Feral Luggage, VoiMaa, penchant for a subversive free jazz sound
di Giovanni Panetta
Interview with Mika & Elijah Pontecorvo. An in-depth analysis about the San Francisco-based projects VoiMaa and Feral Luggage, a track-by-track on the Feral Luggage's release Diaspora Focii.

VoiMaa, clockwise from top left: Kersti Abrams (sax), Adriane Pontecorvo (cello), Elijah Pontecorvo (bass), Mark Pino (percussion), Mika Pontecorvo (guitar), Patrick Talesfore Jr. (drums). (Credits Nick DiNatale, Mark Pino, Elijah Pontecorvo and Sylvia Soule)

Mika Pontecorvo is a musician, producer, promoter and visual artist from San Francisco. He collaborates and collaborated in several projects like VoiMaa, Feral Luggage, Cartoon Justice, etc, with a free-improvisational creativity and a freezing and warm sonic harmonicity.  He takes his musical references from harmolodic and electronic knowledge, and especially his formation under the Vladimir Ussachevsky’s guide, the Manchuria-originated composer of the XX century, who was one of most important pioneers in tape music. Through this skill on composition, a part of his electronic effort, with Feral Luggage in particular, is in the sign of a cold plasticity, refined in its details, and an interesting example of processed editing music. Instead, focusing on his collaboration with the Cartoon Justice band and Calvin Weston (James Blood Ulmer) in Terra Lingua (Sketches) (2017, a Mika Pontecorvo and Cartoon Justice’s production), it gives and explicative idea of the above-mentioned, broadly baroque approach in an analog sense. Indeed, here the Mika’s guitar style is atonally, fervidly expressonist in a more generally jazz way. The first track, Exo-Urbania, is oblique and abstract music with free funk-ish elements, not casually à la James Blood Ulmer. Spirit Aligned Truth is opener in its melodic lines, contemplating and magmatic in its free use of funk harmonies. Villa d’Ornette is more characterised by a polychromated creativity, with more fuzzed riffs in that soundscape, aerobic lines of saxophone (played by Kersti Abrams) and the ones of cello (Adriane Pontecorvo) which gives a metallic-like and broadly psychedelic touch. Khymera Blue is a 6/8 piece, where the Mika and Abrams lines are libertarian with its electric free jazz sonorities, and more rarefied, bitter and sour than the other tracks. Finally, Cinema Diaspora is a more conceptual and fugal free improvisation between analog and digital sound; there is a free-form part at beginning, which develops in free-funk sonorities, which are more definitive and theatrical with their total, different instances, following an obscure, ambient sound takes that place, mixing itself with a jazz-ish free-impro part, with a cold creativity, adapting to its lysergic soundscape; and at the end a brief and dynamic crazed free jazz/funk sound, in a proper way, concludes the piece. Anyway in the following Mika Pontecorvo and the other collaborators’ releases (it’s important to mention Elijah Pontecorvo‘s contribution with his magmatic and complex playing with bass) will be characterised by a further cold sound played by VoiMaa and Feral Luggage. Focusing on these, the VoiMaa and Feral Luggage members are: Kersti Abrams (alto saxophone, mbira, North-African reeds, flutes), Mark Pino (drums, water-phone, percussion), Adriane Pontecorvo (cello, percussion), Elijah Pontecorvo (bass), and Mika Pontecorvo (guitar, flute, voice, electronics); Patrick Talesfore Jr. (on drums and percussion) appears only in Feral Luggage.

We will talk about VoiMaa, Feral Luggage and other associated topics with two of those main characters, which are Mika & Elijah Pontecorvo. Following the interview that will analyse those sounds more direrctly, with a track-by-track on Diaspora Focii (Feral Luggage’s release in April 8, 2020).

Let’s begin to talk about your project Feral Luggage. How was this project born? What are the intentions? Moreover, what are the points of reference on this aleatory, conceptual course, between electronics and analog sounds?

Elijah Pontecorvo: “Feral Luggage was born of a couple of science fiction ideas about the smart luggage and the distant future state of society.”

Mika Pontecorvo: “First, in Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam in 1998, I observed a woman leading her suitcase on a leash, causing me to wonder: would autonomous luggage have any rights as a sentient lifeform? And then, More conceptually, the project comes from the idea of a future utopian mood of social harmony and ‘good thoughts’ in which our very basic penchant for the blues or free jazz is considered subversive to the point of being illegal and their expression a jailable offense—leading to a lot of room for revolution.

“From within this atmosphere, a future singer and rebel named Feral Luggage sends a message from the 29th century back into the past (2016) to make musicians aware of that possible future.”

Mika Pontecorvo

Mika Pontecorvo (credits Lenny Gonzalez).

Last album, Anamorphosis (released in April 3, 2021), districates between glitched dissonances and obscure cold noises. Indeed there is a certain frozen atmosphere on this atonal and drone creativity, where a wavering sensibility, periodic like a hellish inductive algorithm puts out an exacerbated and chaotic ideal structure. How was this concept born? How did this freezing attitude happen?

