By Dan Leach
By Dan Leach
Photographs by Graham Clark, Brian Young, Danielle Ezzo, and Derek Rush
Electronic music in the 21st century is an ever-expanding, mutating, multi-genre, artform that seems to embrace a freedom and an inclusive ideal. After all, these days anyone with a computer can have a go. We think of pioneers of the genre such the Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk and, at the more relaxing end of the spectrum, Air, The Orb, Flying Lotus, and Nightmares on Wax.
But what place does spirituality have in electronic music?
Rarely, if ever, do you hear these artists talk about faith or religion. In fact, it has almost become anathema to mention such a thing in the electronic realm. Publications such as Noisey have gleefully mocked some Christian artists’ attempts to appropriate EDM. Perhaps this is fair comment on simple brazen opportunism. Perhaps also this is due to the anti-establishment sensibilities of electronic music. The birth of electronic music is usually linked to a sense of hedonism, free from such ‘confines’ as religion and this can be seen in its most celebrated clubs - the likes of Berlin’s Berghain and, in the past, New York’s Studio 54, revered because they are seen as places of freedom - from work, from worries, from normal life. Not only that, they are places where pleasure is indulged and often done so to excess.
So what happens when a pair of experimental electronic artists of real substance emerges, offering a unique and immersive experience into the spiritual realm? Should they be dismissed, or embraced, or neither? In our previous special feature ‘Synapse’ which examined the psychology behind our love affair with music, we raised the question of whether mapping out a formula for music-making, for Artificial Intelligence to replicate, is destroying the final bastion of what makes humans special. Here we look at the opposite viewpoint - that music is a way of connecting to a higher power and re-establishing some of the mysticism.
In this immersive feature we meet Ariadne, an audio/visual experimental electronic music duo based in New York, who are attempting something completely original - serious spiritual electronic music. We invite you to experience the music and visuals which make up their evocative live show and try to figure out the dimensions, nature and origin of this new form of music.
There is no one quite like Ariadne. In the world of electronic music, there has never really been a place for the spiritual, in any traditional sense of the word.
“It would be less weird”, says Benjamin Forest, 29, one half of Ariadne, “to be a Satanist, you know? That would be much more normal, especially if you go more in the metal and hardcore route. That's a common thing, no one’s gonna bat an eyelid.”
“It's totally uncool to put your faith out there.” Christine Papania, also 29, agrees, “but it’s not the norm, to be writing electronic music with a singer that sings classical-style vocals.”
In the subversive world of experimental electronica, it is clear that Ariadne have themselves, by some measure, become the subversives. This does not bother Christine and Ben. Even through the dim laptop screen as we Skype, their bright-eyed enthusiasm is palpable, ironically in contrast to some of the darker themes of their music.
Now on their fourth release, Stabat Mater, the pair originally met at Jacob’s Music School in Indiana in around 2008, Christine as a voice major and Ben as a recording arts major. Although they sang in the same choir, it was a year before they properly met at a party, bonding over their shared love of electronic music (influences include Bjork, Burial, Gazelle Twin, Arca, Death Grips). Both had sung in children’s choirs and had grown up around the church and around choral music in general. They began playing and composing together and formed Ariadne in November of 2014, creating their first release ‘Impromptu’ which they describe as an experimental ‘collection’ as they were feeling their way. ‘Ex tempore’ they consider to be their first EP and when they really found their voice, followed by their first album proper, ‘Tsalal’, unusually released on micro SD card as an audio/visual offering by the label Auris Apothecary.
“They were the perfect outlet to release it on”, says Christine, “They are a super-artistic label. Every release of theirs is physical and they always release it on a really weird medium. So, it's perfect and he give us total artistic control to just do what we wanted and we put the digital online but it's only the music.”
The ‘he’ is Dante Augustus Scarlatti, a contact they had made during music school, who had been blown away by Christine’s voice, describing it as a religious experience all on its own. Dante was attracted to Ariadne because of its “utter heaviness”: “Not in tone, but in aura. They take something so beautiful and destroy it beyond recognition at a glacial pace, then pick up the pieces to form a composition of immense weight.
