Adaptive desires: An interview with Ábris Gryllus
Ábris Gryllus is a Budapest-based, cross-disciplinary media artist and musician. In his music and installations, he moves on the border of known and uncharted soundscapes, opening space for associations and different time sensations. Although he has put out a number of albums and tracks in the past ten years on several labels, Ábris Gryllus released his first album under his real name only in 2017 (Post_, Farbwechsel Records), marking a new direction in which his highly conceptual compositions focus in on experimental electronics. His most recent release, A.D., is a continuation of this musical process, language development and exploration. His upcoming solo album will be released by The Death of Rave in May.
You come from a musical family. Could you talk about your background?
My mom is an architect. From her I’ve gotten lots of visual input since I was very little. My dad is a classically trained musician who turned towards folk and world music. Music was there for me from the beginning and I also trained to be a pianist from the age of six. But then, as a teenager, I got fed up with the practising and discovered electronic music.
How did that encounter with electronic sounds happen?
My first encounter with electronic music was in a summer camp. Some of the kids there had Discmans, which was very rare at that time. One of the kids had a mix CD, I borrowed it and Regulate by Warren G was on it. This was the first type of different music I had listened to and I was mesmerised. Afterwards, I tried to make hip hop beats because of that encounter. Pretty soon, I realised that I’m not interested so much in the craft of making beats but in textures. And I started to create really weird projects in Reason.
Your solo work is rather abstract and conceptual, which one could say is perhaps approaching music creation from another side – focusing on the sound, rather than the music.
At some point, I tried to deconstruct all this basic musical knowledge in my head and in my sound and I tried to focus on different aspects, like presence and the physical effects of sound on the body, and on the nerves. I love working with contemporary dancers. They planted this awareness of my physical self in my head and therefore my perception became a bit different. The conceptual approach to my music is often more apparent after I finish recording something.
Could you talk about your collaborations with dancers? You’ve collaborated with a number of dance groups, like the acclaimed Hodworks collective in Budapest.
There’s this amazing contemporary dance community here in Budapest. A few years ago, several companies and dancers found me through my music and asked me to work with them and I’ve been working with contemporary dancers ever since, as a musician. Sometimes I get involved in the creative process as well, other times I invite dancers to work on certain video installations of mine. Recently, what I have really liked to do is to improvise together with them during the process of creation, within the frame of certain tasks or themes. I really like this conversation that can happen between movement and sound, which in the case of contemporary dance is not a one-way conversation. It’s not that someone is dancing ‘to’ music, it’s more like – I don’t want to sound too obscure – an exchange of energies and frequencies. I enjoy it a lot.
Would you say that you influence each other when you work with dancers?
Definitely. If you are in the same room, it’s something that you can’t avoid. I also think that the way dance is created has many similarities to the creation of sound. I think it’s because neither has to be necessarily put into words to be understood. It was very liberating for me to start to work with dancers and realise this. Even though I don’t dance at all.
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” The liner notes to your last solo album, A.D., start with this quote by Samuel Beckett. The album is slow and solemn, utilising a tempo of 17BPM, which apparently is known as grave in musical terms.
I started to develop this type of approach – let’s call it a language or a way of composing – in 2017. That’s when I made my first solo album, Post, which dealt with the “post state” of being after something or observing something afterwards. I was fed up with making music on my computer, and designing sounds and sitting for weeks in front of compositions. I started to work on a very small modular rig where I could not save settings. I gave myself the restrictions that I had to create one composition per session and make one recording of it. And that would be the outcome. Simply, I got much more interested in the actual moment when the music is created. I patch up something, I live with it, I breathe with it. The patch could be going on for a day or two in my studio. And then, when I feel that I’m familiar with it, I record a certain phase in one take.
This post state comes after the recording. It can be really meditative. I started this album before the lockdown and Covid-19. In that period, I lost family members and saw the reflection of those losses on my very close relatives and myself as well. In that period, somehow I felt that I had lost my childhood because I grew up in a sense, I’m 35 now. This triggered a general feeling of grieving, which is also a post state, when someone or something passes you are forced to reflect on that. The title, A.D., Anno Domini, is often miss-deciphered as “after death”. In the liner notes, there are several interpretations, including another dualism, afterlife dependence, artificial discipline, and adaptive desires, which all deal with the same theme, somehow, but open up a freer space for associations.
Can you elaborate on the 17 BPM element?
I often focus on my breathing and this gives me a tempo to work with. It is quite a creepy pulse of breathing; it’s like four breaths per minute. This BPM happens to be called grave in classical music, which is gravely slow. On the album, I work with artificial orchestra sounds which I created on a modular synth, with plenty of loops going on simultaneously, creating different constellations all the time. Behind and sometimes above those loops there’s a noise hi-hat – the 17 BPM tempo – throughout the whole album. It was a gesture to try to play around with this disappearance of breathing and through that enable myself and the listener to kind of get lost in the textures of the album.
