Young Magic's Musical Mapmaking

By Ivana Rihter

 Photo by Steven Long

Photo by Steven Long

“The stage is going to be really dark,” Young Magic warned me, before retreating to the green room minutes before they were scheduled to perform. Young Magic breathes life into electronic sound and challenges the very notion of traditional music making, listening to them in the cover of darkness seemed right somehow. Duo Melati Malay and Isaac Emmanuel do not record their unique tone in studios. They move through far away towns in search of every day sounds and intimate moments. They observe the world around them constantly, and this is just where the music begins.

The field recordings used in all three of their albums create a detailed map of the world, almost like cartography with sound. The conceptualization of Still Life began in Iceland, manifesting in the recordings of thumb piano, but the album’s core lies in Indonesia, where Malay herself is from.

“Personal things influencing what we created in Indonesia. We recorded kids on the street playing instruments, ambient sounds and even conversations,” Malay said.

At the end of “Lucien,” you can hear samples of the gamelan, a tradition ensemble of music made up of percussive instruments which originates in Indonesia.

“Oh I love it. It was the first instrument I learned to play as a kid,” Malay said.

“Lucien” was created after months of gathering field recordings all over Indonesia. Malay began working on it in a shack by the water trying to find the perfect balance of sounds and feelings. The gamelan used is an integral part of Indonesian culture and its percussion patterns add an ethereal eeriness to the end of the album’s most recognized track. The entire album was a return to Malay’s roots, it can be felt in every intimate recording weaved throughout each song.

The ability to capture such detailed nuances lies in that fact that Malay and Emmanuel walk through the world with ears and eyes open.

“It is a lot of deep listening, but after some time it becomes second nature,” Emmanuel said.

Both came to New York from Australia, and found commonalities in their passion for traveling and dedication to actively listening as magic happens around them in the form of every day situations and sounds. All the album’s they have put out are rich with field records from their travels, from 2012’s Melt to 2014’s Breathing Statues, to the most recently, 2016’s  Still Life. The common thread in each of these albums is the collection of sounds that they borrow from the world. The next album may very well include the unique sounds of Brazil, India, and Japan as these are the next pinned locations on their musical maps. Although Young Magic’s sorcery lies in music, travel influences every aspect of their lives, their music and their sound.

“Travel opens your ears to human nature and you become adaptable as a person as well,” Malay said.

“It opened me up to the world after traveling entirely, as a child I didn’t travel much so for me it was huge. You realize there a lot more similarities between everybody than there are differences,” Emmanuel said. “Our system is made to think there is all this division and that we are separate from these people and different and travel blends those borders, it dissolves them.”

Young Magic’s sound spans across continents and cultures which they  beautifully blend together using analog synthesis, synth, and other electronic sounds as  extensions of themselves and the wandering they do through the world. Their music somehow flawlessly combines the elements of nature with structured electronic beats.

“That’s where we are in the world right now,” Malay said of the integration of nature into technology and technology into nature. The world the Young Magic creates with their homage to nature and their control over technology is one that is reflected in day to day life.

“We’re these organic creatures with these digital extensions of ourselves and we are interested in this meeting point as people, as musicians, between technology and the natural world,” Immanuel said. “We started like that and we are trying to find that middle ground. We sometimes miss and we sometimes hit it, but that is the thing that interests us the most.”

The elusive middle ground can be found in every album of theirs, all created in informal spaces and pieced together from their massive bank of recordings. Melt came together in a warehouse in Brooklyn. Breathing Statues was perfected in an isolated cabin up in the Catskill Mountains. Still Life did not see the polished inner walls of a studio session either. Instead, Young Magic is dedicated to their creative process, which to be frank, is unlike anyone else’s.

“We are just trying to put some life into a digital thing that might be lifeless,” Malay said.

Sifting through the field recordings is the great feat of any album they make. Throughout their travels, both together and independently, Malay and Emmanuel are constantly recording the world around them.

They do not stop trying to capture the essence of the place they are taking in through its sounds and this is how the overwhelmingly large bank of recordings somehow keeps growing. The sorting part of the process happens at home, which happens to be in upstate New York, some ways away from their origins in Brooklyn.

“You hear the gold,” Melati said

As their albums have progressed, Malay’s tender vocals have become a more central part of their sound but the field recordings remain a core part of any music they put out. Sorting through the cross-continental recordings takes an unreasonable amount of patience and organization — something both members of the group admitted they lack.

“We find sections or things or moments that have something to them that we really love and then re-pitch them, chop them up, and interpret them into something new,” Emmanuel said.

 

The stage was dark. I readied myself to hear the chopped up sounds that would teleport me into parts of the world I had never seen. I stood by the drums and every beat echoed in the hollows of my chest. They came onstage quietly, both wearing floor-length coats and effectively reinforcing the mystery that surrounds them. Malay swirled around the stage, fingers drawing intricate patterns into the air around her as projections filled the wall behind her. Immanuel stood fully in profile behind his machinery, looking almost stern within his focus.

The projections were continuous, colorful and abrasive. One was of an impossibly gold ceiling of a glitzy ballroom that lit up from behind Malay as her airy voice filled the room. Another showed the eerie chalked faces of dark haired women in kimono’s dancing behind Malay whose focus remained both out in the crowd and fully within herself. They were tongue twisters for the eye, filled with graphic projections that were impossible to follow. Below the stage, the audience synchronized their bodies to the heavy bass drum in “Sparkly” all moving as one. Everyone looking up at the constant motion happening in front of them.

You can hear the cultural influences of Malay’s native land of Indonesia in almost every track from Still Life, manifesting in the effervescent sounds of traditional instruments that can be heard even more acutely live. The set ended with “Lucien” which sent the room into a profound silence. The audience had been growing bit by bit as their set flowed on and now stretched to the very back of the ground floor. I left my place in the front row, wanting to see what this beautiful spectacle looked like from far away. In the back of the room, Malay’s movements seemed even more gorgeously exaggerated, following the music with rhythmic movement unapologetically. With the sound of the gamelan, the night was over.