“The melancholy atmosphere reminds me of Gregorian chanting and early liturgical works, but by adding a digital glitch element, elevates it to something entirely modern and standing on its own.
“Ariadne is dark, but not evil”, he adds, “dramatic, but not pretentious”.
The duo are certainly attracted to bleak themes. ‘Tsalal’, their 2015 debut album release, for example, was based on the idea of suffering, ‘Tsalal’ being the Hebrew word for ‘to be darkened’. 2017’s follow-up album, ‘Stabat Mater’, continues in the same vein and is an evolution of their sound into harsher, more abstract tones, released on limited edition cassette in both “light” & “dark” editions, as well as a fully immersive, online experience.
“Yeah it's weird”, says Ben, “I feel like us as people and Ariadne are pretty separate. We're really pretty happy, you know, sort of bubbly people and our music is very different.”
Doesn’t it get a little depressing, I ask....
“I would say there’s definitely beautiful moments in a really sad way”, says Ben. “I mean we don’t want the album to be a happy album. We generally gravitate towards darker music in general and sad undertones also, so we kind of went with that in mind.”
Public reception so far has been good. “People that will come up to us after shows”, says Christine, “are really excited to talk to us and tell us that this was the most unique thing they’ve ever experienced.”
“But it’s really surprising”, continues Christine, “because we played more like a noise, kind of breakcore, show, and I was like “oh my God we need to be like more aggressive, we need to play like noisier and I just started feeling really insecure about what we were going to do because I just felt like we were really different than everybody at the show and then it turned out, after we played, all these drum ‘n’ bass guys came to us and were super-receptive.
“I mean which is great. It was surprising, I thought for sure they wouldn’t like it, but they did.”
Does anyone find it strange?
“I'm sure some people don't like it, yeah”, says Christine.
“I feel like maybe it can be alienating”, says Ben, “if you don't have any experience with classical music or if you're the kind of person who's just kind of turned off by classical music for whatever reason.”
They chose the name Ariadne due to the character from Greek Mythology the daughter of Minos, king of Crete, who began as a mortal and then, according to some myths, became a god. “We also really like she was involved in the myth of King Minos and the labyrinth”, says Ben. “Especially the labyrinth being such a really interesting and very ancient symbol. I like how it's a really good symbol for the unconscious mind.” This connects to their interest in the dream analysis of Carl Jung. In fact, they are not the first modern musicians to reference themes and stories from Greek mythology. Daedalus took his name from the creator of the labyrinth and, incidentally, the ‘dancing-ground’ of Ariadne.
But what is sacred music?
Sacred music, tends to be seen as religious music - that is, music created for some kind of worship. But for Ben and Christine, although the music has its roots in choral music which of course is heavily used in and associated with Christianity, it is not allied to religion specifically. “Sacred is meant in a more abstract sense like a sort of spiritual and not totally secular but not necessarily religious”, says Christine. Artists who have straddled this divide tend to be those of a classical background and output, such as Sir James MacMillan - a Scottish classical composer and conductor and the late English composer Sir John Tavener. For electronic musicians, it is more of a rarity.
As I pry away, trying to understand Ariadne’s angle, Christine sympathises: “It's hard. I guess we’re not really one way or another but we kind of like the idea of sacred.” Ben is more pointed: “Well, we're heavily influenced by it and have grown up in it. It's kind of a part of who we are, whether we like it or not.”
“It is really interesting to play these electronic music shows and D.I.Y. shows. Where we’re really out of the box, you know, like come in with this sound and these ideas, it's very…It makes sense that people ask questions, it's not really the norm.”
Ben continues: “I mean that's why I wouldn’t have it any other way, you know, to be making art that makes people ask questions is...what more could you ask for?”
