Let’s visit Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár), a city we never really mentioned before. Here, in the heart of Transylvania, lives József Iszlai, a young man who’s been working with sound design for more than 9 years. He’s rather talented when it comes to dozens of creative fields: he writes music for films, animations, theater pieces and installations, teaches at sound design workshops, writes movie reviews and of course makes his own music. One of his latest projects entitled ‘Our Environment Remixed’ was born from a really exciting concept. He created different types of electronic music from field recordings he’s captured in Cluj-Napoca. The album will be released in May on Bandcamp. We figured this was the perfect timing for a chat with him, to catch a glimpse of how things are done in this fairly unknown corner of Europe.
Please tell us a bit about your background, when did you get interested in music and where are you coming from.
I come from a small Transylvanian town called Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciuc). I was probably an eight grader when my mother showed up with a guitar one day, I had no idea what to do with it. I tried and messed around with the instrument, seemed like a lot of fun. Couldn’t say I took it seriously though.
Where did this unexpected gift lead eventually? You’ve worked with films, now you’re scoring a theater piece…
Well, first it lead me to a couple of bands, then an exploration of sound design, this lead to a strange infatuation with noise and all that crazy stuff. After all this I got into electronic music, which can encompass all the things I like about sound. Regarding theater, this was the third play I scored, I am genuinely interested in how sound manifests itself in theater, so it’s fair to say that this curiosity lead me here. What’s even more intriguing for me is creating an installation of sound within theater, I only did this once and the experience was fascinating.
When it comes to creating music, where do you feel yourself ‘home’ the most and why? Your own projects, film or the theater?
I’d say it’s probably my own stuff. Meddling with music alone leaves a lot of space for chance operation and random ideas pop up practically from nowhere… I mean everywhere… I mean both! It’s a conscious and unconscious chattery with myself if I come to think of it.
Film and theater are constricting and liberating me at the same time, it’s a healthy and necessary experience, but certain rules do apply, and I am not always down with that.
I usually recognize a sense of being home in working with other people, too. This process tends to get rough because it must be built on mutual trust and once me and my partner reach our common space (home), I become able to see different depths within myself.
‘Our Environment Remixed’ was born from a really exciting concept: you’ve created different types of electronic music from field recordings that you’ve captured in Cluj-Napoca, the city where you live. Tell us about the birth of this idea and the creative process.
I’ve had this idea for quite a while now, I think it’s because I really enjoy sampling and the limitations of sampling which always leads me to exciting ideas. It was a simple process: we recorded a bunch of sounds while walking in the park or a forest near the city. Tamás Jeszenszky helped me a lot with the recordings and the sorting of our sounds. It was important that I have a lot to choose from and I needed a palette that is diverse enough and has a lot of unexpected noises or artifacts that I knew would enrich the texture of the music. After this I just started to fit the pieces together and just let the music happen. I’d always end up with a basic outline for a track which led me to expand on it using different techniques I already knew thanks to my background in sound design and music production.
Where did you go to collect these sounds? What are your favourite spots when it comes to field recording?
My favourite spots were definitely in our central park. Eventually we extended that to another location, the Hoya forest. I mean I just took a stroll in the park and BAM!, suddenly I had tons of files ready to be sorted out. The park itself is an infinite source of inspiration for a project like this one, it is practically inexhaustible. You can find all sorts of sounds just by focusing on your environment. The Hoya forest was important as a recording space because it has the natural ambience of a forest, you can hear how there’s a certain depth to those recordings which I think is related to the untouched and absolute truth of nature.
Biggest challenges during this project?
I think the biggest challenge was being versatile in terms of style and approach. I had to challenge myself and diversify my approach in production in order to make the tracks feel slightly different but still correspond to the core of my concept. Choosing genres and selecting the best ideas from drafts can get a bit annoying as well. When I got stuck by myself, I started asking some people I know to listen to the material and talk about how they relate to the experience.
You even made a little video for the project, which is just as fascinating as one would expect. Tell us a bit about the birth of this audiovisual fantasy.
It’s something we came up with Melinda Kádár while we were talking about how to represent tracks visually and avoid the common idiocy of overproduced videos per se. It’s more like exciting visual cues for the music we release. She came up with some great ideas, we started expanding on those. I think we just sort of had a natural dialogue and challenged ourselves to reflect upon the visual representation of Our Environment Remixed and the medium which carries our “product”. I think the first step of our visual concept was informed by fusing the organic (natural) with the digital (manipulated). When overlapped, these directions can lead to interesting juxtapositions in terms of the visual aesthetic of the natural and the digital. She came up with some really inspiring ideas regarding how to make these two directions clash or compensate each other. We’re two people who share common ideas in terms of what is or can be visually sexy, so this mindset we share projects an aura of trust when we discuss aesthetics.
You’ve been involved in lots of teamwork – would you say you prefer working alone or together with someone?
I need a delicate balance of that in my life. I love to be alone but my love for solitude must be informed by my love for being in communion with others.
What inspires you the most when it comes to creating sounds?
Tiny accidents that happen while trying out ideas, my own mistakes in design and my mistakes in mixing. I also enjoy having no idea what a plugin or an effect can do, this way I channel the unforeseeable much easier into my work. Surely this process is usually based on an empirical knowledge, I just have to try and unknow what I already seem to know.
Could you name a few artists that helped you shape your own sounds or just inspire(d) you on a daily basis? What music do you listen to when you’re not working with your own sounds?
Whoa, there have been way too many. I really like Miles Davis, I like Burial, hip-hop, you know, all the good stuff I hear. Ryoji Ikeda is someone I always look up online, Jan Jelinek, SND, some Deep Medi releases, most of Hemlock’s output, there are a bunch of tunes I really enjoy. I’m gonna just check my three latest downloads: Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus; Tunnidge – Tribe; Fugazi – Closed Captioned.
You’ve got quite a nice little fan base on Soundcloud, which is probably one of the best feedback one can get. Do you plan on releasing your music on a label anytime soon?
Yeah, feedback is important, but not only as statistics on Soundcloud. I couldn’t get to common terms with none of the labels I have been talking with for the last two years. Got exhausted playing the mail game, this bummed me out for a couple of reasons, but I managed to keep a healthy mindset and just focused on what I do. There’s an album ready, I’ll just probably upload it on Bandcamp for free. I might release stuff through a label me and some friends are planning to start up, maybe we’ll get that up and running just in time.
That sounds exciting! Could you tell us more what directions are you taking with this label besides releasing your own music?
I couldn’t really spoil the gory details of it, all I wish to say is that the label will have clear means to father trust by embracing change and difference. There are a bunch of ways we can do this, like for example being humble to the culture around us and not overexposing ourselves as holy anointed prophets. Many labels and artists project this and it’s fucking dumb.
Not many of our readers know much about Cluj-Napoca or Transylvania (besides the obvious), however in recent years there has been a decent shift in the music scene. How would you present this city when it comes to cultural and music events, would you recommend it to visitors?
Even though I follow through with keen eyes, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Most venues lack vision and aesthetic. Bands or club gigs project a loss of trust and faith from within themselves and this atmosphere touches the listener, therefore you have less variation in style. Crowd pleasing does indeed get a bit tedious around here. There is also a lack of bravado and of the the non-conventional. Maybe people are too caught up in swiftly gaining trust from the audience instead of building it. This being said, I urge visitors to be open and listen with curiosity to what this city has to offer.
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