Juhani Silvola image

The recent release “The Slow Smokeless Burning Of Decay” (pushed on his own imprint 8th Nerve Audio and following his first album of acousmatic works “Post-Biological Wildlife”) was a good opportunity and a pretext to know the Finnish/Norwegian composer and musician Juhani Silvola. Trained at the Norwegian Academy of Music, where he gained a master’s degree in electroacoustic composition and the lessons of Natasha Barrett, Juhani is also a virtuosic instrumentalist in other contexts (folk music, experimental jazz, and improv scenes) besides being a seeker for sound entities. Let’s know Juhani and his recent release better.

Chain D.L.K.: Hi Juhani! How are you doing?

Juhani Silvola: Hi! I’m doing fine, thanks! Just done with the last of the festivals for the summer, now preparing for what looks like busy autumn.

Chain D.L.K.: Before focusing on your forthcoming [at the moment of this interview, as the announced release date is August 27] album, let’s go back to your background. I read you studied with Natasha Barrett, which I guess taught you many things. What’s the lesson or the subject you enjoyed most from the technical viewpoint, and what’s the one from the poetical/ philosophical viewpoint?

Juhani Silvola: I think the main thing I got from studying with Natasha was to get a very tangible feeling of where the bar lies, so to speak. Seeing her total command of her medium and tools, and also experiencing the massive impact of her own works in concerts, provided huge inspiration to work hard and get my own music to a higher level.

On a more concrete technical level, it was the work with spatial audio and large speaker setups in various formats that was the most important technical lesson from her.

I didn’t really have poetical/philosophical lessons, other than observing how she thinks about music, and how the electroacoustic tradition as a whole ‘thinks’. I also believe that these aspects are for every artist to figure out for themselves, and have never been interested in ‘lessons’ in these topics. I’ve never wanted to model my work after others, to be a part of a ‘school’, or sound like my teachers. Inspiration is different since it happens more unconsciously. All kinds of stuff go in, and whatever traces come out in my own work, come out.

I am, however, an eternal student, extremely interested in learning how different artists think about their work and processes and am equally interested in other art forms besides music. I’m also very interested in the poetics/philosophy/methods of kinds of music I either dislike or which are very different from what I myself do. It’s all research into different pathways to musical/artistic works, and there is no link between the value of the ‘lesson’ and the aesthetic match between my taste and whoever I’m ‘studying’. I would say that the majority of my listening/studying time goes to music I don’t actively make or play myself, although I’ve definitively done my homework related to the stuff I actively do.

Juhani Silvola image
Photo courtesy of Johannes Selvaag

Chain D.L.K.: Just out of curiosity… was there any eureka moment (or even a particular listening experience), that fostered the interest in electroacoustic music?

Juhani Silvola: Hmm, not really. I’ve always been interested in music I do not yet know, especially after discovering John Cage (both his music and writings) when I was 16. I had listened to various electroacoustic composers over the years, but again, studying with Natasha made me realize the importance of really understanding the specific tradition(s) and roots of electroacoustic music, and a big part of my study was for two years to extremely systematically listen through and read about the whole history of this music, from the very beginnings of electronic sound to its various bifurcations today.

Chain D.L.K.: You’re half Norwegian, half Finnish. Two awesome countries that cliché normally matches to extreme branches of metal under the musical viewpoint. How do you deal with this kind of cultural meme? Did you notice any rising interest for electroacoustic, minimalism, or likewise extreme (to say it so) branches of electronic and electroacoustic music by young generations?

Juhani Silvola: Technically, I’m 100% Finnish, but grew up in Norway (since I was 13), and have lived here since (and I am a Norwegian citizen now as well).

I grew up with extreme metal, as I randomly discovered a radio show playing the hardest black & death metal, grind core, etc. when I was 10 years old. I had gotten a Metallica cassette from a friend’s big sister, thought that metal was cool, and spent every day going through the radio programs on all channels listed in the newspaper until I found a late night show with the word ‘metal’ in it. This show didn’t play Metallica or any mainstream stuff, and after that door was opened, I went all into the extreme music world and taped every show for years.

I absolutely love the extremity of the best metal, and in a sense, it is this energy I’m looking for in any music.

I really don’t know about the rising interest in electroacoustic music, extreme or otherwise. I’ve found that many metal heads are quite a conservative bunch and in their own bubble, which I was never part of. I loved the music but was never part of the metal culture. Whenever I’ve noticed any music-policing in the scene I’ve been in, I’ve done the exact opposite and gravitated away from that. So when I noticed my metal friends being negative about jazz or hip-hop, that only drew me towards that and away from metal. And so has my story always been, I’ve been involved in many genres, but always as an outsider/insider, always refusing to sign any manifestos. I played bluegrass music for a long time, but was annoyed by the stupid ideology of ‘real music is made on wooden instruments by dudes in checked shirts with beards’, and was drawn to the most plastic, ‘fake’ and neon-colored synth-pop as a result.

