Romanian composer, producer and performer Mischa Blanos has released his new album City Jungle. The LP is an examination of the world around us that humanity has sculpted and created, through the lens of piano with electronics shaping the instrument. He plays on the Japanese Hiroshi scale with a Romanesque touch and underpins it with a soft electronic current.
He released two EPs Second Nature in 2018 and Indoors in 2019 on InFiné. He now returns to Infiné with this album City Jungle. The title refers to the structures we have created for ourselves for housing and culture, all of which came to a halt in 2020. This was the period where most of this album was written. City Jungle is tender, beautiful, but also mysterious and tense. The piano is at times used as a percussive instrument with firm and active melodies that flow like rapids on a river.
To get a better idea of how this came together, we asked Blanos to go into the director’s chair for a new Director’s Cut feature. He breaks down the ideas, creative concepts and some of the production process behind this album.
Listen to City Jungle now and get your copy here.
How to Listen:
Most of the pieces from the album were written during lockdown in Bucharest, during which I basically moved into my studio. And in this solitude, my mind wandered, imagining stories, revisiting history and memories, picturing distant places and all kinds of scenarios.
1. Silicon Road
When I started this piece I wanted to explore the Japanese Hirajoshi scale, a pentatonic scale used for tuning the koto, a Japanese string instrument. It was beautiful and archaic, and I wanted to bring that history into my present, which is where the techno beats served me well.
I imagined brave ancient travelers on the Silk Road. Spirited merchants crossed bleak deserts and high mountains in their caravans, facing impossible heat and cold, bandits and starvation. And it was not only goods they carried along, but also ideas and philosophies. Given the Silk Road's symbolic meaning of sharing and exchange, I couldn't stop thinking of the tremendous cultural shuffle happening right now in the digital age. As billions of invisible silk threads are stretching and connecting us, every one of us is a brave merchant, carrying ideas from one place to another, exploring unknown cultures and building ties.
Since the piano is also a percussion instrument, I sometimes start a composition as if I'm a drummer. So I found myself gently beating the odd time signature of 7/4 and this piece evolved. I imagined a silent walking, where my steps could not be heard, following the rhythm of nature around me. Sometimes limping, sometimes sliding or running on my toes, blending into the soundscape and melding into the asymmetric motion of nature, like a Fremen’s walk on the planet Dune from Frank Herbert's universe.
3. Audition at 9
I can still remember the turbulent emotions when entering concert halls as a child. It didn't matter if it were an audition, a recital or an international competition, I was a little boy dressed in a tailcoat, shivering with pounding heart and rapid breathing, dry mouth and sweaty hands before walking on stage. After that, it all dissolved into a tunnel, sending people, lights and hall into the darkness, leaving only the piano and myself, giving my best. Learning to own and embrace those emotions so early on shaped my whole life as an artist.
4. City Jungle
This is the track that also gives the name of the album and the idea behind it of our relationship with the cities we live in. Cities are the places we, humans, made for us. We took mountains and moved them, rearranging them in such a way that feels comfortable and secure for us. We molded soil and stone and built these dazzling places where we can live together protected from the wild and unpredictable nature. If it is made by us for us, why does it feel like a crushing force on the individual?
I lived and traveled in many cities, each of them with a different vibe and pressure, each of them with new rules to follow and different rhythms to attune to. Being a stranger in all these cities left something amazingly spine-chilling. I was truly dissolving into the crowd. But it was not until the pandemic that I realized the true significance: There was no crowd on the streets, the city was empty and people were confined in their homes. Yet I still felt the monolith structure imposed on myself. The crushing feeling didn't leave me, the fear of losing my identity was not due to swimming in the pool of people, it was the city itself. The city is an untamed creature and we are creating it, one cell at a time.
Between two lockdowns I was lucky to travel to Paris to record this album. One day before starting the recording session at Hinterlandlab studios, I had a day by myself to prepare and rehearse. And while I did, I got this impulse to translate the shapes and lights of the studio room into sounds. I felt like I was in an aquarium with all that sensitive gear around, diffused soft lamps and sparkling little led lights. A red flicker in one corner, a row of gauzy green rays down there and me, moving so slowly, barely touching the Rhodes piano not wanting to scare away that moment. This piece was born in that studio in an hour of jamming, an hour of delicate beauty.
This is an older acoustic piece for piano and even though I composed it years ago, I kept the composition intact, which is not normally happening. When I revisit an older unreleased track, it usually suffers adjustments. But not this one. The emotional state emanating from it was so powerful that I had to protect it as it was. And the story is: I was rehearsing in a concert room and a woman entered and listened to what I was playing at that moment, mostly improvisation, but everything changed in my music as she appeared. I didn’t know her and didn't know the piece I was playing either, it was just building itself up. So I created this dreamy trip for her and tried to connect us through sound.
So the world was in lockdown and the clubs were closed. I enjoyed the silence and the time composing, but how I wished to go out and feel the energy of the people in a club. I remembered those clubbing nights performing Ro-minimal with the Amorf techno crew, along with Cristi and Vlad. So I mixed a melancholic solo piano with percussions and a thundering kick-drum, not to forget how I miss that euphoric feeling.
Far away from the cities, there are lands, vast and uninhabited, desolate and forgotten. There are spaces of sublime emptiness, beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. In the barren landscape the hallmark of the city - abundance is wiped out, it is deprivation that rules here. This is my imaginary place for contemplation and coming face-to-face with myself; here I can rest my eyes, hear the sound of my own breath and finally pause the noisy thoughts.
9. The Aerie
When I create modern composition, even acoustic - electronic, the piano is the first thing I put my hands on. But for this piece I tried another route. I went with the approach I use when I compose clubbing and techno music that is setting the bpm and time signature at the beginning of the session. It was odd to be constrained right from the beginning, but this is precisely what inspired me to make it a polyrhythmic composition, where percussion and synths are in 4/4 meter and the piano goes with the aksak rhythm of 5/4. It gave that energy I wanted for this up-in-the-sky track.
The heights used to be the realm of birds. We changed that, and we can build our own nests high up in glittering skyscrapers. I'm looking down at the carefully shaped concrete, the lines of winding roads and mirror myself in the edgy structures of glass. There are so many reflections of myself in that glass, so many versions of myself in the city.
10. On Cue
In the beginning I started to compose this piece with Modular. Last year my experiments with modular finally took shape in an ambient-techno album, composed along with Dragusin. It was very rewarding, and because The Four Seasons.Altered album was electronic music only, this time I planned to include the acoustic piano as well in the game.
The Dual Looping Delay Module from 4MS and ERBE Verb Modul from Make Noise were connected to the Helpinstill piano pickups. I love to use the Helpinstill in live performances. The sound of the delay inspired me to actually come up with the groove of the melody. But then, as sometimes happens with technology, the reverb didn't properly connect to the pickup and no matter how I tried a noise was always there. That is why I moved away from the modular approach, but kept that groove at the piano and after recording it I used in post-production the Big Sky delay and reverb effects from Strymon.