By Shahira Kudsi
In a city of writers, makers and thinkers, Jonathan Raissi transcends archetypes and proves to be as meticulous as he is formless. Jonathan sat down with me to discuss his artistic process, his complicated relationship with language and why the production of art should be uncomfortable.
You’ve said before that you compose your albums as one singular piece. Does that mean you want your listener to approach it that way?
Yeah, but at the same time I’m very loose with what people can do with it. I encourage people to take it and also appropriate it into their own work. This project’s very existence is predicated on doing something that I'm uncomfortable with, which is the public realm in general. I’m releasing something that is hyper-personal in the public ether, which I find really disconcerting.
Do you feel like you are putting yourself out there, so to speak, or do you separate yourself from your work?
That’s really interesting. I think no matter what, if you do something in the public, you sign over a lot.
So you are alienated now.
All of it is a process of alienation. Once you make something public and open to interpretation, the true sovereignty of interpretation, there is a dictatorship over it. I can take someone else's art and apply my background, my personal experiences, my historical context and receive it in a way in which it didn't matter what that person intended. That’s why I am so against shepherding interpretation too much or serving it on a silver spoon. If I ever write or talk about Yasna, I am not going to talk about the what a song means. That relationship [of interpretation] has always made me uncomfortable, which is why I went so long without doing any work. Yasna is only a year and a half old.
Are you resisting connoisseurship?
I am not resisting it, but I am not doing anything about it. I haven't been reaching out to distributors or record labels, but that’s only because I’ve been drowning in it. For the past year and a half, once I finished something, I didn't take a moment, I just kept going. I just had this monkey on my back.
Is it cathartic or is it work? Or both?
It’s unnerving. It’s not fun. The reason I’m uncomfortable with the public sphere is that these are therapy sounds. That’s how it started out, just textures of sounds that made me feel better and that’s the reason I don’t want to partition that at all. That’s why there will be a 15 minute loop that doesn't change at all. Because it was really important for my experience I’m not gonna touch it.
You’re a survival artist.
I don’t know. It’s mostly interesting for me to give something to public that is intrinsically very isolationist.
Well also there is no language in it. It could be difficult for someone to grasp because you aren’t giving us anything besides sound.
That’s a good point, I grapple heavily with language. With titling, I waver between titles having so much weight and them being completely arbitrary, to wanting to just number them. I really hate language. I do and I don’t. There are a lot of literary references [in my titles] that mean a lot but that’s because they are the signifiers of those references that transcend language and that’s why they are there. The reason for Yasna is because I haven’t been able to find a way to evoke something that passes the confines of language. Because you’re only limited to this thing that is man-made, it’s very historical, very material.
Have words failed you?
Your only use of language, titling, reads like visual art. For example in A Game With Shifting Mirrors, you reference Bacon’s triptych For Figures at the Base of Crucifixion. In a way, the titling of the track list is a triptych in itself because it’s formatted as a trinity. It’s intriguing because you have your music, your photography and your writing, and they all sort of reference and feed into each other. They all intersect.
Absolutely. All of it is singular. The whole project is a long one. The bridges aren’t fully constructed yet, my complete intention is that everything that I do is one thing, critical theory, which is response to alienation. To public alienation. Photography I am really new at and I grapple with the medium a lot. Especially the saturation of it and the consumer aspect of it. It saturates people's exposure to what they see.
But you hit the nail on the head, this is a singular thing, writing, photography and Yasna. I intend it to be seen as a singular entity at some point when all the the hurdles of learning the mediums and developing style. When it becomes more intrinsic, that will be more obvious.
The reason for Yasna is because I haven’t been able to find a way to evoke something that passes the confines of language.
I think it is pretty obvious. Is there one medium that has your heart?
It depends on where I am in my life. This past year it’s been Yasna. The why has been coming up a lot. Why this feels important or why I am doing these things. I kind of wrote about it on [my blog]. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because it’s kind of terrifying. Which I think is essential in any medium right now to experiment with...to the point of making the author very uncomfortable, I think that it has to happen.
It’s almost privately performative.
It’s totally performative, even if you are not leaving your house. You don’t have to because mass culture and political struggle, you don’t have to be out in the world. You don’t need an art installation downtown to have a commentary on consumerism or something pseudo radical like that. The air you breath is political struggle. It doesn’t matter what level you are in the cast of political struggle, everyone experiences it. I try not to throw too many shoulds around when talking about this stuff but it should absolutely be critical theory. Critical, in some capacity.
What should be?
The production of art and process of experimentation. So my aim is to create the most grand critique, encompassing all mediums, as many as possible. I am still a critical theorist and I want to forward that with experimentation. I was really interested in Wagner in that sense of art should encompass all mediums.