Mika Pontecorvo: “Any ‘Freezing’ is my micro surgery on the sound and casting them into the sonic environment representing ‘the Vacuum of Deep Space’.

“The pieces are generated from taking some of our performances and passing them into generative processes of mine that slice and dice audio and rearranges it. For instance, the Cafe Nela piece (“One Night at Nela”) was created as a montage from a recording of a live and extremely energetic punk-jazz set we played at a club in Los Angeles a couple of years back. An homage to the Dadaists of the 1920-30s, it was better to cut it up into little pieces and reassemble it as a sort of sonic poem, forming an impressionistic cityscape of a rainy evening’s drive through Manhattan – varying blocks and intersections of traffic and city sound, light, and images, a contrasting and oppositional mirroring of the still LA night in the light Spring rain outside of the club.

“The approach is actually informed by my study of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) science and its compositional/sonic fallout in some of the ideas of Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti. These works are also informed by the work of Charles Ives and my studies under Vladimir Ussachevsky.

“These works are in a sense ‘found compositions’ – the structural aspects are from my architecting of the processes of creation and my ear/mind in dealing with the results.

“The structural balance, or lack thereof, is a matter of the happenstance in my generative architectures. In some sense, passing an improvised piece of music through these structural processes forms a layered meta-level of chaos and organisation. If you add to this what the audience brings to the work, it forms a complete artistic expression.”

Big Structures / the Galactic Wall / the Number Station, a track from Anamorphosis, is a sharp improvisation with distorted bass and synth lines, and it seems everything is filtered and reversed through pedals or/and loop machines. All is suspended through a mephistophelic and ethereal ambient, but it is austere too, giving the opportunity to immerse seriously in those transparent periodic patterns, colouring them subjectively with own feelings and impressions. It is a real trip, through physical and high reliefs onto a platonic cosmos. What is the instrumentation for this track? How did this periodicity happen?

Mika Pontecorvo: “This track is simply my guitar playing through a process architecture I constructed, running on a Macintosh Laptop. The work is about creating a sort of ‘wall’ of pointillistic events like the stars, nebulae, and filaments/webs of galactic matter in the larger ‘wall’ structures in the Universe such as the ‘Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall’. My poetic conceit, in this, is my thinking of them as similar to the rattling sequences of numbers broadcast from the old Cold War numbers stations for conveying coded covert information to operatives, a bit silly, but somehow with a newfound relevance these days…

“(Interestingly enough, when I was reviewing the audio of this piece, a YouTube video of a Cecil Taylor piano improvisation started playing in the room I was in and there seemed to be a distinct correlation between the two pieces of music, as if the process that yielded the Galactic Wall was the result of a human improviser playing with Taylor. Happenstance!)”

Diaspora Focii is the primary album by Feral Luggage, and it districates through a magmatic a-melodic/atonal sounds with a dynamic structure. The next part of this questionnaire will be a track-by-track about Diaspora Focii. Spirit Aligned Truth is powerful and cold at same time in its sonorities, which has traces of Eastern-European harmonies and a free, chaotic imposition. There’s a broad free-jazz idea on improvisation through a freezing mindset in music. How did its creative course and its ambivalent concept happen?

Eiljah Pontecorvo: ““Spirit Aligned Truth” uses the soulful musical language of spiritual music to illuminate/celebrate a person’s mind and unity of people looking for something together. The piece’s introduction is a free-form invention combining my bass work, with the two drummers (Mark Pino and Patrick Talesfore jr.), and Mika pulled it all together based on the introduction to a Sonny Sharrock piece. So this piece is an homage to Sharrock and his work.”

Mining The Radio Of Dreams is much more cold and is permeated by an ambient-like theme. Melodic movements are static, but the power of your sound increases with the ever-more involvement of instruments and timbres through the time, until free-improvisation becomes dominant. Peaks of sounds give a more weird form on this track some times, with cello or synth, raising a lysergic atmosphere. So, what was the creative course of this track, and how did its harlequinesque air happen?

Elijah Pontecorvo: “This piece, like all of the pieces in this recording session, was a free improvisation and exemplifies the band’s approach to live performance. In fact, these pieces are all performed live in the studio, and in most cases, the electronic processing was also done in real time during the original recording, not in post-production. The entire album was completed in an eight-hour session one rainy December afternoon.”

North Desert Border Storm has a more lyrical tendency, with blues-harmonic shades. The sonic structure of this track is deformed, crumpled in a certain way, imposing an idea of music as an unicum. How did this creative course happen and its concept of “one in a multitude”?

Elijah Pontecorvo: “We were inspired by the North African/Tuareg desert blues of bands like Tinariwen, which gave us the loping rhythm of a horse cart or a camel caravan on a desert path. With this, we wove in an off-kilter, metal-style bassline, against which we juxtaposed a straight guitar rhythm.”

Adriane Pontecorvo

Adriane Pontecorvo (credits Sylvia Soule).

Elijah Pontecorvo

Elijah Pontecorvo (credits Mark Pino).

