Maarja Nuut & Ruum’s Experimental Pop Exists Between Ancient and Modern
‘Muunduja’—the duo’s new album—as well as its leadoff track “Haned kadunud” embrace in-betweenness, evoking both wake and sleep, organic embraces and cold steel, here and hereafter.
The Estonian duo of Maarja Nuut and Ruum exist in apparent contradictions. She’s a singer and violinist obsessed with old traditional songs, and he—born Hendrik Kaljujärv—has been making electronic music since he was a teen. One embraces the organic and the ancient, another the digital and modern. They’re two seemingly disparate styles, but together, the combination is something strange and new. Their debut collaboration Muunduja—whose title implies conversion, or transfiguration—is set about taking this conflicting parts and spinning them into a new language, one that uses slippery melodic lines and sleepy drones to create slipstreams between epochs, as well as dreamy connections that snap into place like new neurons, to channel ideas from then to here to hereafter.
Over email, Nuut explains that’s part of the point of her practice in general. “I’ve been always interested in looking for common points in seemingly different phenomena,” she says. “That process grows me as a person and allows me to understand better both—differences and similarities.”
The record’s opening track “Haned kadunud,” the video for which is premiering here, offers one way of understanding Nuut and Ruum’s surreal approach. The original story of the song—which translates to “Lost Geese”—is, per Nuut, undateable. But some of the traditional songs like it stretch back thousands of years. Part of what drew the pair to this particular song, is that though on the surface level it's just a story about some birds, it is full of strange lyrics and “metaphors about journeying through half-real states and worlds,” says Nuut. Its close, lilting melody, which tumbles through just a handful of notes in a hypnotic-yet-unsettling cycle is a perfect match for both Nuut’s dizzy string work and the off-balance arpeggiations of Ruum’s electronic experimentation.
Their version of “Haned kadunud” connects modern production tricks and old mystery seemingly effortlessly, but apparently a lot of production work went into getting these pieces to all click together. “I remember the moment in studio, our second day (still!) with this song,” Nuut says. “I was stubbornly trying to fit the fast 11-beat-breathing loop with the 24-beat bass pattern as I suddenly hear the hopeless voice of our producer Howie B: “For [fuck’s] sake, what sort of discos you go to?!?”
Either way the effort pays off, both here and elsewhere on Muunduja which takes care to pack lots of detail into these often slow and patient songs. Though the melodies they favor are often full of tension, there’s quite a bit of color in their approach to arrangement—glittering flourishes surrounding the macabre, like a dagger with a gilded handle. When asked about this detail, Nuut first responds with a quote from the composer Arvo Pärt: “A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.” But she explains that such an approach is basically inborn, whether she’s working on collaborations or otherwise. “One can be loud in different ways,” she says. “It’s about the potential inside you that gives power.”
Ruum says that he focuses on this detail for similar reasons. “[It’s] the same idea of holding your attention at all times,” he says. “Otherwise you might just end up somewhere without process of getting there.”
True to Ruum’s assessment, Muunduja feels as much about journeying as it does a destination. The little passages that swell and swirl without much melodic movement (like the one that opens the drawling ballad “Muutuja”) contain as much textural character as any of the grand melodic moments. They teach patience, and a willingness to be carried along the path, like a cloudy trip through the countryside, staring listlessly out of passenger window. You get lost in the landscape, which only makes actually ending up somewhere more impactful.
Muunduja is due out October 5 on 130701. You can check out the art and tracklist below and the video for "Haned kadunud" up above.
1. Haned kadunud
6. Kuud kuulama
7. Kurb laulik
8. Miniature C
9. Une meeles
Colin Joyce is enjoying the journey, on Twitter.