Chain D.L.K.: From the conceptual perspective, your sonic arts are apparently orbiting around post-humanism and nature… do you think ours is a better age than the one of Henry’s for instance to drew for inspiration?

Juhani Silvola: Well, I think any age is a good age for inspiration. I don’t have any sense of nostalgia, no yearning for a golden age when music/gear/culture/etc. was better. The world is what it is, and it’s up to you to make the most of it and deal with whatever it gives you. Certain themes are hard to avoid these days. I have an ambivalent relationship to concepts in music. I am a huge fan of art, and art theory/philosophy, and am very interested in conceptual art, but one of the reasons why I love music is that it exists largely beyond concepts. The fact that instrumental music does not have to relate to language and is also ‘disembodied’ (not from the performer’s point of view of course, but from the listener’s). I love listening to music without seeing the performers, and the more I like a concert, the more I close my eyes and don’t look at the performers. So I guess acousmatic music is perfect for me. My ideal mode of listening is without knowing anything about what I hear and not seeing any performers.

Juhani Silvola image
The Slow Smokeless Burning Of Decay – cover artwork

Chain D.L.K.: Let’s focus on “The Slow Smokeless Burning Of Decay”. I read you took the title from a poem by Robert Frost. Besides the title, what’s the connection with that poem?

Juhani Silvola: There is no connection really. I read the last line somewhere and was inspired by it first, before eventually reading the whole poem, which is great, but the piece doesn’t relate to it otherwise. The relationship with the title is that it made me think of time-lapse films of rotting stuff, where you see the slow process of decay and new growth very quickly. It also made me think of an album cover for a great noise record by John Wiese & Pain Jerk called Terrazzo. The music is really extreme, and the cover has a quite a beautiful picture of a rotting whale on a beach. So somehow the title relates to slow processes of decay and growth, and the relationship between what is perceived as disgusting and what is perceived as beautiful. The first part of the piece started out as vaguely depicting the photograph but I’m never too literal about these things, as I believe sound follows its own paths and I try to let sounds be what they are, become what they need to be, and go where their internal laws of physics take them.

Chain D.L.K.: Also, “Like Garlands…” was inspired by a piece of literature.. any word about this awesome track and its source for inspiration?

Juhani Silvola: Thanks. The title is from a quote by Rousseau, where he talks about how arts and sciences decorate and conceal the chains that bind humans to their slavery. It’s not that I completely agree with his sentiments, although there are obviously aspects that resonate strongly, as entertainment can definitely have this role. Also, it has to be said that entertainment doesn’t have to be just the stuff the entertainment industry spits out. So-called serious art can just as well be entertainment if approached that way. A visit to the Tate or MoMA, or a concert with the music of Xenakis for example can most definitely be relaxing entertainment, depending on how familiar one is with these idioms.

But, the quote evoked an image of an artist wandering around in a dark and dank cave amidst monstrous black iron chains, and decorating them in lively colors and shapes. It also made me think of the whole spectrum, from states of stasis into states of struggle against, these chains.

Chain D.L.K.: I can’t but notice the abundance of inspirational sources from nature. Are you a lover of literature? Any “exotic” or pretty unknown readings/authors you recommend?

Juhani Silvola: I am definitely a lover of both nature and literature. I am definitely most at home either in the mountains or the forests or in the world of art/ music/thought. The ‘real’ world of business, practical matters, social relationships, and intrigues is not where I thrive.

Exotic/unknown is obviously relative, and I assume that what is exotic for many others might be more ordinary for your readers. Anyways, I’ve been hugely inspired by the following books, some recently, others have been with me a long time:

‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind’ by Siri Hustvedt

‘Futurability’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi
‘Duty Free Art’ by Hito Steyerl
‘H.P. Lovecraft: Against World, Against Life’, by Michel Houellebecq (and the rest of his books)

‘The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986’ by Jorge Louis Borges (also his short stories)

‘Against Everything’ by Mark Greif
‘Old Masters’ by Thomas Bernhard
‘Short Stories/Poems’ by Samuel Beckett

‘Nausea’ by Sartre

Chain D.L.K.: I read your interesting words about music and identity to introduce “Five Failures in Representing our True Nature”, the central and longest piece of this release. Can you explain it to our readers? Can you match this conceptual framework to your sonic exploration?

