Keraaminen Pää

Fonal Records 2010

Liner notes by Antti Nylén

The Spirit of the Magic Record

Hail Merja, full of grace. Humbly we express our gratitude for Keraaminen pää. We had been waiting for it so patiently that we almost felt we already missed it. Waiting was transforming into longing. And we know that you were one of ‘us’, too.

Together we greet Islaja. Your new sounds become you. You are as you always were. And yet you are new.

Merja, Islaja. Same person, different species.

Keraaminen pää is the fourth report from the journey of this strange couple, an album of nine songs and thousands of details, created somewhere between Helsinki, Berlin, and Ancient Greece, full of misty, idiosyncratic beauty, the comedy of depression, trees with cloaks of snow, black landscapes and waiting, deserted shores, empty spaces, ennui and desire, a craving for flesh, slow movements.

The three previous Islaja records are very different from one another as well. Where Meritieis drawn with angular pencil lines, Ulual yyy is painted with broken poster colours.

So, it’s no surprise that our ears are not yet quite fitted to the ‘Ceramic Head’. It’s rather too early to utter any confident, serious words about it.

That being said, at least two things are discernible right away. Firstly, the sounds from the recent aggressive, electronic Islaja concerts have not made it through on to this record. The musical expression here is gentle, spacious, and temperate, at times also caricatured and flippant. There is a lot of silence left to be heard.

Secondly, the birds are gone. As we remember, those flying, singing, ornate creatures abounded in the lyrical and musical biosphere of all the previous Islaja albums. Birds even rounded off Ulual yyy with their singing. The wintry or, rather, seasonless mood of Keraaminen pää is probably due in part to the birds’ eerie absence. Or are they just hiding?

Islaja-Merja, like so many responsible artists, apparently behaves unpredictably, but in fact she is inwardly predestined, and therefore infallible. The sovereignty of an artist is nothing but harsh self-discipline. An artist who is sovereign does not, cannot betray her own stance on things because of the world’s yelling, scolding, threatening, flattering, or courting. She invariably does the right thing, that which is aesthetically right. The birds must be absent. For artistic reasons.

The audience must submit to those reasons. It is the audience’s special privilege to be allowed to remain at the mercy of the artist.

But whose mercy, then, might the divine artist throw herself upon? Who shall nurture her? We only give her all our love – and “the voracious Suzy-with-the-Wolf’s-Mouth is craving for flesh”. Perhaps these questions run through every layer of Keraaminen pää, and perhaps they are addressed to all of us. Including you, Merja.

For it’s not that clear who will swallow whom. The listener undoubtedly takes the album ‘into himself’, scrupulously downloads, incorporates all the sounds it contains. The song starts to play in his head, but the voice is always the singer’s, never the listener’s own. A portable mp3 player is a perfect metaphor for the head of a music consumer: it is small, passive and absolutely insatiable (a hundred kilograms of black vinyl poses no problem to it).

But just as well one could imagine the record to be a hole you fall into.


I have already compared Islaja’s sonic art to drawing and painting, but what it most closely resembles is sculpture. The principal material is Merja’s voice. Musical instruments and other sound-making devices are the hammers, chisels, cutters and other tools with which the music is sculpted. And the product of this work is not so much the song as the recording; the one-time performance, rather than the scenario of that performance, is the actual work of art.

The human voice is miraculous. When we use it, it immediately evaporates into the skies. And yet it remains attached to the speaker, as firmly as the face. It remains the same forever. Or, to put it more precisely, it undergoes exactly the same amount of changes as the body to which it belongs. The whole upper body – the lungs, thorax, abdomen, diaphragm, windpipe and so forth – is quite concretely, quite carnally the mould that is used to cast the personal voice.

Thus Islaja has Merja’s inner form, it is cast in her mould, but after that it has been shaped and bludgeoned, revised, finalized, and eventually put on a pedestal and made available to others. The ‘ceramic head on wooden shoulders’ may be a caricatured or sarcastic image of the oeuvre of ‘audio art’, i.e. the recording. It may also be an expression of despair, impotence, fragility.

Keraaminen pää as a whole, in any case, expresses other things: the uncompromising absolutism of the artist, the utter inability to convey anything but her own unique self. Islaja has perceived the special characteristic of vocal art exceptionally well. She is fully aware that she has the possibility to be unique, but she has also, quite audaciously, taken the liberty to make use of that possibility. No one has ‘produced’ Islaja. No one but Merja.

Immortalizing the voice is a thing even more miraculous than the voice itself. It is a genuine technological miracle. In Paris they sell tiny, sealed bottles containing ‘Parisian air’, but a recording is much more magical than these souvenirs. A fleeting presence has been captured on simple matter, from which it can be released by anybody – who dares – with the help of a silly electronic device. I will never grow tired of lauding this miracle. People in the 19th century could never have dreamed of such a thing. Even if some people, then as now, could hear the voices of God from heaven, they never heard human voices anywhere else but from the mouths of other people.

We ‘modern’ people should better acknowledge this great privilege (and it’s not the only one we have).


What, then, expresses the sounds that have been captured on this record? What does this ‘vocal head on the shoulders of sound reproduction technology’ speak about? Everything, whatever – of course – and yet something very particular at every given moment, at each musical turn, on each lyrical verse. And while we are speaking about plastic art, it is much more important to ask how than simply what. Use your ears, not your intellect!

Listen, probe, and meditate upon how much colour, shape, scenery, and movement, how much aesthetic will, seduction, and affection there is within a single line from “Suzy Sudenkita”,

ei tyynyn vuoria, ei peiton laaksoa.

But if don’t get it, just try another line. Or let time pass, turn your stereo on a little more often, let loose the spirit of the magic record in your room more frequently.

And don’t be afraid, it will only devour you.

Helsinki, April 9th 2010

Antti Nylén

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watch video for Pimeyttä Kohti here

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