Tomek Mirt is a Polish musician and artist. We originally got in touch with him when compiling the first feature about fundraising albums for Ukraine, as Mirt destined proceeds of his bandcamp sales to the country after the full scale Russian invasion. Because of space constraints, and to maximise focus, we ended up pulling his interview with a view to expand our conversation for a stand alone feature.
The release of two new albums, the solo vinyl Hiræth and [security] by Brasil & The Gallowbrothers Band, the collaborative project he shares with Madgda Ter and Dominik Savio, provided the right excuse to reconnect.
Hiræth presents Mirt’s trademark freeform brand of ritualistic rhythms layered over aquatic field recordings. And yet, the colouring is darker, the waters murkier than in previous works. The liminal quality of tracks like “Heavy Rain” and “Lagging Relay”, with their heady mix of modular synths and gongs, leads to uncharted terrain becoming ever more abstract in texture and signaling a departure from the organic undergrowth they sprang from.
[security] is a similarly unsettling work, refusing to be anchored by any identifiable sense of place. One minute one seems to be coasting through wetlands lulled by amphibian sounds, the next, one finds oneself orbiting in space picking up frequencies from galaxies far away. The title acts in a counterintuitive way, as the listener is left drifting in space at the end of a breathless journey into the unknown.
Could you start by introducing yourself?
Explaining what I do is getting harder for me every year. Solo or with Magda Ter we are responsible for a strange kind of Fourth World music mixed with field recordings, sort of an imaginary soundtrack straight from the trash bin.
Add a handful of echoes of post post psychedelia and you should come close to the music performed by Brasil & the Gallowbrothers – another project I’m part of. There is also Saamleng – a label releasing pure field recordings.
From time to time I am a painter and designer. I’m one of the founding members of Xaoc Devices, where we design and produce modular synths. This is a very brief introduction as much more is buried in the past.
What is your studio setup and how has it evolved over the years to match different creative targets?
I started in the mid 90s while I was in high school. My band didn’t have a lot of equipment and our ideas were constantly changing so we were experimenting with everything: from guitars, old turntables and toy samplers to scrap metal. Slowly, I started buying old analog synthesizers. You didn’t have to sell your kidneys to buy something vintage then…
At one point, I had a large collection of synths, processors, some laboratory equipment, etc. It was then that I realized I was much closer to sound design, sound synthesis, event programming, and processing sounds than just playing. It was the beginning of the revival of modular synthesizers, so I slowly started replacing most of my vintage synths with a modular system. It was so inspiring for me that – together with my friends – I founded Xaoc Devices.
We started designing modules ourselves. Working with a modular synth allowed me to focus on a track as a whole. Before, it was easy for me to get lost in tweaking one small element endlessly and not seeing the big picture. Another vector of change in my studio marks the transition from multi-track tape recorders to recording everything live in the digital domain. One day, I just came to the conclusion that, if I wanted to be effective, I needed to be able to work fast. I couldn’t leave projects unfinished for weeks. Recording live was also the effect of me trying to improve my live performances. I didn’t want to be dependent on excessive editing.
What would you say is the defining feature of your sound?
This is a tough question. I think an important aspect of my work is focusing on an album as a whole. It probably makes little sense in the ever accelerating world of condensed information, snapshots, playlists and impatient skipping the tracks, but because of that I can treat individual pieces differently.
I have developed a method of collecting fragments that do not have to be finished works in themselves. For me, it is enough that they play well with other pieces with which they are juxtaposed. They don’t have to work out of the context of a given album.
I think it was around the time I was making the Random Soundtrack album when I had some intriguing parts, just short pieces of improvisation that weren’t anything like a finished track, and I couldn’t find any convincing way to mold them into a proper piece. It appeared the best I could do was just to release them as they were. It was a moment of enlightenment and relief for me.
I don’t need to follow any rules on how to put together an album. This attitude allows me to swiftly improvise and then put these improvisations together, according to the method of “Écriture automatique”, very intuitively.
