How do you improvise in real time with collaborators who are halfway across the globe? This tricky proposition confronted the trio Asa Tone – Melati Malay, Erin Rioux aka Tristan Arp, and Izak Jerasimo aka Kaazi – as they set up to play an all-remote 2020 edition of the New Forms festival. With Melati and Kaazi based in Indonesia, and Tristan Arp in Mexico, real-time instrumental improvisation from all three members would be impossible. Utilizing their creative brains, the three came up with a novel solution utilizing Ableton Live and the burgeoning technical art platforms that New Forms is known to celebrate.
Following this performance, Melati and Kaazi began work on a new project, Melati ESP. Drawing on influence from jungle, pop, ambient, and other forms of music, Melati ESP also sees Melati performing lyrics in Bahasa for the first time. Enlisting Tristan Arp as an international collaborator, the story of Melati ESP’s recently-released debut album, hipernatural, presents another triumph of creativity over the challenges of distance and lockdown.
Melati, Kaazi, and Tristan joined David Abravanel on an international video chat to discuss collaboration, playing vocal phrases with a MIDI flute, granular synthesis, and more.
You’re based around the world now, but you were previously all in Brooklyn?
Kaazi: Correct – up until COVID, we actually all shared a studio together in Brooklyn. We had our collective gear in there, and we worked there together often. Just before COVID happened we actually packed down that studio and Erin moved to Mexico City. And [me and Melati], we got stuck in Australia for a period of time and then now in Indonesia. So we've been working remotely since then. However, we lived in New York together. We were roommates, and we lived in New York for 13 years.
Did any of you start out in New York? Or how did you all end up there?
Melati: None of us started out in New York, actually. I found my way there on a trip, just on a holiday with my sister, and then I ended up staying there in my early 20s.
Erin: I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, and I moved [to New York] when I was 18 to study and stayed. And that's where I started a record label called Human Pitch with my best friend who lived there.
Izak, Melati and I started working together during those years. We actually met through a party that I was throwing that I had booked them for under a previous project. And, yeah, I ended up in Mexico City because I was visiting. I met my partner and I learned Spanish, and when the pandemic happened, that was kind of like the final sign to continue my trajectory in this direction.
I miss New York a lot. I miss living in the same place as Izak and Melati, but I think we're all kind of honoring these new homes, and I know it's also... Izak and Melati went back to Indonesia frequently, and that was sort of like where we began the project as well, because it was kind of a mutual idea to start a collaboration together after being friends for a while. It was Melati's idea or suggestion, as I recall. Why don't we all go somewhere special to start this project? I go home every year to see my family in Indonesia and that's where we started our first recording sessions really, was in Indonesia. So I feel like New York is where we all lived. But our first recording time and our first show, one of our only shows, because of the pandemic, has happened in Indonesia as well.
How did being in different locations change the collaborative process for working on the Melati ESP album?
Kaazi: I think a good example of [how we’re collaborating] is the New Forms project, which was actually a live event. It was a show that we had booked at a Vancouver festival. We were live scoring a show that we were supposed to be at in person in 2020, but we obviously didn't make it.
Erin: The prompt changed from “prepare to go on tour” to “make a site-specific work in a pretty short amount of time.” That was a cool creative challenge, and we decided to approach it by making a library of loops since we could not all be in the same room together. I kind of proposed a little rule, and it's fun to create these constraints and games that way. And it was like, let's all make about 100 different loops in the same key and at the same tempo, and we'll kind of throw them in the blender. We'll hop on Zoom together and chuck them all in Session View and kind of improvise and sort of semi randomly trigger all these different loops and see what happens.
Melati: It was over two sessions on Zoom. I don't remember who was holding the main project, but then we would kind of live compose together and mix together and kind of shout out, and I was like, "Oh, please, hold on to that one. That was really good together. This is a really nice moment. Hold on to that". So, yeah, I think that was more like a collaborative composition in a way, after we set all the parameters and made all of our locks. It’s kind of like a live Tetris game or something.
And you said this was something of a dry run for how you worked on the Melati ESP album?
Kaazi: It was different, actually, due to the fact that we had very specific parameters in mind in terms of us being both locked down and then also having a set of guidelines around key and tempo so that we could compose in a relatively quick fashion together. I would say the ESP record was different, [though] it had a similar origin in that it was largely finished during lockdown. But because we were away from our studio and our gear and hardware and tools and things that we usually use for this kind of process, it ended up that we worked largely in the box and kind of built up music through, I would say kind of like a non-hierarchical sampling structure. We kind of took from everywhere during that period. So it didn't really have a guideline as much. And then, of course, [Melati] singing in Bahasa Indonesian was, I think, the turning point for realizing there was a body of work coming together that was unique and standalone.
Melati: There was some learnings and I guess you could think of it as a dry run, that process of New Forms and our previous album Temporary Music in a way that there was a lot of improvisation that we did on both of those albums that I really cherished and that I wanted to keep alive in the spirit of making hipernatural.
