Can Music Map A Personal History Of Place? The meaning of a place can change based on tiny shifts in perspective, by returning to a location after time away or by digging into the dirt underfoot. Can music bring these layers together?

All Ears: Music That Maps A Personal History Of Place

Angela Hsieh for NPR
Can music map the shifting meaning of a place?
Angela Hsieh for NPR

It's a Friday night in London, but the cityscape is far from sight. On a small stage, the silhouettes of two dancers undulate in double time, then half-time, their limbs slicing through the red-lit fog that blurs their outline. A digitally frayed, hummed refrain keeps the pace in and out of which they keep moving, as the rise and fall of composer and sound artist Klein's amplified breath signals her impending arrival through the crowd. To present her second album, Lifetime, in the form of a multimedia play, Klein has chosen an intriguingly in-between place: a wall-less structure within the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery in the middle of Hyde Park. Green space is a necessary respite from the city's treadmill; the park's boundaries both physical and temporal. To get here, I took the tube and then strolled through the park as dusk began to gather, passing on my way a poised grey heron and half a dozen young families soaking up a moment of peace. A mere half-mile away, rush-hour commuters were digesting the latest bullet-point in the never-ending Brexit story. In the park, however, the ivy continued to creep imperceptibly as the trees rippled in the breeze.

I've been listening to Lifetime a lot these past few weeks, in places I inhabited for just a few days and in places I've known nearly all my life. I say "in," but I mean "through," because Lifetime is a walking album. Over-the-ear headphones sealed me into its world on some of the hottest days of late summer, and sent sweat trickling down my neck. Akin to an autobiographical film score, Lifetime weaves meaningful moments from Klein's life into a transportive sonic tapestry. Some of the sounds on the album include the crackle of a fire, birdsong, somber piano chords, an ominously wielded violin, a phone call with Klein's aunt in Nigeria, Klein's own voice in a variety of squiggly tones and four minutes of harmonica playing. Through Lifetime's multilayered lens, I noticed more about my own physical surroundings — the patchwork of fallen leaves, cigarette butts and chewing gum stains that characterize so many of the U.K.'s streets — and fleshed out some connections between place and intimacy that I'd only half-made before.

Place is never singular, I realized, it is always multiple, always layered. There are millions of Londons all piled atop one another, the vast majority never likely to meet. The London you know is not the London I know nor the London Klein knows. Place exists at the crossroads of survival, culture, nature and politics; as shaped by the universal need to live in community as how its inhabitants treat one another (and who they choose to exclude). While they interweave, place is not the same as location; the latter's lines can't contain the former's multitudes. Not only because a place means different things to different people, but because that meaning shifts over time. The events and experiences of one's life add layers to a relationship with place, often resulting in distinct but related feelings of now-place and then-place; you change, places change, yet they also live on inside you. For above all, place is personal — collaged together from memories, emotions and imagination.

Klein Josiane M.H. Pozi/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Josiane M.H. Pozi/Courtesy of the artist

"There was a lot of moving around when I was younger, but I never understood why," Klein told me over the phone the week before her performance. She attended junior school in the historic village of Pilton in Devon "for a bit," where she had lots of family. Between the ages of 7 and 11, she lived in Surulere in Lagos, Nigeria. "I thought we were going for a holiday and we ended up staying there for ages," she said. "In hindsight, I actually realized my grandma was ill." While she was there, her grandma made her watch the 1999 Yoruba film Saworoide "almost every year." A poetic tale about the corrupt leaders of an oppressed town finding their comeuppance thanks to a musical ritual, it remains an inspiration. When her family finally returned to the U.K., they lived in Camberwell then Earlsfield in south London. As a young teen, she spent a lot of time in libraries. "I was basically a super nerd," she explained. "So I didn't really get to hang out with people until I was 17, 18."

