Mapping Seductive Underground Intentions in Bratislava

Mapping Seductive Underground Intentions in Bratislava

September 18, 2017

Written by:

Jasmina Al-Qaisi

Edited by:

Andrei Crăciun

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Phonography from Bratislava

When I say “field recordist” I am either thinking of Folklorists or Musicologists running around for forgotten music, nature enthusiasts who freeze sounds in their fluffy covered recording equipment, or the classical natural sounds of Irv Teibel’s Environments.

I am not here to emphasize the roots of field recording as an artform. That’s something I would also avoid when writing about the twin brother of phonography, photography. Let’s not go there. Instead, let’s talk about Bratislava, where mapping seductive underground intentions is taken good care of by Easterndaze.

Jonáš Gruska is a Sound Enthusiast & Field Recordist, a young man with an impressive resume, which looks like a lot of work .

Gruska has been making and recording sounds for quite some time now. He studied at Institute of Sonology in The Hague (Netherlands) and at Music Academy in Cracow (Poland) and as I suspect, he spends a lot of time online. You can catch him around setting up his site-specific installations for festivals or conducting workshops. But Gruska’s distinguishing feature is that he deals with the invisible: giving these workshops about his invention - Elektrosluch, the open-source device for electromagnetic listening that can allow people to explore the hidden sonic scapes of the environment. He held plenty of workshops around Europe in very special circumstances including Resonate Festivals in Belgrade and Cafe Oto in London. Besides the above mentioned activities and plenty of self-releases, Gruska is running a label dealing with “unknown or forgotten experimental artists” from Eastern Europe, LOM.

Spevy, the new album, is: gamelan orchestra, a cricket living in a pile of manure, a small town grasshopper, the liquid rhythm of wind and water, Apéritif glasses, custom stereo hydrophone inserted in the sink, stirring of a salted water in a cup, rumblings of a pontoon bridge at Dunaj river, cans hanged on a metallic rods, clanking in the wind to scare off the moles, Zorro the dog having his hair combed, playing on a piezoelectric film and a coffee machine, recordings of insects and birds, cast iron pot with water and dry beans recorded with a hydrophone, microphones in half-full soda cans, close-up recording of a train, ultrasonic frequencies emitted by insects and bats recorded using bat-detectors.

I wrote to you because of a T-shirt. The weather report expert from documenta 14 SAVVY Funk radio in Berlin, Gívan Belá was wearing your t-shirt. What have you guys been working on?

Jonáš Gruska: Oh, I am glad that our t-shirts have such powers! Currently we are working on a new type of microphone which would survive some harsh treatment. Throwing it around, running over it in a car, some water splashes. I feel like it could be quite helpful in some situations, giving you some expressive freedom as a sound artist. Oh and also new Elektrosluch!

Your invention, Elektrosluch the electromagnetic listening device, how do you explain to a kid what it does?

JG: Almost every electronic device has this “aura” around it. Scientists call it electromagnetic field. When it starts to change, we can treat it as sound – since sound is also a change... but in the air. Elektrosluch allows you to listen to this aura and discover it as a hidden dimension around us. You just plug in your headphones or a speaker, walk around and explore.

How do you make money for equipment? I mean I know you make your own equipment, but I can still ask how do you make money.

JG: Mostly by making microphones and other audio devices (such as the Elektrosluch). Part of my income comes from performing, doing workshops, field recording jobs and sound installations. But all of it is basically based in sound. I’m feeling really lucky that I am able to work in the experimental music field and don’t need to do a non-related job.

Usual music

Gívan told me you are going in the wilderness to record wolves. And stalking you, I found out about other outdoor activities of yours. How come you have this impressive relationship with nature? Do people find it hot?

JG: Haha, I sure hope that people find it hot. Nature is just such a mesmerizing sound base and an infinite source of inspiration to me. Even though I am a “city kid”, my family always took care of bringing me to forests for trips, mushroom harvesting and wild fruit picking. In the last year I extended this bond by challenging myself into sleeping in forest alone. That was a really special experience. My favorite organisms to record are insects, amphibians, underwater plants and some creatures which like to nibble my hydrophones.

