When I first heard Natalie Beridze’s recent album on Room 40, Of Which No One Knows, I was enraptured from the first notes of opener, “Ash Wednesday.” The Georgian artist creates tactile sonic spaces where magic and wonder flow and her work takes us somewhere new on a wave of shifting tonal sands and flickering vocal pathways. When I premiered “Ash Wednesday” earlier this year, I described it as a “new kind of hymn.” That ageless, almost sacred spirit is deeply entrenched in Beridze’s work.
With this fascinating interview, I am thrilled to premiere two videos from Of Which No One Knows – “Ash Wednesday” and “Sio.” Both are made by Nika Machaidze and are embedded within this piece. Of Which No One Knows and In Front Of You are both out now on Room 40.
So let’s start with where things began for you, from a musical perspective. What are some of your earliest and formative memories and experiences related to music and sound?
As far as I remember, music used to be infused into the air around me. Tinnitus would be a bad comparison, but music literally inhabited the huge household where I grew up.
My dad was an architect who couldn’t live without his jazz vinyl on a turntable around the clock; he was quite skillful at improvising jazz on the piano. On the other hand, my grandma, a mischievous, invigorating creature, a painter, and a rather nasty pianist, who was anything but coy about her musical talents, loved rocking the instrument regardless.
Me and my cousins adored hearing her missing the keys, turning a classical piece into “Nancarrow.” We would make fun of the sound of her long nails striking the keys before the ebonies and ivories were low enough to make a sound. I can still remember that cling clang sound.
My aunt was and continues to be a piano tutor. Her grand piano was an island of escape for me. I’d grab a handful of toys and dive under her huge instrument every time she held a lesson. I vividly remember looking at four legs from under the piano, two of which would percuss to the rhythm, and the other two would put thrust on the pedals as though driving a huge truck.
I remember the bewilderment, each time different, fresh and new, manifested in my music and how I listened to things around me later. All of them- the hum, crackle, rustle this instrument caused – resembled a prehistoric animal about to come out of its hibernation.
It was before I started listening to the actual music being played. Back then, that music seemed like a redundant layer of noise, a distraction from this quirky, unforeseen wooden animal’s enigmatic voice.
Later I started to acknowledge the “noise layer” as something supernaturally benign and sumptuous. It seemed to be most versatile among other repetitive patterns around me: The imminent change of harmonies, unexpected shifts in rhythm, and the depth of frequencies – their bottom and the peaks – made me want to move and live under the grand piano permanently!
The sensation of hearing the material the student was playing for the first time was like witnessing the spectacle of “chance music,” which I experienced emotionally as a child yet learned about it so much later after listening to John Cage’s Music of Chances.
Isn’t it striking to be able to acknowledge something intuitively without having no conscious memory of it?
Anyway, it was a double-edged sword because I realized that I was a child and children don’t write music, I thought, and I was livid about that. I remember crying my eyes out without being able to articulate my emotions.
My eye-opening and tormented life under piano brought impeccable blessings to my life: most of the classical music, which some adults I’m acquainted with can’t indulge in, was given to me by sheer accident as a gift. I never needed to succumb to the heavy burden of educating myself with classical music ever in my life. Moreover, I fell in love with it incurably and started to make a schedule of mine: Which student comes in, with which program, which musical piece seemed appealing for me to plunge into… I began to develop a taste.
Later I did what every pushover would do: I embarked on the path of failure, putting thrust on the pedals myself, switching roles. I never stopped believing that someone was sitting under the piano and watching me do it, but that feeling slowly faded away. I grew up, and my short-lived piano studying turned out torturous.
I never learned how to read a score and notation. I detested it with a clear notion that those stupid symbols – notes, can not transcend into music. Something greater and inconspicuous must’ve been in charge!
Did you always want to be a musician or make music?
Nope. I remember wanting to be an astronaut. Back then, the Soviet cosmos was still popular, like a North Korean space journey to the sun, during dusk… Then, my dad gently reminded me that the system was full of shit, and I’d rather look into what’s on this planet and what’s underneath. He was obsessed with naturalists and explorers like Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough, Haroun Tazieff, etc. I fell in love with the idea of exploring something myself. But it was nigh impossible due to my ever-growing list of phobias: bird phobia, sharks, large objects underneath the ocean, huge people who could fly and make a frequency of a bird, diving into the unknown, murky water, and the list goes on…
So I chose fictional heroes instead, like Indiana Jones. See, we only had a VCR and a handful of cassettes when I was 12 or so. So I didn’t have much choice, but whatever eight or ten movies I could watch on the loop- they were good! I mean, really good. From The Shining to Jaws, and E.T., Mean Streets, Annie – The Musical, and Once Upon a Time in America. It was a small but pivotal collection, and there was no age control, except for the films that had potentially “detrimental” content like “sex.”
