If techno is considered an intense, driving force in dance music, Nicolas Jaar’s version is more like a leisurely stroll—with a few stops along the way to smell the flowers. Many of those same mechanical ticks, synthetic bass lines and waves of ambient noise are there, but the 22-year-old has slowed things down, allowing a whole new world of sounds and samples to crop up in the spaces he creates.
This idea of space is central to how Jaar thinks. “It’s interesting,” he says on the phone from the back of a cab in Providence, Rhode Island, where he attends Brown University. “Just the word space, as in the space you live in, but also space, as in some cosmic thing. I love that dichotomy.
“It’s so important to think about the fact that between two hits, people are thinking. The silence between those beats is just as relevant as the music itself,” he continues. On 2011’s Space Is Only Noise, Jaar’s first full-length since he began releasing tracks at 17, there was ample room to think. Vocal textures in a number of languages float in and out of songs like whispers, delicate chords envelope crisp handclaps, dubby echoes ripple. Listening to it leaves you deep inside your own head rather than wiling out.
It’s exactly the type of contemplative music you would expect from someone studying comparative literature, an interdisciplinary academic field that deals with writing and art between cultures and Jaar’s focus at Brown. In his musical world this means drawing from Ethiopian jazz, movie soundtracks and the avant-garde as much as from techno or downtempo, which, given his music’s mellow feel, it often resembles.
“I never really wanted to make techno in the first place,” Jaar says, his accent revealing a New York upbringing. (His father is Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar; his mother is dancer Evelyne Meynard.) “My influences are just what I really liked at some point in my life and what stuck around. The fact that they’re coming out through electronic music is, in a way, just serendipity or luck.”
Whether by luck or calculated strategy, his music has people talking. A high-profile New York Times piece ran earlier this month and back in February, when most of the country was glued to a TV for the Super Bowl, Jaar was busy performing “From Scratch,” a five-hour audiovisual installation in a geodesic dome at New York’s MoMA PS1. The show included Jaar, with a laptop, a turntable and a microphone, improvising his music literally from scratch in the company of a sax player, a dancer, a singer and manipulated film projections.
People can experience a similar live show on Saturday 24, when Jaar comes to the Metro to showcase his label, Clown & Sunset. The label has become a place or, if you prefer, a space for Jaar and other like-minded musicians to experiment. Continuing his interdisciplinary streak, he recently expanded upon the concept with Clown & Sunset Aesthetics (CSA), which will promote “creation across the arts.”
CSA’s debut release is the Prism, a miniature aluminum cube that serves as a digital music player. “The Prism started a year ago when I held in my hands for the first time my own CD,” Jaar explains. “I realized this format is completely archaic and never wanted to put out a CD ever again.” The goal of the Prism is to bring physicality back to music, to manipulate its medium and how it’s perceived. “No big statements here,” he says. “Just trying to give the music a different spatial context.” There he goes again.…
Nicolas Jaar spaces out at the Metro on Saturday 24.