The contexts and emotional textures of these many places overlap as they wriggle their way through Lifetime. "When I was getting the record together and placing it, there were a lot of things that were pinpointing certain parts of memories maybe I'd wish to forget, but also moments that I'm hoping for," Klein said. Sometimes Klein's now-place and then-place collided in ways that helped her reassess her journey. The intro of the album's final track, "Protect My Blood," features a phone recording of some girls preaching at her on a London bus. "Halfway through making the track, I was like, You know what, yeah, even though I've left the religion, there's lots I actually love about growing up in the church," she told me. "The youth drama group, the summer camps. That's why the track then flourishes with the drums and the chords."

Klein initially envisioned Lifetime for an orchestra, but then she said she "stopped overthinking it" and decided to figure it out herself "because it's my story." She composed the album by layering instrumentation — all played by her, apart from guest star Matana Roberts' saxophone on "For What Worth" — with field recordings, both raw and digitally altered, and her voice. "Enough Is Enough" features a harmonica because it reminds her of her grandma's era. "She was born in 1924," Klein explained. "That's what I grew up with, those kind of sounds. It felt so natural for me to play it, but also then use a loop pedal and manipulate it and keep playing it." To create the absorbing atmospherics of "Listen And See As They Take," she folded a field recording of a fire that she made on her smartphone into the see-saw of a violin. The drums on "Never Will I Disobey" were created by recording and distorting the sound of herself running down the stairs. "I feel like it's important for people to use things around them," Klein told me. "That's why whenever people say 'experimental musician' about me, I'm always like, 'Huh?'" She went on to draw an analogy between that description and a patronizing teacher praising a kid they perhaps underestimated for doing well in an exam. "It's like, 'Well, no, I just revised and I didn't copy.'"

The things an artist uses to evoke place — and the way a listener interprets it — is always going to be colored by a distinct set of experiences, accumulated sensations and emotional connections. Just as places shape people, people shape places. Each one of us is a physical part of a place as well as a perceiver of it; walking down a busy street excites one's own senses as much as it contributes to another's perception. And when we are no longer in a place, the sounds and feelings we associate with it can carry us right back there.

When DJ and producer Maral found a CD in a Persian music store in Los Angeles, it became a bridge to articulating her relationship with Iran on her recent album, Mahur Club. Growing up, she used to make the trip from her childhood home in Northern Virginia to Tehran in Iran to spend the summer with her family there. She went every year until she was 25 and has fond memories of running free with the kids that lived on her street.

Maral Ian Quay/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Ian Quay/Courtesy of the artist

"There's a lot of parks [in Tehran] because that's where everyone goes to hang out," Maral told me over the phone. "You don't have many places to hang out at night so everyone is just hitting up the park. It's very interesting, families going to the park at 11 p.m. at night. Nature is a huge part of Persian culture. A lot of our holidays are around the spring equinox or the fall equinox."

Now based in Los Angeles, Maral often visits an area of West L.A. called Persian Square to add to her collection of Persion music. After noticing her regular music store had been closed down, she started supporting another one nearby, which is where she picked up a CD of field recordings of vocals from different villages in Iran. "Each region of Iran has a different type of dialect, different type of music. They're all interrelated, but they all have different types of folk songs," she said, explaining that the CD's pamphlet broke down the different vocal methods. "Some of them are for mourning, others are for more joyous occasions, some of them are for meditation. In Persian classical music, there's a lot of different vocal techniques — there's trills, there's a lot of screaming, there's a lot of raw sounds that even I was like, Oh wow, I didn't know that this was a part of my culture."

Initially, Maral made a mix of the vocal field recordings to share her excitement about her discovery with friends. Then she started sampling them to make her own tracks to speak more directly to "all the feelings and sounds" that she missed about Iran. "A lot of what drove this release was me trying to introduce people to the rich musical history of Iran," she told me. Like Klein, she brought together her now-place and then-place by folding the vocals into beats inspired by the dub, reggaeton, and blown-out bass that she played in her DJ sets in LA. (Interestingly, it was actually in Iran that Maral had her first introduction to electronic music, despite western music not being easily accessible. At a friend's birthday party in the early 2000s, they played the music of an Iranian-Danish producer called DJ Alligator. "He has this one song called 'The Whistle Song' and that was my first electronic music love," she remembered. "It's really cheesy and funny. I drop it in DJ sets sometimes.")

