When I premiered the opening track off Mat Muntz’s new album, Phantom Islands, a couple weeks ago, I described the “imaginary sonic histories” behind the music. This came from Muntz, who talked about the origins of this “counterfeit folk music” in a lengthy quote about the piece. It’s something that’s stuck with me as I investigate this music further, listening and relistening, searching for all the angles its riveting aural journey takes us on. It’s a unique album that sounds unearthed from a mystical realm, long forgotten but buried deep within our collective psyche.
Muntz’s explanation of the “Džig No. 1” was so interesting that I had to ask if he’d break down the entire album that way. Thankfully, he said yes.
Phantom Islands is out now on Orenda Records. Listen and order HERE.
I’ve been finding it difficult to explain this record, so maybe I should explain myself first.
As a musician, I’ve always been motivated by two main goals: 1. make music that I want to hear but which doesn’t exist yet, and 2. find non-existent (but personally meaningful) connections between unrelated musical traditions in the search of an “alternate-reality” aesthetic vocabulary. Considering these motivations may be the best way to understand how a jazz bassist ended up learning to play an obscure bagpipe from Croatia and making a microtonal free jazz/new music record with it.
I see this music as occupying a space opened by people like Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and Ivo Papazov in which folk/experimental practice and high/low art are allowed to coexist in a single piece. The interaction between these forces is further complicated in Phantom Islands by using an instrument and folk tradition which (to most Western ears) sounds alien and avant-garde even in its most traditional iterations. In the context of a highly interactive improvising ensemble, this makes the line between folk and experimental music very blurry.
Džig No. 1
This was originally written as a solo piece for primorski meh (the Croatian bagpipe at the center of this music). I call this piece a “counterfeit folk dance” because it’s a blend of unrelated elements arranged in order to resemble a real (but obscure) musical tradition. This sextet arrangement adds a layer of speculative fiction by asking, “What would happen if a non-existent 60s free jazz band (or 80s Bulgarian wedding music band) interpreted this non-existent folk tradition as a vehicle on which to shred?” Musically, the track introduces a central theme of the record: the use of a microtonally retuned guitar (played by Alec Goldfarb) as a bridge between the primorski meh’s non-standard tuning system and the sax, clarinet, and oboe.
After the faux-folk melodic material is introduced by a bagpipe/guitar duo, the space suddenly opens up for an extended improvisation with the addition of clarinetist Yuma Uesaka and drummer Michael Larocca. A lot of this piece is held together by the guitar – Alec does a great job in shaping the music through his guitar accompaniment, seamlessly moving from fictive folk/bizarro blues guitar to microtonal McCoy Tyner voicings.
Three Mirages, Small Town Blues
I originally composed this as a series of interchangeable improvisational scenes with varying degrees of compositional specificity. The opening features a quasi-chord progression created by cycling through multiphonics on tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, and bagpipe while oboist Pablo O’Connell solos on top. This transitions to a more static texture in which saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo improvises over repeating microtonal guitar arpeggios and ambient percussion sounds, followed by a texture of utter stasis inspired by the music of Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. Gradually detuning woodwinds and guitar build to a crescendo until the tension is shattered by an eruption into slow, Mingusian swing. The melodic material in this final section is derived from the folk song “Orlec, Malo Selo” (“Orlec, Little Village”), which I learned on the Croatian island of Cres in 2021.
May The Sea Be His Grave
Drawing on another folk song from the Croatian village of Orlec, this piece sets the song’s text – which reflects a woman’s anxiety about the fate at sea of her sailor husband (or perhaps lover) – in relation to mythology associated with the Afro-Bahraini tradition of pearl diving in the Persian Gulf. This trade – performed for centuries by enslaved people from East Africa – is accompanied by a rich tradition of semi-mystical work songs which have become codified as Fijiri, now one of Bahrain’s prized cultural assets. This music, characterized by extreme vocal techniques, massed call-and-response, and driving rhythm, was mythologically taught to pearl divers by demons at the edge of the world after becoming lost in a storm. While my composition does not seek to imitate the sound of Fijiri, its mythological imagery was a conceptual inspiration for this piece.
The four movements alternate perspectives between those left in the village (represented by the Croatian song), placed in a dependent relationship with economic providers who are absent doing dangerous work, and the seafarers themselves engaged in a perilous (and maybe supernatural) voyage. The second half of the piece (track 4) reconciles these perspectives, imagining the villagers’ reception of the fantastical stories told by the sailors upon their return. The piece concludes with a feature for tenor saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, expressively expounding upon a microtonal tone row with Goldfarb’s guitar shadowing close behind.
This is a traditional song from the Amami Islands, south of Japan. It was made famous by the singer Ikue Asazaki. In addition to it being easily translatable to the strange and stubborn tuning system of the primorski meh, I found that the song’s lyrics – which express the hardships of an isolated and impoverished island life – reflected a very similar sentiment to folk songs I learned on the Croatian island of Cres. I play the song as a bagpipe/drum duo with Michael Larocca, with an approach loosely inspired by the classic John Coltrane/Rashied Ali duo album Interstellar Space.
In the context of the record, I view this track as a coda – a piece totally unrelated to the rest of the material but which still somehow fits. I think of the circumstantial connections joining this and the rest of the influences on the music here like individual stars in a constellation: the points themselves are separated by vast distances and bear no real relation to each other, but due to being perceived from a specific vantage point can be formed into coherent and beautiful patterns.