A Sense of Place With Jeremiah Chiu & Marta Sofia Honer

At Kumlinge – photo by Joyce Kim

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It’s not easy to make a record that gives listeners a distinct sense of a specifc place, but that’s exactly what Jeremiah Chiu and Marta Sofia Honer did with the enchanting Recordings from the Åland IslandsIn the emotive details and aural reveries, Chiu and Honer paint a vivid picture of a special place. Before this album, I’d never even heard of the Åland Islands, but now, because of their work, I feel a pull or maybe even a connection. It’s quite something. They are quite something, too.

Recordings from the Åland Islands is out now on International Anthem. Jeremiah Chiu can be found via his website and Marta Sofia Honor via hers.

I always like to go back to the beginning with these interviews. What are some of your earliest memories and experiences with music and sound that have stuck with you all these years?

JC: I grew up playing piano and violin starting around age 6. When I entered high school, I gave up the violin for the guitar and it continued to evolve into synthesizers and more. I distinctly remember learning how to multi-track at a pretty young age. Each night as my parents would be preparing dinner; I would be noodling in the dining room with this Casio keyboard that could record 6 short parts using the internal sounds. I would stack a bass, chords, leads, and drums. Everything basically evolved from there to 4-track recorders, minidisc sessions, etc …

Later in High School, I was fortunate to have had a fairly eclectic mix of music being shared amongst friends. We were playing in punk bands that eventually became emo-punk-synth-wave bands, but we were also simultaneously learning how to use drum machines and DJ—listening to Chicago-House & Detroit Techno and anything synthesizer-related. In college, all of that fused with Jazz, neo-classical, and out-sound/experimental music. Interestingly, there’s still a large group of us still making electronic music together from those early days. 

MSH: I grew up in a musical household, starting violin around age 3. Growing up my parents played all kinds of music for me and my siblings from Weather Report to Philip Glass operas. As I got older I continued a varied musical journey as a teen playing string quartets, being in a post rock band, and hosting a world music radio show. 

Having studied and trained in classical music most of my life I’ve been very grateful for the exposure to different sounds and approaches to music as the classical arena can be very insular. 

From those early days, what prompted you to take the next step and start learning an instrument and then eventually start creating your own works?

JC: I suppose I didn’t have much of a choice in learning an instrument, but I do remember distinctly the moment that things shifted from starting a band, to thinking about our own works. During my sophomore year science class, a fellow student (Ryan Durkin/Hewhocorrupts) told me that he was starting a tape label and asked if I wanted to put something out on it. I really had no clue what that meant, but he guided us through that process and it forced me and my bandmates to write original music and compile artwork for a release. It’s more or less been the same process since. 

MSH: My mom is a violin teacher so musical studies and training have been baked into me, pretty much from the start. Working on original work, however, is something that still feels quite new as I spent so much time studying classic works and now operate primarily as a session player for other artists and composers’ music. 

Jumping ahead, then, how did you all first meet and start playing together? If my memory serves me right, you both studied at DePaul in Chicago, right? 

JC: Yes, we were both at DePaul, but at different times, and for different things—I studied Art & Graphic Design and still lead a practice in the arts. 

MSH:L I got a degree in viola performance at DePaul. We met many years later playing a show together at Constellation hosted by our friends Bitchin Bajas—at one of their annual Terry Riley “In C” performances.

Photo by Joyce Kim

So, you all first went to the Åland Islands in 2017 to help friends with the hotel/inn they were starting. What did you know about the Åland Islands before you all went? And what were your first impressions of the place once you arrived?

MSH: We didn’t know much of anything! I had never heard of the archipelago before although I’ve always been fond of Scandinavian music, aesthetics, furniture, etc. Neither of us had been to a place in the world that has a “midnight sun” before, so combining the special experience of that kind of eternal daylight along with a pinch of jet lag did really make it surreal and feel like we were floating through an endless day. 

JC: Totally surreal. During midsummer, the perpetual daylight really shifts your perception of time—almost feeling like there is no time. I love it. You day ’til you’re done, then you sleep ’til you wake. 

At what point in that first trip did the idea of creating a sonic document of this place start to formulate? Were there specific experiences or moments that sparked things into life?

MSH: We didn’t set out to document things specifically from the start, but found little moments to improvise and capture sound throughout our days. As the trip progressed there were experiences encountering unique things like the Kyrka organ that provided a little push and direction.

JC: One day, we went sightseeing to this 14th-century church nearby, Kumlinge Kyrka. The idea of formalizing an album, for me, all started there. When we walked in, we were mesmerized by the soft light casting upon the wall and ceiling frescoes. The frescoes are unique to this church as they’re painted in the ‘Franciscan tradition’, which from what I hear is uncommon on the islands. While there, I saw this beautiful pipe organ and asked the teenage boy that was monitoring visitors to the church if I could play it. He responded, “Well, I don’t know you, but I trust you,” and so it began. We came back the following day with a field recorder and spent a few hours recording the organ.  