You also have a collaboration with another Hungarian musician, Miklós Farkas (fizikal), called FOR.. It’s perhaps more direct, dynamic and less abstract than your solo production. FOR. provides you with a platform to voice your shared interests in techno-dystopian sonic worlds and brutalist sci-fi visions, and could be seen as a reflection of the darker recesses of capitalism.
We released our last EP on the amazing Budapest-based label Exiles. Miklós and I have been friends for 15 years and always listened to similar music. We’ve been working with certain topics in recent years, like biotechnology, nanotechnology and human labour in our time. I think this new EP is the most distinctive output from us so far.
How do you work with these themes, how do you approach them?
We read and talk a lot. We are also really into lots of images. Then they just sneak into our music. Aesthetically, we really try to keep things in a certain direction, for example, work with micro sounds, and relate to nanotechnology through that. But it’s more like a play with fantasy. And when we arrive at a certain soundscape that we feel relates to that and we vibe with it, we do a take. We improvise, but we try to stick more to classical techno build-ups and storytelling.
Your latest release, Vacuum, is inspired by politically engaged movements and militant aesthetics, virtual frontiers and future geographies etc. Can you elaborate?
There’s a video by video artist Veronika Romhány / Nimova Projeckt accompanying the album, with a text by Margarida Mendes about molecular colonialism. It’s basically about how these new industries shape our connection to nature, how we excavate different materials for the pharmaceutical industry nowadays. Since music is abstract and there’s no text on the record itself, these issues were more of an inspiration. Mendes also writes about vaccination as well as human labour, which in our current capitalist system is at the centre of our lives. That’s why we called the track that the video was made for “Majus 1” /May Day/, which is a Hungarian holiday, inherited from socialism, the celebration of labour.
In my house, for example, those who are not working from home leave at 9am and come back at 8pm because of the curfew. They work and come back; every day is the same. Those who work in a home office do the same without even leaving. I also teach from home. This type of living was always the corporate idea, which now, at this very unfortunate time, is executed a hundred per cent.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the third album in this series. I also made video installations connected to the first two albums with amazing dancers, Tamara Zsófia Vadas and Csaba Molnár, and I will also make a third video for this third album with Adrienn Hód and finish this triptych with it. I’m working with vocal layers, and I’ve been writing weird choruses. It’s still in an early phase.
I’ve finished another album recently which is part of this vocal and text exploration, but more rigid and rhythmic. It started out from a collaboration with the Unusual Symptoms and Hodworks dance companies two years ago. The project aims to grasp some attributes, in an abstract way, of the hyperobject that is today’s information network. I’m trying to create spatial and sonic illusions, like Binaural Beats and the Tritone Paradox and Phasing, through text bits in a stereo space. The spoken material consists of imperative sentences from our everyday actual or virtual interactions. Each call for a certain attitude to or connection with the unknown speaker. The digital infrastructure hyperobject that surrounds us is extremely complex, but this complexity is hidden by the same interface with which we connect to it. To serve a better user experience, the complicated architecture of the whole network, including many ambivalent features, is concealed. To be served and to be vulnerable, to be informed and misled; opposites are present at the same time. The content of the text plays around with this contrast, by putting together such sentences as “excuse me!” and “intimidate me!”, or “hold me down!” and “calm down!”. It will be out via The Death of Rave in May.
Talking about labour, how does your working day look?
I moved my studio back home because of the lockdown. I work every day. I love to be in this state of constant creation because it helps me to be able to articulate more precisely. Usually, I patch things up on my modular. Sometimes, I leave the loop on all day long and in the evening I record something out of it. Often, when I listen back to these recordings, they suck. I make a lot, but I also select a lot. I’m very lucky to be able to spend at least two or three hours with sounds every day.
Do you consider making music to be labour as such – is it work? Often making art is idealised as a passion project, as something done out of love, which is not work. But this is not necessarily true.
It can sometimes be work, but 80% it’s liberating, coming from a pure urge. Obviously, I don’t do it every single day if I don’t feel like it. I’m at a point in my life where I realise that lot of work is required when you’re making art. For me, the labour comes in when you want to put your music out, because that feels much more like work (recording properly, documenting what I’m doing, not just touching up something and spending a day with it, but trying to share it with others properly). I also work with visuals. That’s a different kind of work for me, but images do inspire me a lot in music as well.
Do you have any specific images that inspire you?
I’m really inspired by water – water surfaces, liquid dynamics. I don’t know why – it just makes my brain go.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova