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Interview with Esem

Published February, 2014
by Easterndaze


One of the most interesting and idiosyncratic Bulgarian electronic musicians, Esem has been crafting out his own species of sonic experiments with consistent inconsistency for more than a decade now. Esem’s works include 3 LPs, a collection of field recordings, many digital releases for experimental labels like Merck, deFocus, Sutemos, Mahorka and the legendary Kahvi netlabel, and his latest Aquanaut EP, which was released last Christmas via Bandcamp.

What I find most impressive about Esem’s music is its formidable intricacy and sophistication of detail, conveyed in a very subtle, non-intrusive manner, and with a peculiar sense of soothing melancholy. It takes you on a fragment of a journey, focusing on the stretching, potentially infinite moment of transition, rather than the starting point or destination. This interview was conceived last year over August and September, inbetween the languor of summer haze gently morphing into the cooler breath of autumn. For one reason or another, it took until now that we’re on the brink of spring for it to come out, but as past experience has taught me it was worth all the waiting.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Georgi Marinov. I was born in 1979 in Bulgaria. I live in London, where I work as a sound editor, music composer, and web specialist.

You began experimenting with sound in the late 90s. What got you started?  What was the Bulgarian (underground) electronic scene like back in the day?

I’ve done music experiments on the Apple //e but I would say I began hacking together more “normal-sounding” music as Soundtracker modules, somewhere in 1995, and without much knowing what I was doing. Tracker music is a form of open source, and predates MP3. Every download packs its own sound samples and notes, so you can examine how it was done, learn, change it, copy the sounds and reuse them. I don’t think there were more than three other people in Bulgaria doing this at the time, and the music largely came from the Amiga demoscene in Scandinavia. Certainly my inspiration came from Finland and the works of one Lassi Nikko, who later on recorded for WARP as Brothomstates. 

But really I had been raised on music on magnetic tape, then listening to hip-hop  and just getting into electronic music around the time I had my own computer so, in hindsight, sound recording and editing, the sampling connection, and digital form, they all become quite obvious. 

I don’t think Bulgaria had any sort of “electronic scene” at the time. There were very few of us, we had maybe heard each other’s names, but we didn’t have much contact, let aside form a scene.

In your own words, your music is “leaning heavy on the “intelligent electronica” side” as opposed to anything we’re “likely to listen to in a club or at a party”. How do you define “intelligent”?

Poor explanation indeed, since “intelligent electronica” has most to do with the Artificial Intelligence series by WARP, which kind of defined the sound and format in the 90s. All of that is gone now, no exceptions, I left this reference so people do not confuse it with techno, and also to avoid it being called “experimental”; not to form expectations of dubstep or similar.

I don’t like categorising…

To be precise, I’ve had some of my more experimental tracks played at a large club. I did get a very positive reaction from DJs, and generally people who listen to lots of music, but the music was unexpected for the crowd. I guess they wanted to party, not to be challenged. It didn’t feel right in a club. Then there was the drugs angle, which I’m not aligned with. That was way back around when Indigo was cult in Sofia..interesting times.

Apart from composing music, you do sound design and post-production. What motivates your choice for such projects?

Design is a difficult discipline. Sound design, when it comes to storytelling, is very difficult, but huge fun. I like a good intellectual challenge, and I love sound, so I guess it works out naturally. Post production sound for film is very difficult to get into, but is incredibly interesting, and, when organised right, a balanced way of keeping busy and creative. 
Overall, this is a way to earn a living, doing what I like. If I can organise and sell myself better, that is…

I take on all sorts of projects provided I have the time. Sometimes you do make time for a project. After all, if it’s about sound or music, these are the things I love doing, so I do say “yes”. I say “no” to ridiculous budgets or generally when the project feels like an afterthought or clients don’t understand why they can’t just go and add any piece of music or sound they find. 

Your works display such remarkable complexity and attention to detail that I can’t help wondering how long does it actually take you to finish a composition? 

Most of the time I pour in a lot of little things that end up being “too much”. I would then leave a track on repeat for what feels like an eternity, taking things out, and carving variation. I like syncopation. I guess it makes detail easier to notice in place of the strong beats.

Going back, this has been my process for as long as I can remember, even if my output has slowed down a lot recently. Sometimes I would simply “mute” my work, and not let anything come out until it is something I’m happy with. It takes forever these days, and does enormous damage to my inspiration, as there’s no feedback to reinforce the creative process. But later it’s more rewarding to have much less nonsensical stuff slip through.

Far too often it has more to do with distractions and non-music work.

Do you believe mastery depends on resources or you’re simply a geek? How important is equipment for your creations?

I have very little equipment, especially “real” equipment, other than the basics – keyboards, speakers, and so on. It’s all “in the box” virtual synths, effects, and such. The concepts have been the same for years, and knowledge of say compression or EQ is everywhere, even on more advanced topics. It’s just slow to filter and difficult to work into your own universe. I am a geek indeed, but that alone doesn’t mean a thing regarding mastery. I don’t think I’ve mastered anything enough at this point, other than not to be scared of equipment, especially boxes I’m trying to get to make or control sound. 

Sometimes you need the equipment. You can’t buy the skills with money, but in a perverse turn of events, not so rarely the equipment ends up being more important. It does become central to the work if it can disappear, get out of the way in a sense. Today’s devices don’t do that, or to do that they end up being too expensive. 

I get more inspiration of sounds, rather than toys.

When did you become interested in field recordings? 

I attended a documentary field-recording workshop in Sofia back in 2006, which must have been the tipping point, the results ended up on Resonance FM and all over the RADIA network. But really I was interested in recording sounds before then, just didn’t realise it as much. I do remember recording my voice onto cassette long ago. Hope none of that is left anywhere!

Seriously speaking, recording is one of the pillars of sound design. You can’t get by with just synthesis. In storytelling, realistic sounds are far more significant. And they make great starting points for re-synthesis and shaping. They can also be very tonal and integral to musical composition.

In what way the sound of your surroundings affects the sound that comes out of your head?

It’s difficult to say how my surroundings affect my output, but the influence is very strong and runs very deep. I guess I sort of recycle the environment, but the result is “out of phase”, and quite often well out of time. It’s difficult to find an immediate connection, but it’s all there – audible in the music.

What made you leave Bulgaria?

I lived in Bulgaria up until 1995 when I got on the internet for the first time, and found that the world is full of interesting and creative people. Around that time I must have lost synch with the country, which seemed to be into binge drinking, cheap goods, and shit culture. The next eight years were a struggle for me to keep up with the contrasting worlds of Bulgaria and the West. 

Leaving, in the physical sense, was a question of “when,” not “if”. Around 2000, I felt there was no scene, and certainly no market for a scene, to justify full time working, not playing, with electronic music or sound. The few people who were doing electronic music were more into intrigue than collaboration. The air wasn’t clear. None of these things fixed itself.

Long story short I found myself shut in, with some of my closest friends not being so friendly anymore, but with distilled sense of what I wanted. In 2003 I enrolled on a sound engineering course in London, and left Bulgaria with pocket money for a week, to hit the wall of struggle, as you normally do. From 2005 till 2008 I lived in Bulgaria again, but after working remotely on two games with a Nintendo subsidiary, and failing both spectacularly, I had a “now or never” moment − either get serious about sound and music or find something else to do.  That brings us to today, one way or another.

Would you consider coming back one day? How do you feel about the future of your home country?

I took part in the summer protests of 2013. I want to feel part of Bulgaria. Some of my best friends still live there, though they are like foreigners in their own country. I would like to have the option of coming back one day and bringing my knowledge and work back to Bulgaria, but frankly I don’t think Bulgaria cares about me, or people like me. I do not feel like living in Bulgaria at this time.

I think of Europe, not Bulgaria, as my country, and I would invite everyone to do the same. Being born into a culture towards which you have a natural affinity is a matter of luck. Moving to another place addresses this as a fundamental need to “feel right” – culturally, geographically, and so on. Much as I miss my Bulgarian-born friends, who dispersed around the world in the last decade, I’m also very happy that they’ve done just that. If the country hasn’t got enough consolidated will to be a better, more accommodating, place, then people who feel out of place will move. It brings resolution and closure, whatever the outcome. I only wish it would happen quicker.

by Snezhana Bezus