And then came Twin Peaks! Just like that, on TV. And I was allowed to watch it too! Ha ha …. I caught myself focusing on soundtracks more than anything. Sound made most intricate and gut-wrenching films somewhat easy and approachable. I could find a resemblance to my own experience in them, an experience, which could not possibly have taken place in my life, but it’d seem so irrefutably real. Weird stuff. I guess that sensation was caused by the phenomena of music existing beyond space and time. Just being there, attaching itself so generously to the emotional and intuitive domain, if asked politely. Up to now, my dream job has been to work on a soundtrack for a feature film. I’ve done some, not many, as well as some theater. It was obviously not enough.
Later I turned into a lost, humanitarian teenager who didn’t have any idea about what she would do with her life, who was living through the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by several wars in Georgia.
The only thing that saved me was my friends, and my ultimate escape was music. It’d take me to all kinds of places, make me anything I wanted to be: a conductor or an author of this great symphony or Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works, which I’d listen to at dawn, in an imaginary London, or Jeff Mills, with his spider-like long hands; there was so much new music, so many shabby cassettes, with a tape cut and glued back together with nail polish, a hundred times…
My journey to actually producing my own first tune was unintentional. I was lucky to be surrounded by benevolent, creative, and loving people who, when I brought my first shabby PC home and said: “I m gonna be an electronic music composer, period!” said okay. Considering that I was a 22-year-old girl living in a sexist, struggling, starving country with only two hours of electricity a day and no heating, that “okay” was the most beautiful and gracious thing I’ve ever heard. Blowing that chance would be unforgiving.
I will fathom that impeccable trust and generosity my family granted me back then forever. I was lucky, and they were fantastically crazy!
A year after making my first track, I got a record deal from Thomas Brinkmann (max.E) in Cologne. I got lucky once again.
Of Which One Knows is one of my favorite records of the year so far. It absolutely flattened me the first time I listened to it. It’s been a long-time coming, though, as some of these pieces date back to 2007, so I’m curious if, during that whole time from 2007 until 2021, you were working on these songs with the intention of them becoming a record, or were they songs you’d been making through the years that managed to manifest themselves into an album? My main reason for wondering is because it’s all so cohesive and tied together…
Those tracks were just there on my computer. They’d pop up occasionally, but they always had a transitional status. In hindsight, they must’ve had a purpose during the process of making them. But they had no face beyond that process; until the moment it was proposed to make this time travel journey, I ecstatically embarked on. Because it was a challenging and totally new experience for me.
The sound design and overall feeling of the record are so immense, so tactile. I often feel like I can see these sounds as they come from the speakers. At the same time, there’s a rawness at its core, as though all these beautiful, imposing sounds are wrapped around something soft and vulnerable. How does music connect to this emotional spirit for you? Basically, I’m curious how music, as a medium, helps to explore and process emotions and perceptions?
I’m so flattered and grateful at the same time that you explained my music to me that way. I could never perceive it in such detail because I hate being self-conscious in relation to music. I feel like it will die right in front of my eyes the moment I begin to understand it too well. It has to maintain that effortlessness, which we – as adults, tend to lose. Only a child can play with a single piece of rope and create a universe through that rope without being bothered by how he does it. Even given a gift of ingenious games, one could hardly encounter a child puffed up with self-importance. That makes me laugh…
Like a universe of smells, music is the greatest force that can destroy and revive me. Only smell is a facile orbit around us, whereas music results from human thought and emotion, manifesting itself through the process. I prefer to stay unconscious of thoughts and emotions I take with me into this process to get in touch with my deeper self, which I tend to avoid otherwise, most of the time. I also like to look at that process as if it were a game I play. I don’t like to take myself too seriously at that. And I certainly don’t like hearing my ego.
As much as I love the music on the record, your voice and how you use it and manipulate it is the real standout aspect for me. There’s a real physicality to it. When you’re singing and composing music using your voice, how does that physical connection between your actual self and your art ground and permeate your work?
Directly. Human voice is a footprint of the soul. It’s always weird to hear your own voice, and it’s the same way for many people. I think that has to do with how we perceive ourselves from the inside as opposed to seeing or hearing ourselves from the outside. It’s confusing. The detachment and distance between these two is immense and often unpleasant. Again, reflecting on our existence mostly on surfaces rather than the depths of our souls. Unfortunately, One can not be a fully functioning being in the 21st century when staying in those depths constantly. It’s a balancing act that can be realized only through one’s work.
I can’t really sing, but in times of “anything goes,” I couldn’t resist the temptation, so at one point, I became a songwriter. But I always use my voice as an immersive instrument, which doesn’t stand out but hides underneath other sounds. That way, music becomes a narrative, leaving space for others to figure it out for themselves.