Another aspect of my work is the influence of field recording. I’m using these recordings in my tracks, obviously, but I also listen to soundscapes and learn how to listen, how some natural sounds are constructed, how space works acoustically, etc. Finally, I can build my albums more as a collection of soundscapes than individual tracks.
When did you first get a sense of having found your own musical voice? And have there been any Eureka! moments in your musical development?
I have been making music for so long that, on the one hand, I have collected quite a large list of breakthrough moments and, on the other hand, I have become humble enough to accept that for the listeners all my revolutions are just smooth and unhurried changes.
The year 2013 was definitely a breakthrough for me though, when I quickly abandoned the tape multi-track recordings and decided to focus on the modular system. I also believe that my music changed then a bit. I abandoned the idea of trying to record songs. Heading South was the last time when I was trying to record something with vocals and lyrics.
Everything I did before 2013 seems extremely distant to me, like centuries ago. There was one early crucial moment, when I recorded my third release, the mini-album Most (the Bridge). This was the first time I used field recordings as the main building block. I did it completely differently than I do today, but it crystallized the way I use field recordings. It was a lot of experimentation with actual tape and I decided to use only the field recordings I made on the bridge on the Odra river. It was a concept album, I think it was my first conscious work. That was the moment when I found my own path, at least the beginning of it!
Who and / or what would you say has influenced you the most in the way you think about sound?
I think that two important factors were realising that I could use the soundscape as a kind of compositional tool or better – a template, and opening to traditional music. I started reading a lot about gamelan, African music, etc. At some point, I was close to declaring my music as a kind of a “new folk music”.
In this postindustrial age, electronic instruments seem to me as the natural replacement for traditional instruments. If you explore these traditional instruments, you notice that many of them were just mimicking natural sounds. Many with just some everyday items. The modular synth isn’t an everyday item, but it is just a bunch of simple buzzing generators, perhaps some samplers. Somehow it seems to me close to this idea of simple tools that you can use to make music.
It is easy to mention Jon Hassell here and his fourth world music. I must admit that I’ve been a fan of his early works for a long time. I love the whole Made To Measure series from Crammed Disc, especially Benjamin Lew, but I believe I’ve developed a bit grimmer updated revision of fourth world music, stuck together from scraps and waste.
You are also a (mostly) figurative painter. How would you say your visual art and music practices influence each other?
Rather than say, “I’m a painter”, I’d say, “Sometimes I paint”. It was an important part of my life, but now usually I’m back to painting only when I need new artwork for an album.
I’m probably a bit of a control freak. Lately, it’s music that has been influencing my paintings more than the other way round, but I find it a pain to paint anything convincing.
I am a designer by education, so theoretically I’m more of a “pro” painter and an “amateur” musician, but over time music has become my main area of interest. In reality, what I do is a mix of multiple forms that just work together – music but also painting, design and lately video.
How is your collaboration with Magda Ter structured and how do you approach a live set when playing together?
We are partners and have lived together for a long time, so everything seems very natural to me. For a long time we were both part of Brasil and the Gallowbrothers and when I started playing live with my solo works I invited Magda to help me. Quickly, it appeared that we were creating a brand new project that was usually still live oriented, but it was also something new. It works well like this, we have completely different styles of working in the studio. I’m doing a lot of ad hoc recordings and trying to glue everything together without a plan.
I feel Magda is more focused on the final picture when she is preparing anything new. It is easy for us to take different approaches without any disputes. I remember one concert in Italy where we had prepared a score and it was like playing together on one instrument. We share tasks with ease. Lately we have been preparing live material with visualisations made with a video modular system and I can’t imagine anyone else with whom I could just share so many parts of one setup.
In the liner notes to your first album Rain In The City Of The Past, that you revisited in 2018, you indicate that the field recordings you used there came from special effects albums from the 80s, as you didn’t have the necessary equipment back then.
Since then, and thanks to more affordable and readily available technology, not only have you been using your own material, but you have also been releasing pure field recordings albums on your label Saamleng.
How would you say the role of field recordings has changed over the years in your work?