Taking a cue from Maral's park-time memories, I listened to Mahur Club in east London's sprawling Victoria Park, on an early morning walk with the sun in my eyes. Sometimes I closed my eyes as I made my way across the leaf-strewn grass, basking in the red glow of my blood as the album's opener, "lori lullaby," curled around my head. The track is named for its origin – a sample of someone from the nomadic Lori community of south-eastern Iran singing through layers of distortion, their voice vibrating and unfurling like a vine growing in slow motion. Traversing time and transmitting place, they catch a ride on Maral's memories into new contexts and imaginations. "I wanted the release to feel like you are in a taxi in Iran with the windows down and the taxi driver is playing an old cassette and the sounds from outside are mixing in to create a whole new song," explained Maral. "The beats I made are like the taxi, and then everything else the passing sounds."

As I am fond of saying, I listen more closely when my body is moving. Another place-soaked album that ignited my senses this summer was the debut album of Argentinian producer Aggromance. Titled Turbera, which means "peat bog" in Spanish, it first spoke to me because the tougher and more trance-y elements of Aggromance's production reminded me of being a passenger in my friend's car on our many journeys from Leeds through the Pennine Hills in the late '90s and early '00s. We'd usually be on our way to a club in Liverpool, a banging radio mix soundtracking the last rays of sunshine falling on the rolling countryside, a sight that came to indicate that a night of dancing was about to begin.

Aggromance Nahuel Colazo/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Nahuel Colazo/Courtesy of the artist

As I listened more, however, it was Turbera's often melancholic use of texture that really drew me in. Dozens of granular elements on "Un desierto" fall like pebbles, crunching underfoot, before a series of plaintive chords open up the space. "Ruta Azul," which is named after a coastal road that runs the length of Argentina's Patagonia region, is the most peaceful moment on the album, composed from submerged conversation and sea spray tones.

While not as slow as peat, which takes thousands of years to form from decaying wetland vegetation, the making of Turbera was an incremental process. In an email translated by Ybán, one of the founders of the label that released Turbera, Aggromance described his album as "the result of a moment in my life where I felt desperate." At the time, he was getting by as a sex worker on the streets of Buenos Aires, and "lived where I could, at the home of friends or clients, often subjected to people who just wanted to use me," he wrote. "I had the feeling that I would tear off my skin with my nails at any time." As he didn't yet have his own computer, he depended on his friends to give him access to theirs. "During those years I began to make the album and while doing it more, I remembered spaces and feelings of my childhood," he explained. "Those crystallized images, imaginary or not, led me to think of the bog as a concept. A rugged and southern landscape where what abounds is matter in decomposition, and forms its greatest wealth, both as a natural resource and as an aesthetic sign."

Aggromance was born in Caleta Olivia, a seaside city a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. Around the age of 10, he moved 30 miles inland to the oil town of Pico Truncado. "The sound choices behind Turbera are totally influenced by the way the air travels through the solid elements of the landscape," he said. "Eastern Patagonia, where I grew up, is a desert where ocean winds run at high speed, determining the shapes of rocks, cliffs, unusual vegetation. There is nothing more vast than the Patagonian silence and the howl of the wind. I carry that musical composition with me since I was born."

Wherever you go in the world, you take the places you've lived in — and the sounds you associate with them — with you. Or as Ybán put it: "The places we occupy, in the presence or absence, leave a sensitive mark on our body." That sentiment sent me right back to Klein's multimedia performance of Lifetime in the middle of Hyde Park on a late summer's night. In one scene, thanks to some wearable tech created by Carolin Schnurrer, Klein and the visual artist Josiane Pozi set off samples of things Klein had recorded by touching one another's skin. That poetic linking of sound, body, place and memory is something I'm going to carry with me, too.