Fire From Ashes

A conversation with sound maker Nicolás Jaar

by Alex Westfall

published April 24, 2020

Collage by Alex Westfall / Photo courtesy of Nico Jaar with drawings by Somnath Bhatt


A twinkling piano riff grows louder as it folds into itself. Soon after, the sound of a human sniffle, the slow creak of a door, a body shuffling about, then settling. The high-pitched keys dissolve into the ambient crackle of a microphone: “Thanks for being here, everyone.” Every noise is so exact that I forget we’re not in the same room, that I’m among 7,000 others on a website typically reserved for streaming video games, listening to a live broadcast by Chilean-American musician, Nicolás Jaar. 

Raised between Santiago and New York City, Jaar graduated from Brown University in 2012 with a degree in Comparative Literature. He released his first full-length record as a junior, touring the global club circuit on school breaks and assembling songs between exams. Jaar is a prolific creator, and his work resists labels and categories: He has scored a Palm D’Or-winning film; he’s co-produced MAGDALENE, the acclaimed album by vanguard-pop artist FKA twigs. Jaar is curating a residency for sound artists in a converted food storage shack in the West Bank, and under his alias Against All Logic (A.A.L.), conjures tracks that signal the familiar warmth of a dancefloor—the 4/4 beats that instruct bodies to move synchronously as dawn breaks outside. 

When Jaar releases music under his birth name, however, his tracks drift freely in the space between electronica, sound collage, and ambient noise. Stillness emerges from unconventionally slow beats-per-minute: While a house or techno track will often clock out at an average of 128 bpm, many of Jaar’s songs linger in the cool range of 80 to 100. He insurgently uses samples to probe the political: One song from his 2011 record Space Is Only Noise re-appropriates the oft-misogynistic language of 2000s Latin-American pop, and another from 2016’s Sirens stretches the fluttering chords of ’70s Paraguayan folk harpist Sergio Cuevas. Jaar’s latest album, released March 27, is titled Cenizas. When I asked him to distill the project into a sentence, he characterized it as “a place full of ashes of an old fire, and we still don’t know how to clean up the mess.”

“Cenizas” is the Spanish word for “ashes,” an image apt for tracks that merge destruction with regeneration through their whispering, monastic harmonies, dripping, glitched percussion, and Coltrane-infused piano echoes. This same sentiment arises in the record’s lyrics: On the opener “Vanish,” the repeated phrase “Say you’re coming back” evokes with incessance a kind of circular time, one that rejects linear progress. This refusal is revisited on the record’s final song, “Faith Made of Silk,” where Jaar sings “Look around, not ahead / A peak is just the way / towards a descent” over and over again atop a sprinting drumbeat. It’s through these tracks that Jaar confirms the following inquiry as fuel for his work: Can electronic music imagine a new political world? 

I noticed that to accompany his live-streamed sounds, Jaar broadcasted his computer screen in real-time. While users in the chat function championed the techno scenes of their respective hometowns, a cursor toggled sound levels on Ableton Live, scanned YouTube for footage of quicksand, and sifted through desktop folders. At the close of the two-hour set, Jaar pulled up a clip from a 1985 lecture at the United Nations by philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. I remember the prosody of this moment: Krishnamurti’s urge that “Peace requires a great deal of insight, a great deal of inquiry without condemnation,” rhythmically colliding with the sound of young kids playing and Jaar’s own unreleased, flickering synths. It was then that I understood the virtual space Jaar had created—one in which sonic fragments from all over the world and throughout time converged in one place. Maybe this was electronic music’s power: its capacity to breathe new life into something with a history, to collapse several temporalities and places into one, to broadcast it back to a public scattered across the globe. There was a certain collectivity—as if the sounds we were hearing belonged to nobody in particular and all of us at once. A glimmer of possibility. 

Nico was generous enough to speak with me from his home in Europe about negative space in sound, learning without a path, and art’s place in unsettling the hierarchies of today.




Alex Westfall: I’d love to know more about your time at Brown and in Providence. How did your studies and creative practice shape one another?

Nicolás Jaar: I was actually speaking with a friend from Brown today and I told him that I really regretted dropping out of this class called ‘Thing Theory’ that we shopped together. He stayed in it and it really shaped his thinking in a beautiful way. Meanwhile, I’m just getting around to reading some of the books from that class now! A part of me wishes I had gone deeper into my studies, actually. It’s hard to realize how special it all is when you’re there. Little, insignificant things play much bigger roles than they should, but I guess that’s just youth…! 

Westfall: The periods of silence in many of your tracks feel meditative, spiritual. What do these moments of stillness signify for you, and how do you approach incorporating this kind of “negative space” when creating something? 

Jaar: I never listen to my own music, but the other day, spurned by my sixth week in quarantine and frustrated by how Spotify aggregates everything in order of popularity and creates playlists with titles like “This is X…” I decided to make a kind of ‘selected discography’ playlist of the past 11 years and for the first time I re-listened to some songs from five, seven or even 11 years ago. It was a very, very strange experience. So many of the songs have this moment where everything breaks, fragments, and goes into a vacuum, and then it all comes back again but in a different form. It’s comical how many of the songs do this; I didn’t know this. It’s all the same song, over and over again! But maybe this structure is my dream or hope for myself or for us, to be able to experience complete disintegration and to build something new from a place of calmness and stillness.