It’s more of toying with bringing something I was so against making public, public. It bridges the gap between the whole reason I do Yasna, which is doing that one really uncomfortable thing. I have a huge conflict with nostalgia as a concept. Growing up the state I was engendered in was very nostalgic. I would romanticise periods of my life that was like 6 months ago. Then I reached a point at 18 or 19 when I was like alright looking back is weakness. It’s like I had erased it from my emotional vocabulary. I’m an emotional extremist, so I’m either extremely nostalgic for something or as soon as the moment passes, its dead. Kundera has a really good book on nostalgia.
Lately I’ve been embracing [nostalgia] more because I can keep it in the confines of the apparatus of this is my art project, I can think about it here and then leave it in this prison then continue on in my life moving forward. All the Yasna photos I’ve taken so far are all taken at separate moments and within a quarter mile of my family home.
Was that intentional?
I realised what I was doing on the last album and just embraced it
Is using the name Yasna not nostalgic?
It’s a nod to my heritage because it’s a Zoroastrian reference. So a little bit yes. With the first release I was obsessed with the potential of a fluid definition of God. Yasna is the name of a form of worship in Zoroastrianism. Every Abrahamic religion took from the pre-Abrahamic religions, which is, there is a good god and there is a bad god. Mazda is the good god. Yasna is the process of giving power to the good god. That’s the dissonance between the Abrahamics and the post, God’s power is contingent on man’s willingness to give it. Whereas the post Abrahamics is more, you are weak and you need God. My interpretation of it is, God is not anywhere other than our ability to develop our own cosmology. I was really infatuated with that idea. All there is, is will. So that’s where I chose [the name Yasna]. I’ve also been living in the whitest city in the country and I’ve been losing connection to my heritage so, I needed that.
Something you are very good at is capturing the sensation of a moment, in your photography and in your music. It never feels like a narrative. You’re giving us an incredibly sensory experience of a moment, it builds up to that moment and it’s beautiful. Then it's swept from under our feet. Do you fixate on moments or does this happen totally organically?
Well, I am a slow processor.
I am surprised to hear you say that.
Emotionally. When it comes to how I approach art, I take time. Street photography isn’t my thing because the arbitrary nature of just shooting something is just silly to me. So I take a long time to compose something and get everything just right to capture what I want. That’s why a lot of my photos are unremarkable on the surface because I am taking so long to do it and I need stagnant moments.
It’s definitely hyperrealist. You’ve got a musical language.
I have kind of a manifesto of the confines of which I work in for Yasna. I don’t allow a lot of things. That’s why it’s not a lot of things, it’s not cool music, it’s not my name. Its very specific to the methodology.
So responding to what you said, they are completely moments. They are vignettes. I don’t think I’ve rerecorded a single thing, everything is a first time through. Mostly everything on the new release is completely improvised, especially the longer pieces and the ones that have live instrumentation. I do very minimal clipping or editing, because it’s like this is what this was in that moment and it stays that way.
So it is performative in that way.
Yeah. There is one piece on Brutalism that I fell asleep recording because I needed it so I kept it.
How do you work?
Yasna only utilises my own sampling of my own field recordings. This is what makes this, this. No use of MIDI sounds or presets. The first two releases are completely taken from a 10 minute recording I did on a piano I did in my family home.
You play the piano?
No, not really. That and me working on a harpsichord, like throwing quarters at it. Brutalism is interesting, and titled as such, because it is me exhausting everything I could do with these samples. I refused to take new recordings with that one because I really wanted to drill it into the ground. So the first one is a lot more open whereas the second one is me ridding myself of those samples. That’s why the quality is not great and why it seems redundant at times. I want that though, it’s supposed to be cogent. It has to be my sounds though.
Right. In a Game of Shifting Mirrors, the entire recording its sampled from, is exposed in its raw form in the last track. It’s me playing the piano, I sampled 5 seconds of that for the last songs. The methodology and praxis that makes Yasna, Yasna, is that. It is working within confinement. Since there are a plethora of options and I am someone who gets option paralysis, it is me wanting to rail against having too many options.
Are you all-or-nothing or can you work on a grey scale?
I work best on restriction and extremes. If I am going to make music, it’s not going to be middle music. It’s not going to be like “ok I’ll listen to that while I do chores.” Although I have been told that and I think you must have a weird relationship with chores. But yeah, I need to work in self imposed confinement.
Are you ever working and think why I am doing this to myself?
Every time. That’s why I said it’s not fun.
Do you work with other people?