When dealing with such an ethereal, intangible topic as spirituality in music, terminology becomes very important. Especially at the height of trance in the 1990s, at nights such as the UK’s Gatecrasher, the idea of a pseudo-religious experience was encouraged. As Maxi Jazz said on the Faithless record ‘God Is a DJ’: “This is my church”. The parallels are obvious - it’s a weekly collective experience, everyone ‘worships’ at the altar of the DJ, who incidentally does not shy away from it with his so-called ‘Jesus pose’, but who, like a minister, channels a message to the ‘congregation’.
But although the religious symbolism was invoked at these nights with abandon, nobody believed it was an actual religion. And though many clubbers might experience overwhelming collective dopamine-flooded experiences, few would claim they are connecting to a higher power. Most DJs would say they are just playing good records by talented people in the right order. In short, clubbing cannot give you a code for how to live your life. And while it may make you feel better for a night, you’re likely to get short shrift from a promoter or DJ asking for help with your personal moral dilemma.
Ariadne represents a different experience entirely, but one intended to be consumed in public just as much as a traditional clubbing experience. However, like classical music, this is music to be witnessed and considered in a concert hall, not in a dance club or bar. “I never want to play in a bar”, says Christine, “where it's like super loud, people are talking, it’s obviously definitely not the right vibe - we would feel like a huge buzzkill!” For now, they stick to art galleries, and art spaces. Though they did play a club once, recalls Ben: “It was really difficult because it was square and sort of dance floor type thing there's a D.J. booth but the D.J. booth is small.
“We couldn’t fit in and, you know, there are speakers in all four corners, which is a really big problem for us because we get major feedback issues if we’re anywhere near a speaker and we don't want to compromise by either having Christine not heard or not having being as loud as possible.”
So although this is certainly a different take on electronic music, there are also parallels between the meditative repetitive nature of ancient chants and Gregorian and medieval music and the hypnotic nature of a genre like techno. By mixing electronic music with choral, Ariadne are seeking to represent the interplay between the surging forces of technology and a more natural, ancient time “before machines started being a really big part of humanity”, says Ben. “Mixing that with the modern world, which is very loud and harsh and unnatural, especially with things like the internet, our whole world is kind of being abstracted into the digital realm. We both really love contrasting those things and I think they fit together really well.”
The live visuals have become a key component of the experience. They are not pre-recorded, but improvise along with the music due to some programmed intelligence that allows them to be generative. Christine said: “We started visuals, though because we felt like it was a way for people to understand the music better especially with ‘Tsalal’. A lot of times listening to classical music and the pieces are like fifteen minutes, or when you just have no background on classical music it's really boring, or you just don't understand it so you can't get it into it.”
Since the live music is performed using Ableton Push and laptops, along with Christine’s vocals, Ben felt creating visuals would help bridge this disconnect the audience often feels when we can’t see the performers hitting actual instruments: “Before there was recording technology, there was never music without a visual component. There was never a disconnect between seeing the music being played and hearing it and that disconnect can be really powerful in that music is your only concentration, but I also feel like it's unnatural”.
By all accounts, the live show adds up to a powerful experience: “I think people have felt it is very immersive and really spiritual and definitely made them feel very emotional”, says Christine. “I’m not sure what emotions they felt or if they were able to take meaning behind it, but they were definitely changed in some way I guess from the performance. I mean that’s the best compliment, that you’ve changed someone or moved them in some way.”
Christine is an accomplished choral singer, performing at major venues in New York such as the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall as a member of 32-voice professional choir Manhattan Chorale. How does that compare with an Ariadne performance, in which she uses Ableton to record her own voice on-the-fly and add effects such as granular synthesis?
“I think it’s so fun to have a huge choir of yourself. Like sometimes it doesn’t even sound like you, when you’re shifting it super low, it's just sounds like this crazy bass. It’s a lot more freeing to be able to do it on the spot and then, sometimes, it doesn’t even sound like a melody, something really creepy and weird, by just being able to use my voice as that channel."
Improvisation is a key part of their identity. Ben says: “The whole reason why we started Ariadne is to start a project that is based on live performance and specifically improvisation. So our performances are very improvised. Sometimes, completely improvised. When we were touring for the album, we improvised on the themes of ‘Tsalal’ and Christine sang the lyrics. But in general our performances are improvised.”