Juhani Silvola: This piece was commissioned by Nordic Music Days 2019, which is an annual festival for new Nordic music with its roots way back in 1888. The theme of the festival was the truth, and it made me think about truth and representation, about what we ‘truly’ are. We understand our world largely through these representations, which are always simplifications. In order to see the world or ourselves in one way, many others are left out. I know these representations or “stories” are a necessary tool to navigate the world, but I’ve always fought against the idea of fixed identity. I’ve never wanted to find my own identity, for example, as this implies that you are stuck with it. I don’t want to be the same person in five years’ time that I am today in five years’ time; my goal is to genuinely and fundamentally change, as long as I can.

In this piece I thought of different ways humans and humanity have been reduced to stories and identities over history and found five failed (in my opinion) ways of describing humans, which were:

(1). A soulless animal, pure muscle and bone, governed by basic blind instincts for survival and reproduction.

(2). A transcendental soul or a spirit, essentially belonging somewhere else, whose physical bodily manifestation is non-essential, or even evil, to be avoided, disciplined, punished, and eventually discarded.

(3). A mechanism, solely governed by Newtonian physics, locked in its trajectory by deterministic laws.

(4). A digital computer, essentially a brain whose interface with the world is not that important, as it’s the CPU that counts.

(5). The human as an illusion, as just a step in the evolution, something that can be endlessly improved, modified, and fully transcended by technology.

This piece has probably the most literal relationship to its theme and concept, as I’ve used sounds that directly reference these ideas, especially the first 3. But, as with everything I make, the intention is that the piece must work as pure music without any knowledge of the concept.

Chain D.L.K.: All the three pieces of this release were commissioned. Many people (erroneously?) think that working under commission is a limit to artists’ freedom. What’s your idea and experience on it?

Juhani Silvola: I find that commissions are a good way to work. In these cases, two of the commissions were fully open-ended, except for the medium/method of performance and a rough duration. The Nordic Music Days commission had a theme, but I was very free to interpret it as I wanted.

I think constraints and limitations are great for creative work, I find it very fruitful to have a framework to push against and limitations that force one to think in new ways. I would even go as far as defining creativity as the act of transcending limitations that are arbitrarily forced upon you.

Chain D.L.K.: Just a step back to your release… any word on the cover artwork?

Juhani Silvola: The cover art is a photograph taken by my wife, Sarah-Jane Summers, who is a great violinist working with Scottish folk music and improvised/ experimental music. She also takes fantastic abstract photos where the subject (which is usually something quite ordinary), vanishes completely and is seen in a highly personal and novel way. It’s like an abstract painting with a camera. This image seemed to fit perfectly with the vibe of the music and the title. It’s a photo of rust and dirt on the side of a lorry.

Chain D.L.K.: What’s the common point (besides the author, of course) of all your releases? Maybe a tool, a recording technique or a set) in your studio that you always used…

Juhani Silvola: There really isn’t one, besides me. On the one hand, I’m a technology and gear geek, but on the other, I couldn’t care less about gear and tech. I work pretty much the same way whether I’m playing melodic/rhythmic/ harmonic music on acoustic guitar, programming or patching synthesizers, making noise on a no-input mixer, or doing field recordings. It is all just sound, and I’m trying to create sounds that have some inherent meaning or life to them. In that sense, the common point would be that I treat all music as acousmatic music, as pure sound where the source is hidden. Of course, references can’t be avoided, but they are never the point for me.

The other point would be that I’m always interested in using the body in some ways when generating my materials. I am interested in the bodily interface with the world that we are given, and believe that the active use of the body does provide sounds with a trace of something interesting. With this, I do not mean expressive gestures or things like that, and would rather not look at someone when listening to them playing.

Of course, purely mechanical or programmed rhythms and sonic trajectories have their place, but even in these situations I usually try to do as much as I can manually since I believe that the combination of the extreme intentional precision the body is capable of, combined with the lack of machine-like control, yields good results.

Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?

Juhani Silvola: Always. I have recently recorded two solo albums on acoustic and electric guitars. One is for mostly prepared guitar, inspired by John Cage, Stravinsky, and Messiaen, among others, whereas the other has more folk music and jazz influences, more melodic and harmonic, although it’s far from what would be classed as ‘normal’ folk or jazz.

I’m co-writing a commission with Sarah-Jane Summers, for string quintet, myself on electric & acoustic guitars, and Sarah-Jane as violin/ Hardanger fiddle soloist. I’m also writing a short piece for a contemporary percussion ensemble called SISU.

Furthermore, I’ve started to plan new electroacoustic works, but they are further in the future.

Visit Juhani Silvola on the web:

https://www.juhanisilvola.com/

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