Like collaborate? No. I’m open to it. Yasna started as a collaboration with a very good friend of mine in town who is a filmmaker. He did a lot of visual pieces for a lot of poetry readings in town. I was talking about music theory one day and he had a piece that was going to be shown for design week and he said “I want you to score it.” I had never done that and I said, “ are you sure?” He was like “ yeah just give it to me the day before.” I thought he was a lunatic because I could’ve given him pure garbage and he would have had to work with it. So I did that and it went well. We did a couple where we tried to be a little more collaborative in sound a visual components. Then I decided that I should make this a project because it felt like I had a lot more that I needed to do that I couldn’t wait for other people. So it’s engendered in that, it was born in collaboration. But in terms of it now, it’s pretty isolationist. But I am open to other projects, always.
Yeah but I am really critical. I’ve had a lot of other collaborative experiences that were frustrating.
Frustrating because it was collaborative?
I am doomed to what I want. I am doomed to only want to do what I want to do. I don’t want to commit time to something that’s just like its alright, some people will like that. It feels like more of a need than that. So I have to be very particular [with who I collaborate with]. At this point I am really sick of myself. It would be cool to shove half of this on someone else and then bring in other components, make it more instrumental. But it’s mostly because I am sick of myself.
You are very particular. You’re probably a nightmare to work with.
Probably, yeah. I don’t doubt that for a second. It depends though, if I find someone I am really excited about, I can be very flexible. If I feel like they have the same sentimentality and rigour then it would be this end of it should be what you are and this end of it should be what I am and that’s why we are collaborating.
Do you have musical influences or is it just critical theory?
A lot traditional Indian music. A lot of ragas, especially over the last year.
I wasn’t expecting that!
It is some of the most beautiful and pure form of music I’ve ever heard. And that influenced a lot of other music that I was initially influenced by like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, other minimalist composers. There is a lot of contemporary work that influenced me in work ethic. A lot of current sound artists, who are influential to me in their praxis. A few Japanese artists, and a few in the States, who have a really exciting way of approaching music as sound production, as sound art, or texture production where it doesn’t need to be veiled in performance or anything. How I see it is, it should be studies in sound texture. Where we have the means to do everything, but we do very little, but with everything. There are a lot of artists who are doing incredible, out of this world programming. Who are literally programming a computer to make a sound that they want to make. I know I railed against having too many options but I don’t think that shouldn't be done. As a listener, I want more of that. I want everything to be utilised to create the most full form of art that we call can. People are becoming much more critical of consequences of sound, much more critical in the order of the convulsion, which is something that is really interesting to me. Because it’s extremely convoluted but people are creating calm, very minimal sounds. It’s a study in just one sound. Even if I have to do everything short of creating a nuclear rocket code, to create one stupid sound to create free on this one stupid website, just so people can see what it is. I don’t think this contemporary work ethic in this kind of art production should be glossed over. A lot of people rail against [contemporary sound art] saying you aren’t using instruments [or] it’s not tactile. Which is horse shit.It is tactile, emotionally. We should appreciate the influences and move on. Use them and move on. Steal them and move on.
There is a word in Arabic, I wonder if you have it in Farsi. It’s tarab (طرب). It’s used to describe the ecstasy or natural high you get from music.
I don’t know if there is a word for that but I’ve experienced that in my family. That’s been a huge influence on me, having my entire family, which is large, be together [listening to music]. There are some incredible singers in my family, they are just unbelievable. I sample that in the very first song in the first release, that’s my family at the end of it. It’s this complete eros, everyone stops for a moment. They could be fighting and then they are completely transported. My entire family came to the States, they have this island of a community, where it’s contingent on them making food for each other and drinking tea and they can see that their children are completely losing their culture, which is, you know, what are you gonna do. So you’re at this family get together and the children will be watching American cartoons or on their phones then one of my aunts or uncles would start singing and everyone would start singing at the same time. Its this complete transportation and from a very young age I’ve experienced that. I’ve got an uncle who lives in Northern California, who was actually quite successful as a singer, he had an orchestra behind him. He has hammer dulcimer, which is one of my favourite instruments ever. He’d play the dulcimer and just destroy everyone. Everyone was very happy, but it would just devastate everyone. One of the best conversations I’ve had was when I released my first album and went and saw him. He had already listened to it, I was so nervous [thinking] you play real music, you are a real artist. There was this weird singularity where he was enamoured by it. He plays traditional Iranian music! And has been doing it his whole life. Then his nephew releases this fucking weird electronic music and he just wanted to talk to me about it. That was a really interesting experience in understanding the possibility for a ubiquity across those lines. Our emotion comes from the same place because we come from the same family. I grew up listening to him sing and then I made music, he felt it.
That was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had.
all images courtesy of Jonathan Raissi
Jonathan Raissi is a sound artist, photographer and writer currently living in Portland, Oregon. His ambient noise project, Yasna, has recently released its third full-length digital release (yasna.bandcamp.com). He attended UCLA as a historian and labor organizer, and is currently interested and involved in multi-medium experimentation and critical theory. Past, current and future works to be found at jonathanraissi.com.