Spevy - this 5th release with LOM, the Eastern-European label focused on experimental music and field recordings - is music. How can I explain this to my grandmother who is a biologist?

JG: There are people who get bored with the “usual” music. You know – melodies, harmonies and rhythms. They are trying to get different experiences from listening. The same way one enjoys regularity and harmony, others can enjoy irregularity, dissonance or even just pure timbres. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the classic musical patterns, so I needed to explore what else can be done with sound. How can it be organized in a pleasing way, but not rely on the traditional approaches.

Except for this article, do random people write you their opinion on your work?

JG: Not so much. I mean, there are people who compliment it, but they are usually my friends and you cannot trust them to tell you their honest opinion. I also decided not to tell random people my opinions if they don’t specifically ask for it. But once they ask, I am honest.

Do your friends and family get your passion and labour?

JG: Hah, not always. I mean, they appreciate that I am passionate about something, but I don’t think they really listen to my work for example. Some friends maybe, but it is hard to tell. But I feel like with the work I put out it needs a bit of time and effort to be understood. Not everyone is willing to do that… which is ok. I just hope it will find the right ears!

Photo credits: Xin Li, Lucia Kovalova
Photo credits: Xin Li, Lucia Kovalova

Cellular automaton

I figured your strong connection with visuals from your other works available online and from here - where you say you choose places for your site specific installations according to their looks. Do you ever produce visual stuff unrelated to sound?

JG: Those places are actually almost never selected for the visual part. I mean, the visual is something which can accelerate the idea into fruition, but is never the main point. Generally I do prefer working with large metallic objects of industrial origin and repurpose them into sound sources, so I guess that is what I lean towards visually most of the time.

I do work with visual programming a bit too. In the past it was mainly through my audiovisual project BINMATU, which combined complex geometric patterns with binaural-beat-like hallucinatory sounds.

At the moment I am preparing a collection of artworks I programmed based on principles of cellular automaton. I will be laser-cutting these patterns into pieces of wood and having them printed on reflective surfaces. All profits from this project will be donated to an organization helping homeless people in Bratislava – I actually started to work on it after I had one troubling experience in the streets and started to feel strongly about supporting their effort. Feels like the police lets people freeze on streets over here.

Do you find your work political in any way?

JG: Not in a direct sense. But experimenting in the arts carries an idea of experimentation to our political lives. Opening up to new experiences, new ideas and rethinking the old structures. There is also something political about owning a soundscape – deep relationship with our surroundings leads to better engagement and realizing our own potential for change. For example in Slovakia it often feels like that people don’t really feel like the city belongs to them… and they treat it that way. My field recordings can help in making that connection – once you make yourself sensitive and aware, the will to better the environment comes naturally.

I know you started with classical guitar. Tell me what is your first experience of sound outside music? When did your sonic consciousness arise and what did you do with it?

JG: Basically it happened when I started searching for more and more extreme forms of music. I was fascinated by super harsh genres and I guess that has resetted my perception of what music can be. Since then I don’t see value in discussing what music is, I believe that almost any sound can be enjoyable in the right context. Good example is a success of ASMR videos on Youtube, which proves that sounds can be enjoyed in many different forms and we are capable of enjoying timbral quality too.

Name a new music composer that drives you absolutely mad.

JG: Rashad Becker. And these guys.

I am fascinated by your preferences (railways, bridges, the Danube, animals eating, insects) and the fact that you have a lot of auto-biographical references in Spevy. What is beauty to you?

JG: I love tingly and crackly timbres, maybe something like ASMR people enjoy. I love melodies which sound alien to me and rhythms which confuse my brain (polyrhytmic, polymetric, slightly chaotic). I listen to a lot of traditional music from Eastern Asia and Africa. Pygmy chants, Bangladesh mouth-organ ritual music, Indonesian balinese gamelan… It is all extremely inspiring and beautiful (I highly recommend checking the whole catalogue of this label.

photo credits: Xin Li, Lucia Kovalova

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Jasmina Al-Qaisi

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