Finding your other on the dance floor with Nicolas Jaar's intricate electronica
The best place to start unpacking Nicolas Jaar’s dense, intricate electronica is by asking a big question: Why do people go out at night?
“If you want to be with your friends and actually hear them speak, you don’t go to a club,” the 19-year-old Jaar said via phone. “I get the sense that you go to clubs to find your ‘other,’ so you’re already looking for something or someone, and there’s an absence. Music can make you forget that absence and yet also remind you of it, and I see a lot of beauty in that contradiction. Dancing is taking out a strong emotion, but the music is putting it back in.”
That’s the emotional dynamic that operates in Jaar’s brand of dance music. It does have the nominal, deep-rhythm rumble of a disorienting nightclub. But the musicality that sits atop it is often disarmingly lonely, otherworldly and completely unexpected on a dance floor.
Take, for instance, his breakthrough track “The Student.” It starts with some ambient creaking and an eighth-note digital pinprick that acts like a high-hat but that instead feels alien and taunting. Then comes a wan piano melody in the vein of one of his heroes, the French composer Erik Satie; it’s soon joined by a distant drawbar organ and a few smears of static all uncomfortably upfront and unaffected in the mix. All of these ingredients can be found in progressive club music, but the song never finds steady sea legs, and the track feels achingly unfinished in a purposeful, evocative way.
Other tunes are a bit more up front. “Love Teacher” has a steady bongo beat that Liquid Liquid could nod to; “Hage Chahine” takes a North African saxophone melody and sets it in a desert of super-dry snares; "Basic Channel" has synth drips and filtered vocals so distant they sound like they’re coming through your bedroom door. His “Billie Jean” remix saps all the funk out the original and replaces it with a watery dread that might be apropos if Jacko found out the kid actually was his son.
“Music meant to be played in clubs is all about bass work and producing the perfect kick, whereas the emotion in [Ethiopian musician] Mulatu Astatke is more hidden in the soul, not the body,” Jaar said. “There’s a beauty in a perfect kick-drum technique, but it needs something else. Otherwise, you’re just appealing to drunk people.”
Jaar attributes his sense of sonic alienation to a particularly cosmopolitan childhood spent between his birthplace of New York City, Chile (his father is the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar) and schooling in France, along with a French and Palestinian heritage that puts his roots in myriad cultures and geographies. It’s given the current Brown University student a unique perspective on how to convey a sense of perpetual outsiderdom in melodies, and the possibilities and perils of taking a passport-stamp approach to producing.
“The fact that I don’t fit into any one specific culture helps me see what’s special in most of them,” he said. “But you need a context for it. I try to find the part of any culture’s music that speaks to me as a person. Take someone like Madlib, who can put a Bollywood sample to a hip-hop beat, but in a way that’s not some cheesy club thing used to make a hit. It’s because he has an intellectual context for it; it fits his frame of thought.”
Jaar's music is heady, but it does have its raw physical pleasures. That’s a quality he also wants to pass on to the releases on his fledgling record label, Clown & Sunset. A collective with the young Russian producer Nikita Quasim and Ethiopian musician Soul Keita, its first release is “Ines,” a USB-stick compilation that comes in a handsome metal box that seems ready-made for holiday stocking-stuffing. That quality is no accident; in a time when tracks instantly seep into club consciousness via the Internet and every DJ has access to everything, Jaar hopes he’s found a more sentimental way to get people to pay for tunes, and to treat them as friendly voices on lonely nights.
“Years ago, you’d go buy ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ on vinyl and invite all your friends over to listen to it. Now someone e-mails you a link to a terrible Sendspace download page, and you play the song into iTunes, a disgusting corporate application. That loses the labor inside of the music,” Jaar said. “My main idea is to re-create the idea that music is a gift. I didn’t plan this, but I like the fact that the compilation is coming out in time for Christmas.”
-- August Brown