In the tracks on the album, I took the voice one step further, where it almost loses its human aspect and becomes a texture. There is no direct singing. All of the voices you hear are bits and pieces taken from other, old songs of mine, pitched up and down, processed through endless effects. I didn’t want it to be a vocal album except “Ash Wednesday” – a choral from maybe 2009, where I bust my ass singing all of the voices. That one had to be an opening song for two simple reasons: I recite my favorite poet (T.S. Eliot), and it sounds like Georgian chanting, which I love nonetheless.
Also, connected to the tactile nature of the album, it feels like it’s this encased, entirely new world. Listening to it is transportive. How do you think about and approach music from that perspective to build worlds and transport listeners someplace else, finding ways to share experiences from listening and connect?
I would be endlessly grateful to know that I was able to transport one single person to that sacred place under my aunt’s grand piano. Because things begin and basically end there. The epiphany of my life happened around that time and around that place, and all my music takes its roots and means of communication from within that place; in other words, from within myself. I put myself entirely into the hands of the process, and I’m happiest if I’m able to lose control of it or else lose myself in it entirely.
I feel so much less attached to the outcome. I don’t carry the responsibility for it as I do for the process.
Yet again, I feel like, as an adult, I can only relate to reality and everyday life if I can revive that child in me. One who can speak of unthinkably profound things in unprejudiced simplicity, as if he witnessed a mystery of the creation of the universe and it reminded him of his mother’s hands or a sight of the sea, seen for the first time; one who can unconsciously make space for divine, fatal errors in a random chain of words in a poem or music,- just two words or notes in a row, where they don’t belong. These combinations make the true nature of things around me feasible to pain; as these things emerge during the ritual of contemplation of things from within and the sublime presence of the universe, they bare within their every atom; a pattern made of crazy shades and half-tones, crooked letters from childhood, present between lines, engraved in fossils and thin air from the iced mountain tops.
The divinity of these few errors in words, sound, construction, faces, movement, light, pain, and delight – reminds me of a child who possesses a skill of heavenly errors and their countless expressions. I wish I had a magic wand to bring those things up as I sit to work. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
There’s also this fantastic “Ash Wednesday” video that we’ll premiere alongside this interview. Can you tell me a little about the video, how it came about, and how these visuals connect (and really, enhance) the sonic aspects of the song?
There’s also a second video for “Sio,” which came about a bit later. Nika Machaidze is the author of both videos, and he has done all of my videos for many years. I love his vision’s uneventfully playful and intuitive approach to the creative process- images together with sound. He’s a composer and filmmaker with a broader ability to visualize sound than I do. I picture music in my head, whereas he can translate it into a concrete timeline of picturesque sequences.
He’s also my husband and hence knows my music inside-out. I guess I trust his ideas about my videos unconditionally. Some are more simple, others more intricate and time-consuming. “Ash Wednesday” was an arbitrary but very smart decision. As if I tripped over Eliot’s words and fell flat on my face ( well, my beck in this case), and all the glittering background merging with my face depicts the backdrop for the idea of me – becoming one with those words coming out of my mouth.
It’s difficult yet again to analyze these videos. Usually, it’s like with music. I either find a deep connection to them or don’t; it’s never about the spectacle of skill and gimmick. It’s about goosebumps.
What was the most challenging part about making Of Which One Knows?
Not crossing that thin line between tiny mystery and self-consciousness, really. Because it had to be compiled from scratch. It was not written in one flow, with one concept or deliberate style. But really, in the end, what amused and captivated me was the realization that nothing ever changes – just rearranges. Some sounds seemed way out of hand, outdated if you will. But that didn’t bother me after all. It brought some humor to it. And overall, with Lawrence English’s great help, the whole thing turned out not too overbearing or pretentious. It was gratifying, compiling, connecting bits of past and present with him.
I also gained some memory of things I had no more recollection of. That was a blissful aspect of it.
And, of course, there’s a second edition on Room 40 now, too – In Front of You. Amazing! How did this second release come about? What was that process like?
Well, we split the material into two groups, so to speak. And again, Lawrence’s role was more significant than mine here. Having had all the material cut into one record would’ve not resulted in the brilliant sound it gained after he mastered it.
The EP, when I listened to it after the release, came as a much bigger surprise for me than the actual album. I still don’t know why. However, one thing that immediately caught my ear was how exquisitely it was mastered. I discovered the frequencies and hidden layers that seemed to be hiding away. I’m glad we did it. It has this poetic cohesiveness to it, and if I were unaware of the span of years separating those tracks, I’d never guessed that span existed. Again, music is beyond time. Sound changes, tastes change, and technology outlives us, but this magical scarlet ribbon connects all these components, And that’s music.
So two albums in 2022 is a real feat which makes my last question feel a bit silly, but I’m going to ask it anyway… so what’s next for you then?
Hopefully, continuing this journey of exploring new realms of myself through music and being thankful for every moment I can spend with the craft I love most. At the end of the day, I’d care less about anything, only if the war would stop one beautiful morning! My next music is about that.