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Noise is, of course, everywhere in daily life – from the waterfall of the humble toilet flush to the droning hum of traffic – yet it takes a special ear to notice sound amongst such noise, to recognise its specificity, and to incorporate it into a creative whole.
It is clear that Evan Shornstein, aka Photay, possessed such an ear for sound from an early age. Listening to “African percussion, Gregorian chants, Celtic folk, Mongolian throat singing and, of course, the Beatles” as a child at home, Shornstein’s mother soon recognized her son’s fascination with sonics and bought him tapes of ambient rainforest, ocean, and train sounds. This led to a lifelong passion, one that was informed by being “sensitive to sound, both fearful and mesmerized”. An avid drummer, Shornstein spent his high school years playing in bands while developing a knack for turntablism, making “sample heavy music, lots of breakbeats and scratching vinyl”, resulting in his debut EP, ‘1st’, released in 2012.
A mix of natural and electronic sound, ‘1st’ was informed by Shornstein’s travels to Guinea and his subsequent learning of hand drumming and balafon, as well as the metallic synth textures used by IDM pioneers like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Following EPs, 2014’s ‘Photay’ and 2016’s ‘Sadie’, further developed Shornstein’s fascination with polyrhythmic percussion, natural textures, and manmade atmospheres, resulting in glitch-heavy sample-based tracks like ‘No Sass’, and the melody-driven vocal lines of ‘Monday’. With yet more travelling and sonic experimentation under his belt, Shornstein has just released his debut LP, ‘Onism’.
“Onism is a word created by John Koenig, it’s the idea that ‘your life is limited to a single reality, by virtue of being restricted to a single body’”, Shornstein explains. “This word perfectly sums up my states of mind over the past two years while making this record; musically, I’ve been exposed to many new scenarios as a result of touring and living in Brooklyn, exploring club scenes as well as ambient listening environments and diving deeper into electronic live performance”. This constant back-and-forth between touring and living in Brooklyn can also create a sense of frustration of being stuck in a ‘single reality’, simultaneously yearning to explore as well as be home, and it is through this yearning that Shornstein manifests his musical experimentation.
Equally inspired by the fast-paced Brooklyn music scene, as well as the slow, natural beauty observed on a recent road trip taken through North America, camping amongst the sublime vistas of Montana, Alberta and Washington state, ‘Onism’ combines natural sounds filtered through the electronic and the acoustic made synthetic. “Acoustic instruments are super important to me, especially the ones I can't play”, Shornstein states, “the acoustic instruments make the artificial ones feel more significant and all of a sudden the songs feel bigger. They provide comfort in the midst of electronic overload.” Tracks like opener ‘Screens’ and ‘Eco Friend’ therefore merge low-end strings to sound like a plastic futurism, while a quiet outdoor noise serves as consistent texture, placing the music in a sense of space.
With field recordings always forming a large part of Shornstein’s writing process, he has also increasingly pushed his own vocals to the fore, including processed voice on tracks like ‘Storm’, ‘Inharmonious Slog’, ‘Aura’, and the Madison McFerrin feature ‘Outré Lux’. “I love singing but I’m not trained in any way”, Shornstein states. “For the time being, I like the imperfection, especially living in an age of autotune and digital masking!” Yet, these imperfections are rarely to be heard on ‘Onism’; rather, the LP merges the dancefloor with the private listening space, translating sound into tangible material.
With a live US and European tour in the works, complete with extended re-edits of album cuts to warp the familiar, Shornstein will be using his work to “challenge listeners while gaining their trust. I want to comfort them and put them on edge, to have them experience the full spectrum of emotions. Though, I hope positivity and inspiration rises to the top!”
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Words: Ammar Kalia
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