“I fought [the improvisation] for a while,” says Christine, “in music school, especially as a classical musician they do not teach improvisation. Unless you’re a Jazz major, it’s not something you ever learn, as a classical musician. You only play or sing what is on the paper and it’s really weird at first to start improvising.
“I remember our first show I was so scared to not know what I was going to play at all. That was really scary and weird and I couldn’t breathe. It's the things you come out with and I feel like you mature so much as a musician and you learn so much from improvising.”
It is during the live improvisation that the duo feel like they are in touch with something bigger than themselves, whether this is a universality of spirit or Gaia or God. “When we're improvising”, says Ben, “there's a lot of times that we feel, you know our... like your ego sort of let’s go and you're, you're more of a channel for, it feels, it feels like something else, you know, you can call it whatever you want.
“And the other way, I feel like, because music is the most abstract of the arts, it's particularly suited to conveying you know, abstract ideas, like divinity or spirituality or emotions, anything that doesn't exist in the real world.”
You sense that religion might be more of an obstacle for others than Ariadne themselves. They come from a classical musical background in which it is commonplace for religion to interweave around music - for non-religious composers to make religious music and vice-versa. “Right, because the whole history of Western art is so heavily religious that it's the large majority of Western art is Christian art”, says Ben.
In our early conversations building up to the interview, one email mentioned not wanting to be too specific about particular religions, reasonably concerned that aligning the music too specifically can perhaps restrict and really obstruct the purpose of what they are trying to do.
“Religion is sort of tough”, says Ben, “because it can put you in a camp. But you know, just like music, you need definitions for things. And I feel like it doesn't feel separate to me, like the spiritual aspect of what we do, it kind of goes hand in hand with the process of making it.”
Christine sees their music as accessible to everyone: “The lyrics can definitely be interpreted as religious, or they can be kind of interpreted as secular. I mean I think there are so many interesting things like for instance in Christianity and the Bible and these stories of like...Even if you were to just look at it from a secular point of view, like human suffering and expression and experience and emotion, there's a lot of like really poetic things that I’m attracted to.”
Ben cites the theories of psychologist Carl Jung to explain the role of spirituality in the human experience: “It seems to me from my very limited knowledge, there's a lot of similarities in the stories of a lot of the world's religions - there's these things that keep on happening. And Jung’s theory is that these things are part of how our brain works. You know, we either evolve to have these things or you know our predecessors evolved to have these sorts of ideas in our unconscious minds.
“I feel the modern world, at least in the West, is getting more and more secular. And I feel like there's this sort of void, that there’s a spiritual need these types of stories and if even if you’re the kind of person who can rationalize it away, there's still a primal need for the sort of recognition or even just the sense of the divine in your life and my point is that, as things are getting more and more secular, there's this sort of void that people need to, need to fill.”
They would, they say, happily play in churches and cathedrals if they were ever asked, although they would not want to be aligned only with one religion. They would even play Christian music festivals though, purely from a musical point of view, they don’t believe they would really fit in with the rock and country vibe.
So, what can we learn from the emergence of Ariadne? Are we seeing experimental electronic music entering a new phase in its cultural development or is this band simply a one-off, an irregularity in the data, born of a meeting in music college between Ben and Christine? Or is it no more complicated than two musicians seeking to express their faith through music, just as people have done for centuries?
As we saw in our feature ‘Synapse’, technology and neuroscience is steadily mapping out and demystifying even artistic elements of the human condition - thus challenging the previously accepted opinion that humans are somehow elevated from the rest of life. As millions of us every day take solace in food, alcohol, drugs, or Netflix, it’s clear that many are dissatisfied and need, perhaps just as we always have, to believe there is more to life. So maybe artists like Ariadne perform an essential function, just as Jung asserts, to reassure us that humans are indeed special and that there is something more to our often mundane existence lived out on the supermarket aisle.