This is a somewhat funny story. In the early 90s, as a teenager, I was discovering music that I had never been interested in before. I didn’t have any older brother or a friend with record collections and wise words on where to start. So somewhere between Pink Floyd and metal intros, I noticed that the most interesting moments for me were when any fx or field recordings appeared. Maybe I wasn’t an avant-garde aficionado from the beginning, but for sure all the weird things happening in music were appealing to me. When a couple of years later we formed my first band, One Inch of Shadow, being inspired by field recordings was an element that was always important to us all.
The role of field recordings only grew more significant when I started playing solo. First, it was hard for me to start recording any piece, so I improvised to the field recordings. It was just the urge to hear some sounds while I was playing, complete silence was something unnatural for me. As I had never learned to play the traditional way, at some point I started looking for elements of composition in the soundscapes; As I have already mentioned, I started organising songs in a similar way to how background sounds are organised. The Artificial Field Recordings album was a kind of a statement for me in that sense.
Everything really took off with the availability of cheap handheld recorders. I was always carrying one of the early Zoom recorders with me, but at that time I was still using my recordings only for musical purposes. I was in contact with Glenn Donaldson of Jewelled Antler, and he sent me the Heat & Birds compilations where there were songs mixed with pure field recordings and theo whole thing started to grow on me.
The real breakthrough came with my first trip to Asia. This completely different soundscape was so refreshing for me that I decided to start a label devoted to pure field recordings. This was the start of Saamleng.
Concluding – field recordings were always important for me. I needed to learn to use them not just as an ornament, but as something remodeling composition and to simply cherish them on their own. Maybe one day I’ll abandon making music altogether and all I’ll be left with will be just listening to sounds.
Your new album Hiræth was produced during a period of quarantine, and yet you are keen to stress it is not a pandemic album. Does the title refer to the Welsh word indicating a blend of homesickness, nostalgia and longing?
Also, in the liner notes you refer to “bad times”. Do you feel pessimistic, or are the current times we are living through just a “glitch in humanity”? Or has something been irretrievably lost?
Faster and faster we are losing our home, and it isn’t just “our” home, as we are just one of the species on the planet. It isn’t just homesickness, it is the awareness of an irreversible loss.
I was recording this album at the peak of the refugee crisis in Poland. The Polish and Belarusian governments are responsible for the death of many people whose only fault was seeking shelter. I believe it is just a prelude, the climate crisis is here.
In reality, every day I’m trying to run away from most of these problems especially while I’m doing music, but really I can’t. I’m a bit of an escapist, but I still feel the burden of it all after each short moment of respite. So yes, I feel pessimistic.
You have been politically engaged on a number of issues including the refugee crisis in Belarus (by supporting the work of Chlebem i Solą) and the full scale invasion of Ukraine. There have been organisations such as Grupa Granica that have highlighted the double standards of Poland’s migration policy. The issue is contentious with some saying that the situation in Ukraine is not equivalent to the Belarusian-manufactured border crisis.
Firstly, I think it is too much to say I’m engaged, I’m trying to help within my limited powers. All credit should go to the people that are doing much more and are much less visible. I felt that some kind of a statement in such a situation was necessary. Every little gesture counts, even a few Euros from bandcamp from some unknown guy can help.
The music I play is rather on the abstract side. Sometimes I hear people telling me not to mix music and politics. I feel differently, I don’t want any fascists to feel good while listening to my music. I’m more than sure that my music won’t change anyone, but at least it can be uncomfortable for some.
Secondly, I feel there are double standards and hypocrisy across the whole of Europe. I feel it is quite comfortable for the European governments to quietly stop all those people on the Polish/Belarus border and not be bothered with this problem. The war in Ukraine turned out to be more present in the media. In Poland, help for our Slavic neighbour is easier for people, especially if it involves acting against Russia, with all the history of the Russian aggression in the region. Still, even my small misanthropic heart can’t see the difference between two refugees…
You have now destined revenue from your Bandcamp sales (Mirt and Saamleng) to aid in Ukraine. What has the response and feedback been so far and how did you go about selecting the National Bank of Ukraine as a cause?