There was improvisation in two ways. In the way that we track the vocals, I would mostly hear the track for the first time while the record button was on and then be pulling from my diary, my journal of notes and words I'd collected over the years, and just riff off of hearing the music for the first time that Kaazi had made, apart from the instrumentals that I had made. I used that as the source sample and held on to that improvisational spirit. And I think the other way, too, was the learnings from the past with working with Erin and Izak and Asa Tone is – Erin kind of started this experiment with making virtual instruments from using the voice. We would record long takes of my vocals, either words or melodies, and then we would use Granulator II.
I played the granulator with my MIDI flute, which adds another layer of chance to the composition. And those recordings were a lot of the source of this inspiration – song starters, if you will – for then layering and tracking vocals or being like a melodic element that would inspire us to continue down another path. But it was this collaboration with the machine and chance.
So you were using a MIDI flute to play your own voice?
Melati: Yeah. As a virtual instrument.
Kaazi: The MIDI flute as an instrument, it has a rubber mouthpiece that, depending on the amount of wind that you put on it, it changes the shape of the sound – it will pitch bend, it will warble, it will throw unusual artifacts at you. I think Melati, you used it as a tool to kind of inspire new melodic ideas, largely. It was like your companion when tracking vocals.
Melati, you mentioned that you would start composing lyrics when hearing backing tracks for the first time. What was the process then? Would you do a few takes to figure out what worked well, or were you trying to capture the improvisation of what you were initially singing?
Melati: It's a bit of both. Some tracks like “E.M.Z.” are [lyrically] single takes, others are heavily edited as far as they would be completely rearranged, which causes a lot of chaos with the lyrics, which I'm okay with. I think it's more of the energetic feeling that I wanted to hold onto. I was okay with lyrics being scrambled and things being moved around, but as long as there was that spontaneity and the initial energy of what is the feeling or the reaction that I'm having in this moment to this piece of music, if that was carried through, then I would deem it a success.
Kaazi: Something like “E.M.Z.”, it was like a sketch originally, a break and some pads and probably 60% complete. And then, as Melati explained, we just show her a piece of music and have her record initial ideas for lyrics and vocals on her phone and track and that one from memory. That was your first take. A lot of the work happens after just in terms of removing elements from the track to give the vocal space or adding this bassline at the end.
When you were working on hipernatural, how did collaboration work? Were you sending ideas back and forth?
Kaazi: [Melati and I] kind of got it to a point, just the two of us, where we felt like, okay, this was as far as we can take. We've heard this music enough. We're not adding anything at this point. And then we kind of passed over this package that was close to fully performed, I would say, to Erin. And then Erin mixed the record and then also added additional production to a bunch of the tracks. So it was different to Asa Tone where we definitely are doing things together, usually live jams and building things up together.
Erin: Yeah. hipernatural is very much Melati and Izak's record that I came into in the end when the songs were very much written. So I think it's sort of a modern mutation of the producer/mixer/finishing touch role where it was just kind of a matter of adding some colors, some textures, an additional rhythm section here and there, maybe. But the song structure was very much there and it was like finishing an 80% to 90% produced record, is how I experienced it.
Looking at the lyrics, sometimes the words that you're saying are kind of meshed a little bit more in the mix. You mentioned that part of this is the way that you were performing your voice. To what extent did you intend to have the lyrics come through crystal clear versus kind of a feeling or as another instrument?
Melati: Well, this is the first time making a record in Bahasa, Indonesian, which is a language that is far away from me and then also very close to me. I grew up in Jakarta, learning English and Indonesian at the same time. But I also don’t have the best hold on [Bahasa]. So the process of using Bahasa on this record was quite freeing, actually, because it tapped into this sense of authenticity that I think I was missing in previous work and using English. It was sort of like a direct tapping into this wondrous childlike feeling. And I have a very visual connection to the language. How do I explain it? There is a limited scope from which I could pick in Bahasa, due to my understanding of it. I felt like I could be really direct and visual with the lyrics that I chose. And so I did want most of the vocals to be up front so that the visuals could be heard. I mean, it is limiting because not everyone can speak Bahasa. But I did want this record to be very much upfront, mostly.
Kaazi: You spoke to me a lot about also wanting to have the feeling of what you were saying come across even if people didn't necessarily understand the lyrics. So a lot of the production work I was doing was trying to support that, you’d give me the translations in certain areas and so that when we add additional production, it would be that you would have the feeling of what you were trying to say without knowing explicitly what you were saying.
Melati: Yes and no, because some of the lyrics are actually quite heavy and a bit dark and touch on subjects that are quite big, but at the same time they're sung or presented in a way that are light or pop or a bit shiny. So it's a bit of push and pull.
Kaazi: That's true. We also talked about that, the Stereolab thing, this sugary sweet song talking about political, environmental things within this very bubble-coated world.