A voice speaks in French from a distance, as if discovered on an old answering machine. Another voice begins singing, granular and shaky. Organ tones shift slowly underneath the pained vocalizations. Eventually, a synthesized, dance-floor beat comes in. There was no real expectation that a beat would drop to begin with, and the song soon ends.
The song is “HUITRE,” fragile and haunting. It is one of the many intriguing tracks on LE CUISINER, the new album from Sofia Reta, an anonymous collective of musicians centered in the Baltimore area. Sofia Reta has a cryptic online presence; a writer from Impose Magazine requested an interview and instead received a video manifesto, which might help you a bit with grasping what the collective’s all about.
“SOFIA RETA aims to engineer new forms of life, social dynamics, and alternative value systems.”
Pretty much everything that Sofia Reta does is disconcerting, from its anonymity to the unsettling images that adorn its albums. But there is also a glow to the music, audible in “Huitre” and much of the other music off LE CUISINER. The French tone of the album belies the collective’s fascination with language and translation, the slippage between meanings as they travel. The doubleness of their texts’ unintelligibility—sung in a foreign language, and then scrambled with electronic effects–supports their overall project, disabusing music of stable identity or individual personality.
“SOFIA RETA performs its image through smoke and mirrors. It is never exactly specific as to whom is actually contributing to the project at any given point in time, so the image of a performer isn’t something that reveals any kind of truth. The performer may even be a hired actor, someone who has no musical experience whatsoever- anyone really. The image doesn’t reflect the music. That being said it is important that it tells you as much with its aesthetic presentation. In this way we hope that you never really feel that SOFIA RETA is (or can even) walk onto stage.
Perhaps she is bed ridden, an old woman, a child, a dad, a raver, we don’t know really. She definitely has representatives, but nothing more than that. SOFIA RETA is fundamentally a mirage.
We’re basically selling tickets to a cruise ship whose attractions are mirages.”
The collective takes advantage of technology to attempt to subvert capitalism from within. On Bad Luck, their last full-length, Sofia Reta mined material from other artists across the Internet. For this album, they took on new real-life members and worked through ideas in the studio. In an email interview, they described Baltimore’s economic limbo as an inspiration—the vacant sectors of the city, trapped between economic revitalization and demolition. Sofia Reta attempts to slip through these cracks.
“LE CUISINER was created as if we were in a laboratory. We played with metal bowls filled with water to get sounds, listened to different birds in the city, read about children’s games, played a lot with different scales and forcing their defining characters to be within the structure of western music theory, and generally had a lot of discussions about food, the act of nourishing, and how we can translate all of these ideas into a sonic language we could be fluent in.”
LE CUISINER is an album of contrasts, tangible in the crunchy space-age beats of “GATEAU” versus the warm, ‘60s guitar vibe of “MIEL.” There’s a persistent, underlying strangeness: in “GATEAU,” distant voices seem to chant more at each other than at the listener; towards the end of “MIEL,” the pleasantries are punctured by stabbing electronic chords, before the wide-ranging arpeggios wander off into uncharted harmonic territory.
In the spacious “RAIFORT,” a woodblock beat sounds like dripping water, atop cool electronic menace. The vocals are almost perceptible; it appears to be something like a torch song. At the end, before fading away, a voice tenderly repeats “I love you.” On the entire album, it was the only line I was sure I heard correctly.