I must admit that the feedback has been greater than I anticipated. As a rule, I encourage everyone to support artists directly – omitting the middlemen is always a good thing. I do it myself within my limited range of resources. I assume that what I do publicly is just a way of reminding people about certain problems. Based on such assumptions, I decided that it was worthwhile to transfer the money collected for Ukraine directly to the accounts of the National Bank of Ukraine. I believe the Ukrainians know best how to allocate these funds. I want to help, but I’m not an expert. This just feels right to me.
I need to add that after a few months I decided to terminate the whole thing. Unfortunately, the reason was not that the help was no longer needed…
There are over 2,5 million refugees from Ukraine in Poland. What is the current situation on the ground in Warsaw, and what is the public opinion about the war?
The situation is complicated, but the help and involvement of ordinary people is gigantic and very positive. I remember being shocked when the war in Syria started, but when it is happening next door and when people you know are reporting about all these atrocities, it’s something else. There are a massive number of fundraisers, charity collections, and many of my friends welcome Ukrainians in their homes. Despite this great mobilization, I am afraid that the enormous enthusiasm of the ordinary people will subside without a long-term plan. It doesn’t help that the Polish government tries to act as they’re the good guys here while at the same time brutally treating people at the border with Belarus. Russia is silently financing many right-wing organizations and parties all over the world. Poland is no exception. On the internet, the activity of Russian trolls also takes its toll. I hope I’m wrong, and it’s just my pessimism talking. For now, only the gullible idiots believe the Russian propaganda.
How would you describe the response of the international music community to the War in Ukraine?
I don’t follow closely what is going on with all the compilations and fundraisers, so it’s hard for me to give an informed opinion.
On the one hand, I am glad that the response is huge, it is undoubtedly positive. On the other hand, I am afraid that some initiatives serve mainly to promote the people behind them rather than help Ukraine. However, everyone has got to assess it individually. I’m trying to be careful – I want to keep the problem visible, not promote my art. My art is just a vehicle, a tool.
Despite my doubts, I don’t intend to depreciate the importance of small gestures. I know that every declaration counts and is important to the Ukrainians. Even if you have just a handful of followers, your voice is important. Burnout is a problem though and it is normal, it’s hard to be mobilized all the time.
In these situations, one can’t pretend that nothing is happening. I know that for some people this is just another war somewhere far away. There is a lot of misinformation, including some incomprehensible for me identification of Russia with leftist ideas. People who believe such nonsense have lost all my respect. One must choose a side and in this war there is only one side a human being can choose.
You mention the need of choosing a side, and yet, many especially on the left are still reluctant to do so (see Taras Bilous with his “Letter to the Western Left” where he urges the Western European Left to rethink its positions and stop blaming Russia’s aggression on NATO).
I’m disappointed in the reaction of many luminaries of the western left. I think there is some strange image of Russia. Russia doesn’t have anything to do with the left. It is a conservative tyranny.
How would you describe the experimental music scene in Ukraine in relation to that of its neighbors?
Unfortunately, it is almost only during such moments that we pay attention to how little we know about the culture of our neighbours. I can see how little I know about what is happening in Ukraine, the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Sometimes very modest actions are capable of changing that for a while. For me, a great example is Koka Records, an independent label that introduced Poles to the independent Ukrainian scene in the 1990s. I still remember their tapes and to this day I listen to some of them: Wij, Foa Hoka, Cukor Bila Smert’ and Ihor Tsymbrovsky, to name but a few. As for artists who are currently active, I’ve been following Poly Chain for quite some time. I love her tape published by the Mondoj label.
On a general note, and I am thinking here, for instance, of the end of the year best of lists, do you believe there’s been enough attention paid in the West to music coming from Easter Europe?
I would love to see a bigger interest in artists from Eastern Europe, but it is just a part of the problem. Most of the media are focused on Western Europe and the US. Anything from Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe is mainly a side dish, best served as carefully selected nuggets from a world far away.
(Gianmarco Del Re)