Where Cats Can Talk:
Dreaming The Future With Salamanda
Fantasy breathes through Salamanda’s nimble production like delicately blown glass, expanding the limits of the listener’s imagination with wordless storytelling. “At times our music becomes an escape, for us and maybe our listeners too” Sala (who also goes by Uman Therma) reflects via email; “I hope our music can somehow act as a shelter”.
Sala met Manda (aka Yetsuby) only a handful of years ago, but they quickly bonded over shared music tastes and released their first single as Salamanda a year later. Different paths lead them to music; Manda’s childhood home was filled with sound, and she played piano from a young age, while Sala knew she was passionate about the arts but “I never knew I would end up creating electronic music until I started DJing”, after getting a taste of club culture while in the UK for university; “Club tunes and James Blake got me into electronic music production, but personally I never really thought of the distinction between making acoustic and electronic music. For me, it almost feels the same except that they use different materials and instruments”
Though still in a relatively nascent stage, the project has sounded fluid and well-formed since conception, effortlessly blending the two friends’ minimalist influences with fluid and natural soundscapes that nod to Japanese Kankyō Ongaku. ashbalkum, the duo’s newest offering via Human Pitch, leans into dancefloor territory just ever so slightly more than their preceding albums – elegant vocal arrangements in ‘Melting Hazard’ come up hard against the driving percussion of ‘Rumble Bumble’. Small explosions of clubwise sensibilities are to be expected; under their solo monikers, Uman and Yetsuby founded the collective Computer Music Club during the early COVID-19 era alongside friend and experimental musician Yeong Die. While a resurgence of interest in ambient music began as clubs were left silent and empty, Computer Music Club was the trio’s outlet for hardcore experimental ruffage.
Together, they are key players in the burgeoning underground music scene in Seoul, which responds tongue-in-cheek to the sometimes overly theoretical ideas of experimentalism, as inspired by pop and Disney movies as they are by Harold Budd and Steve Reich. Though gaining acclaim worldwide, Salamanda are still proud to be grounded in Seoul. “Our friends in this community know how to have fun” they say; “there’s been lots of unique parties and projects going on here” – such as hardcore event Party Quest, held both offline in Seoul club ACS and broadcast online via private servers in MapleStory, in a creative solution to the strange, fluctuating post-pandemic world.
Nature “sets the tone” for much of Salamanda’s music; lush forests and twittering birds creep around the edges of tracks while rhythmic synths emulate disturbed water. Grounding the digital in the organic, they often use their own vocalisations as “acoustic sound sources”, manipulating them as harmonious instruments. “I always find sounds from acoustic instruments more special than from digital ones”, says Sala, “I’m sure I’ll feel just the same even when we can finally make digital signals sound like real acoustic instruments”. Central to a track on the newest album are the doleful mews of a pet cat called Ringo, playfully manipulated like the duo’s own voices throughout. The natural world is a place of solace and inspiration for the duo; “it’s what we love, what we want to live with and what we want more around us”.
Reflecting culturally specific musical traditions like those of Korean folk and classical, melted together with environmental samples, ashbalkum creates a world both familiar and strange. It transcends a geographical place, allowing the listener to imagine one. The record’s name is rooted in a Korean phrase which refers to the realisation that the reality you are living in was just a dream; the duo explains that the concept behind it came from “Sala’s old pixel drawing of a bathtub…Manda thought of a man sleeping inside the tub having a dream”. From here, the tracks were each constructed to tell “stories that remind you of the weirdest but also wonderous dreams”.
Sala’s pixel art, reminiscing the style of early video games, has long been a companion to the music and until ashbalkum she created all the artwork for Salamanda’s releases. Recently, the duo has worked on new audio-visual projects with other artists. Visit the Barbican Centre in London right now and you can hear their soundscapes complement an interactive installation in the ‘Our Time on Earth’ exhibition, which, fittingly, investigates imagined futures for tackling climate change and preserving the natural world. “We love collaborating on all kinds of audio-visual projects and definitely want to do more and more” they reflect.
On the political subcurrent of such an approach, Sala continues, “It’s more of an unconscious engagement, I guess. We haven’t really thought of making a track to advocate for certain ideas or to promote our political views, but I believe our views and values can still be reflected from our music and I think that’s fine. I often work on music to channel my stress and sadness that comes from daily life”. It’s a sentiment which reflects the proximity and personal attachment each brings to their creative process, an inherent understanding of the humanity of creation.
Looking to the future, they share that a long-term goal is to create film soundtracks, reflecting one of their shared loves of cinema and the work of Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. It’s easy to imagine Salamanda’s immersive and deeply felt composition flowing through tender romantic scenes or absurdist adventures. Now the world has reopened after the past two years, Sala hopes to “go out, witness grand landscapes, experience the greatness of Mother Nature and get inspired”.
Manda, on the other hand, is looking deep into the earth:
“I recently watched a horror film called The Descent and it made me want to take a trip to a cave. Whichever cave it is, as long as it’s safe, I’m down to travel.”
ashbalkum is out now on Human Pitch