… Still Dreaming, which is made by abstract textures, flows through a peculiar experiment in the sign of free improvisation. Almost-outsider sounds and noise music becomes a unique entity, in a magmatic way. How did its creative course and its weird side happen?

Elijah Pontecorvo: “Again, here free improvisation with the mechanism of invention/structure coming out of Mika’s micro-timbral experiments and textural improvisations.”

In Stone-3 Sub-Saharan Control Set harmonies are more sweet and sour, with the ordinary and chaotic craftsmanship. Sonorities recalls a more jazz approach, despite the different notation regarding Sub-Saharan context; otherwise, we could say it is ideal for its melodic/harmonic lines in the name of historical black music. How was this piece born, and its more melodic and elegant (in any way) lines?

Mika Pontecorvo: “This piece is our reimagining of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Third Stone from the Sun.” I’ve always wanted to hear Miles Davis do a rendition of the Hendrix song to get at a more ‘jazz’ notion of sonic variations, and over the years, my thinking about this led me to Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic concepts. They filter into this evolution of ideas. I use an asymmetric African drum rhythm on guitar (the notes are from the original song’s bass line, but the rhythm’s complexity adds a lot) as a beginning substrate for this version of the piece and use cello, sax, and guitar as an Afrobeat-style brass-chorus in a way. With these elements, we created this spiritual tribute to a great piece of Hendrix’s invention.”

Talking about Voi!Maa! project, there is a more meditated and well-structured vision in recording sessions. This effort is a free improvisation with a psych-ambient attitude which should be commonly defined as freak music. This musical corpus is very reflessive and wavering, and the lines are cold and neutral, through free harmonies in a serialist way (we could say in a personal sense, with elements of traditional electronic music), contemplating a concept of an “organic silence”. Can you talk about this project, how it was born and develops in its course?

Mika Pontecorvo: “VoiMaa comes from the Finnish language, where it can mean “Oh! Earth!” or can be a word for power in the partitive case (voimaa). It came from a mantra-like utterance that came to me one morning while visiting Kuopio, Finland, for a design conference. Kuopio is in a region known for its Pagan culture.

“I like your term ‘organic silence’ for this. The Silence in Northern/Arctic Atmosphere is the main Structure with sounds being simply the framing of it. The silence in VoiMaa’s music is perhaps the space inside the portal mentioned by the shaman, the portal space between realms of the living and underground/dead. Our work here is again mostly studio recording of our live performance combined with some of my architectural processes for structuring and resonifying parts. Yes, free improvisation is the method, here based on some northern Indigenous/folk themes.”

Kersti Abrams

Kersti Abrams (credits Mark Pino).

Mark Pino

Mark Pino (credits Elijah Pontecorvo).

Voi!Maa! Self-titled album (released in August 18, 2020) is more diversified and dynamic, despite the predominant freezed climate. In particular the range extends between Tässä Ei Nyt (Here Not Now) which shows a more fluidity, and Hengittää – Earth’s Breath which plays a freak and abstractist role in the work. What was the creative process of this album? How did its internal heterodoxy happen?

Elijah Pontecorvo: ““Tässä Ei Nyt” is a live performance we did highlighting the individual players’ powers at bending and painting sonic realities.”

Mika Pontecorvo: ““Hengittää” winds up as a meditation on the Sámi sonic practice of joik bringing the planet and its breathing into reality. It began as a modern impression of joik that our saxophonist, Kersti Abrams, cellist, Adriane Pontecorvo, and I recorded several years back, then I used some generative processes to extend that into a drone structure leading up to and out from this original trio recording. I played the flute, vocalized, and played drum on the original recording. With a joik you don’t sing about something, you actually joik/sing the thing itself, bringing it into being, in a sense. I appreciate that one venue booker said of VoiMaa’s music that it is the sound of the aurora borealis…

“The ‘new moon’ piece was a harmolodic rendition of an old Finnish folksong, “The Village Awaited the New Moon,” made famous globally by the Karelian folk revival group Värttinä on their 1992 album Seleniko. A lot of my approach to Harmolodics on the guitar is informed by the playing of James Blood Ulmer…”

At the end, what will be the next news on the Feral Luggage and Voi!Maa! creative paths? What will we expect from their Arctic psychedelia? Will there be any tour or mini-tour in Europe next time?

Elijah Pontecorvo: “Firstly, let me tell you that we truly appreciate your deep listening and informed ear. As far as Europe, we have high hopes to get over there sooner than later. We are currently looking for the right promoter/organisation to get our sound over there. I have always appreciated the informed European interest in music and our sound.

“VoiMaa is looking into collaboration with some Sami and Finnish musicians in the next two years as well.

“Feral Luggage is also planning a US tour with our vocalist friend Ayako Kanda, a Tokyo-based free improvisation vocalist. And, some of us will be playing out in the US with South African Master Musician Mogauwane Mahloele and accompanying poet saxophonist Elliott Levin on the West Coast US.”

Mika Pontecorvo

Mika Pontecorvo (credits Mark Pino).

Patrick Talesfore Jr

Patrick Talesfore Jr. (credits Nick DiNatale).

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