Westfall: Have discoveries in technology affected your production process? I’m curious if working digitally offers you something that working in analog can’t—and how you might consider both forms in conversation.

Jaar: I’ve actually been making music the same way for 16 years. The only big difference recently is that I have worked with some people to create objects that I sample and make sounds with. I can’t call them instruments because it’s a matter of making the objects in order to sample them—not to ‘play’ them. But maybe that’s what’s changed; now I need a kind of alien physicality to what I make music with. I’m getting less and less comfortable referencing the past or distinct musical traditions. (But of course it's very hard not to!)

Westfall: There is a sense of movement, place-making, and dislocation in the multilingual lyrics, sonic nods that reach far across the world, and direct references to political histories. What role do landscapes or geography play in your work, and what kind of geography do you hope your music imagines or constructs?

Jaar: Whenever I used to try to accurately answer the question ‘where are you from?’ I would get stuck. I’m not American but I was born in [New York]. I’m not Chilean but both of my parents are and I lived there during my childhood. I’m not Palestinian but the Jaar family is. I think things got simpler when I realized that it didn’t have to ‘make sense’—that ‘sense’ itself was maybe the issue to begin with. 

In my last set, I played ‘religious’ music from different parts of the world, and also a YouTube clip from [Jiddu] Krishnamurti, who questions the idea of anything sacred “originating in thought or any organization.” He speaks of “truth as a pathless land” which is maybe the best way I can answer your question in regards to 'geography.' I’m very moved by the idea of a ‘pathless land’ when I think of our particularly intense moment of global chaos. We need to learn how to learn without a path. 




Westfall: You released the album Sirens just over a month before Donald Trump was elected, and Cenizas came out in the midst of a worldwide public health crisis. I wonder if you think the role of the artist feels significant in times like this, where there’s maybe both a collective sense of chaos and possibility. I am curious if you see music—yours or in general—carrying the function or potential, a responsibility even, that goes beyond the scope of the music itself—and if so, what that might look like to you. 

Jaar: I think there are multiple roles an artist or musician can have in a time of crisis. But...when has it not been a time of crisis?

Of course, right now is an unparalleled time, but for example, the disproportionate deaths of African Americans and Latinos in the US due to COVID-19 is the outcome of an ongoing crisis in the health and infrastructure of this country whose foundation is based on racist hierarchies set in place long ago and dutifully maintained over time. The causal chains that led us to this moment are just as part of the current crisis as the 'current crisis' itself. The inhumanity that has supported the country for hundreds of years gets louder in moments like this, but it is just as present in times of 'normality' (a normality we could just call 'neoliberal crisis').

As far as 'art' is concerned…I have difficulty separating art from life: if I was to do so, then there would be clear boundaries between what I make and who I am. For better or for worse, these boundaries do not exist. In 2014-15, when I was making Sirens, I was very preoccupied with the rise of fascists movements throughout the globe. After hearing the horrors of the Chilean dictatorship firsthand during my youth, I was (very naïvely) shocked that these forces could gain such grounds in our present times. And so, the entire record ended up displaying this shock and these preoccupations. I couldn't help it, it was present in all I read and all I consumed. This is why there are songs about Trump (“The Governor”), Palestine (“Three Sides of Nazareth”), the Pinochet dictatorship and its legacy (“No”), racism against Muslims in the US (“Killing Time”), and my pessimism about the future (“History Lesson”).  

A year after that record came out, the dystopian world of Sirens seemed frankly quite 'tame' compared to the reality of 2017. This new dystopia—with roots in very old systems—gave way to something else for me, on a more intimate level. I felt that if I had grown up in a society that could end up in such a state, there would be aspects of its negative energies that also linger inside of me. This dissolution of 'inside' and 'outside' is really what informs Cenizas.  

To answer your question more directly, I think we, first as humans (and then as artists, or cooks, or engineers, or scientists or whatever we 'do'), have an “infinite responsibility” to question, criticize and topple the cruel hierarchies that make up our contemporary life. The barriers to freedom are monuments violently erected both inside ourselves and outside in the world, and I think the tearing down of one can affect the other. I think art and music can make cracks in the barriers, but not without help. We need entanglements between activism, art, technology, and science if we are to make decisive changes. We need polyphony. 




NOTE: Jaar borrows the term “infinite responsibility” from a text that has “stayed with [him] ever since [he] first read it at Brown in 2010”:

“One name for another, a part for the whole, the historic violence of Apartheid can always be treated as a metonymy. In its past as well as in its present. By diverse paths, one can always decipher through its singularity so many other kinds of violence going on in the world. At once part, cause, effect, example, what is happening there translates what takes place here, always here, wherever one is and wherever one looks, closest to home. Infinite responsibility, therefore, no rest allowed for any form of good conscience.”

—“Dedication to Chris Hani,” Specters Of Marx by Jacques Derrida



ALEX WESTFALL B’20 is learning how to learn without a path.