Like most people who have listened to Recordings from the Åland Islands, I’ve never been there (though I’ve been close-ish as I have very fond memories of taking the ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki back in my early 20s), but listening to the record it somehow becomes this familiar place. It’s remarkable. I’m really curious how you all approached making this record and what kinds of conversations were had about how to capture the spirit of this place with sound?

JC: The process was unlike any other record we’ve worked on as there was a lot of focus on maintaining what we had captured, improvised, and recorded on the islands. We ended up using a wide variety of recordings—field recorders, mics, voice memos—pulling from what we happened to capture. Our dear friend, Sean Pecknold, has a wonderful habit of discreetly recording voice memos, and so you’ll hear several contributions from him—most notably, “Stureby House Piano,” and some of the voice notes at the beginning of “By Foot, By Sea.” When editing the material months and years later, we could really feel the sound of the place in these recordings, much of which was never recorded with the intention of being a ‘record’.

MSH: Keeping the integrity of the organic and originally captured moment was definitely important to us since this record is just as it is titled, recordings from the islands and about a specific place and moment in time that we got to experience. Beyond that, most of our discussions were about other records that we loved that had similar materials that we were working with (field recordings, a blend of synths and acoustic instruments) to lean on as continued inspiration of the mediums we were using. 

What was the hardest part of making this record?

JC: We made a decision when editing the material that we would work with what we had. We wouldn’t bring everything into a studio and re-record or overdub tons of additional material. Instead, we really attempted to sculpt the record from whatever was captured.

MSH: For me, I think it was going back to the material we had worked on in fits and starts for several years that sometimes felt a bit old and belabored. Like Jeremiah mentioned, deciding to stay primarily with the material we already had provided us with structured parameters and yet also allowed some unique things to emerge, like running an old viola line through granular synthesis to create a new texture. 

Beyond the music on the record, the field recordings are fantastic. How did you all go about determining what sounds you wanted to capture and incorporate into the album? What were some of your favorite sounds from the islands?

MSH: Most of the field recordings used were not initially captured with an album in mind, but just as documentation for our trip, another way of collecting memories along with photographs. I think after our first trip when we began piecing things together and along with encountering the lucky moment of Sean recording Jeremiah while he improvised on the piano, we began recording more material with a bit more intention.

JC: To elaborate a bit more, I think there’s something a bit more casual, or human when using field recordings that aren’t being captured with the intention of them being collected as ‘work’. Everything was personal, and I think you can hear that difference in the air of the recordings, they’re not high-fidelity and perfect, they’re just as they are. Some of my favorite sounds from the island were the voices, which is why they become such an integral part of the record. This wasn’t a field recording without people, it’s a place where people live and breathe. It’s as important as the birdsong, the crunching ground beneath your feet, the wind.

You went back in 2019 to perform at the Kumlinge Kyrka. What was it like playing in a space that’s 700 years old? Looking at pictures of the place, it seems absolutely incredible.

MSH: It was really special to play a concert in that church not only because of its stand alone beauty and significance but also because it was a bit of a culmination of everything and everyone we had encountered on Kumlinge. Most of the local residents that we met in 2017 and 2019 came to our concert, some helped out by lending PAs and equipment, and of course, Jeremiah got to perform live on the organ. 

JC: The organ is amazing. I’m not an organist, but there’s something about every organ in a space like that, where you realize that the instrument is activating the architecture, the instrument is the architecture—the space resonates and speaks back. During the organ part of the performance, I focused on the airflow of the organ, pulling and pushing the drawbars incredibly slowly so you could hear the slowly transforming whistle, vibration, and overtones of each note. Following the performance, a few attendees shared with us that they come to this church each week, and have never heard the organ played in this manner before. For me, that was a success!

Are any plans to return to the islands in the works?

MSH: We would absolutely love to return to the islands and see our friends at the Hotel Svala. We don’t have any specific plans yet but I’m sure we will be back sooner than later.

JC: We’re currently looking to connect with festivals in the surrounding areas as well, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Helsinki, etc… we welcome any advice/help on putting some other things together. I mean, we all gotta go there, it’s the best!

Beyond this project, what are you each working on next?

MSH: We are beginning to develop the sound that we are interested in taking the duo towards next right now, combining and extending our improvisations and compositions. Jeremiah is finishing up a solo record. 

JC: As Marta mentioned, I’m working to finish up a solo record, but also am perpetually working on too many things at once. It’s all wonderful and I’m very excited for all of the material that’s been floating between myself, Marta, and a wonderful group of composers and musicians in LA, Chicago, and New York including Booker Stardrum, Celia Hollander, Takako Minekawa, Ben Babbitt, Dustin Wong, and Patrick Shiroishi, to name a bunch. 

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