat. Curated by Kevin Martin in an effort to reclaim and expand the genre, it contains two and a half hours of »asocial music«, spanning dark industrial, drone, noise, post-rock and trip-hop. It’s not for the faint of heart.
As soon as I arrived back in my beloved hinterland, my music choices changed immediately. I am currently listening to an extremely quiet and minimalist subgenre of ambient music called lowercase. It’s mostly not made with conventional instruments, but consists of field recordings and almost non-audible sounds from non-musical objects, amplified to extreme volumes, such as paper ruffling.
In 2019, Bandcamp Daily writer Noah Berlatsky published a piece on lowercase, tracing its origins back to the compositions of Anton Webern, Morton Feldman, John Cage, and – of course – to musique concrète. If you’re looking for an introduction to the genre including a few recommended works, that article will provide a good starting point.
Californian artist Steve Roden, who is usually credited with pioneering the genre, once said about his own music:
»It doesn't demand attention, it must be discovered... It’s the opposite of capital letters – loud things which draw attention to themselves.«
Roden started making music in the mid 1980’s, inspired by Brian Eno’s »Another Green World« and a section from Rainer Maria Rilke’s »Letters To A Young Poet«, in which Rilke discusses so-called »inconsiderable things«, which could be subtle forces, objects or sounds, like a whispering voice. Only a »perceptive and sensitive soul« would be able to notice them.
In an interview with The Wire in 1997, Roden mentioned that his artistic tendencies were »lowercase«, in opposition to the loud Uppercase aesthetic predominant in the mainstream. Three years later, a double CD compilation called »lowercase« was released on small San Diego label Bremsstrahlung. Its liner notes opened with a quote from Marcel Duchamp:
»The only thing that is not art is inattention.«
That sentence echoes a key learning from my Deep Listening intensive studies last year. As soon as you focus your awareness on a specific sound, it might turn into art – whether it’s the croaking of a frog or a jack-hammer. That’s why Cage wanted his audience to stop discriminating against sounds, and Pauline Oliveros asked her students to »lift off judgment« in their listening practice.
To me, this is the core of what experimental music is about.
èvia – »cold«
(Lillerne Tapes, 2023)
You’d be hard pressed to find any biographical information about Berlin based sound artist èvia. There’s no artist image on any of their social media channels, and the alias doesn’t work well as a search term. In a short exchange on Instagram, the person behind èvia confirmed that they prefer the music to be »somewhat anonymous«.
The tunes on their new tape »cold« invoke the winter sun rising over a frozen lake and the damp sheets in an unheated cabin’s bedroom. Similar to the Samuel Reinhard tape I recommended a few weeks ago, »cold« is amplifying silence instead of breaking it. It can easily dissolve into the background, but it rewards focused listening as well.
»cold« seems to follow a certain strain of ambient electronic music released on labels like West Mineral Ltd. and Motion Ward: Its shimmering textures and icy surfaces particularly resemble the works of Ulla Straus and Pontiac Streator – two Philadelphia based producers that doubled down on this style over the years and have stayed below the radar, just like many of their peers in the so-called ambient boom.
But there’s another dimension to èvia’s wintry sound objects. Lillerne Tapes founder Gabe Holcombe aptly writes in his liner notes:
»Warm, shimmering, crystalline textures and melodies abound – and as sharp and finely honed as much of the material is, there remains an openness and space to each track that makes room for everything within it to be deeply considered.«
That clearness positively reminds me of some of the classic works on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label – specifically Mtendere »Teebs« Mandowa’s early compositions and some of Taylor McFerrin’s productions from his »Early Riser« album. It’s just that èvia’s sound sculptures usually stay drumless, except for a bit of percussive noise on some tracks.
»slumber« opens the record, which is just over 20 minutes long, with six and a half minutes of sparkling surfaces and hissing sounds that vaguely resemble muted sleet. Over the rest of the record, synths oscillate underneath weird tapping noises, and on most of the tracks, melodic washes are engulfed in a layer of static and fizzle.
èvia sent me a couple of grainy photos and screenshots to use for this article, and most of them have been taken from an apartment window or a balcony, from a safe space and a safe distance to the world. »cold« feels like that as well – like a cocoon to hide inside, or one of those burrito blankets for people with autism. It’s consoling, comforting, healing music.
To find out more about èvia’s influences, I listened to a guest mix they recorded for British ambient duo Space Afrika’s NTS radio show in 2021. The two-hour mix contains 78 tracks, with a focus on Japanese sound artists. It’s an extremely well-curated journey into the world of minimalist ambient, musique concrète and lowercase music, and I kept returning to it over the week as well.
Commenting on the mix, èvia mentions a very deep, personal connection to the shared music. I think there’s a similar notion to the songs on »cold« – they just feel extremely personal, almost like abstract little diary entries, not even made for the public, and that is maybe the reason why the artist must stay anonymous by all means.
èvia – »Sun Through The Clouds«
does rain have a sound of its own
or is it
only upon collision
that sound occurs
has anybody heard
the pure sound of rain falling
if we could put our ear right up to it,
what would it sound like . . .
One more thing
I recently came across a reference to an enigmatic experimental film from 1983. »Sans Soleil« by French filmmaker Chris Marker has for long been considered one of the best documentaries of all time. Every evening this past week, I’ve been watching parts of it. It’s hard to digest as a whole.
The images were filmed mainly in Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Paris and San Francisco. The female narrator reads the letters of a (fictitious) cinematographer recounting his travels. It’s a beautiful, poetic 100-minute visual stream of consciousness, and in its essence, it is a meditation on the fleetingness of human memory and the impermanence of things.
Have a great weekend!
© 2023 Stephan Kunze
Always thought the lowercase trend in general had started sometime mid 2010s. This edition, as a whole, was a great read!
awesome! seems to be right in my alley. funny coincidence i watched sans soleil about a week ago too lol. definitely hard to digest all of it at once especially because english isn't my first language and the narrating on the film is very poetic.