musician ziemba gives herself over to poetic logic

Musician René Kladzyk releases psychedelic music in the form of fragrance for a transformative experience

Within our digitally mediated lives, music has become something to consume as a digital file: if listening is paired with other sensory input it’s usually sight, in the form of projections or music videos or album art. For René Kladzyk, that wasn’t enough. 

Kladzyk, who makes music as Ziemba, is acutely aware of how bodies interact with space and how scent and sound affect a space. Kladzyk traces this awareness through disparate experiences: speaking to women at the border about their experiences navigating space in the context of state violence and feminicide, studying gnawa music and ecstatic trance in Morocco, using aromatherapy to care for a sick pet, observing her own sensory relationship with her grandmother’s treasured objects (some of which made it from the thumb of Michigan to Kladzyk’s current sun-lit bedroom in Brooklyn).


This subconscious interest manifested in 2016, when Kladzyk distributed her debut album, Hope is Never, by selling an incense made with flowers from the yard of her childhood home, enamored with the intimacy of the exchange and the poetry of how burning this incense could transform a space and give listeners a transportive experience.

Upon realizing this power, Kladzyk has continued to explore fragrance: in the last year, she has released a fiery, devotional kyphi incense pellet to accompany her subsequent LALA EP, hosted fragrance-making parties, and done performances that make audience members pay attention to scent. Currently, she is doing a residency with Guerilla Science, working with a fire organ: a massive arrangement of Rubens’ tubes designed to shoot fire in response to different frequency ranges. (Kladzyk is building a fragrance apparatus inside the contraption so that the overall fragrance generated will constantly be transforming in relation to the vocal and synth information she feeds it.) She is also working on a new album, inspired by feminist science fiction, driven by a desire to make work that is political but also future-oriented and fueled by a drive towards transcendence.

When I catch up with her to talk about the role of fragrance in her life, she unfurls an alchemist’s spread of incenses and essential oils. As drops of an energizing room mist meant to accompany a springtime ambient track settle around us, we talk about literature, the material world, reclaiming women’s work, and giving oneself over to poetic logic.

How did you start incorporating fragrance into your practice?

It made sense for my first album, Hope is Never, because there were so many songs about fire and I wanted a way to sell digital music as an artifact that felt special and that related to the music. I made an incense with flowers from the yard of my childhood home [for listeners to] burn while listening.

Here was this symbolic act: while you’re listening to these songs about fire, you’re actually destroying something and appreciating its beauty through destroying it. A lot of the songs are about loss and destruction and death and processing death, so it felt really poetic and perfect.

With a loose leaf incense, you’re gradually adding elements to the charcoal disc, so it doesn’t burn uniformly and you notice different elements coming to the forefront at different times and you can smell it as it changes.

Fragrance is a an interesting element because you transform space, and when you combine it with music, you transform a sonic space.

I don’t think I completely grasped the power of it until after the fact. At that point, I started getting really infatuated with paying attention to fragrance and my sense of smell, and thinking more synaesthetically. I’ve always been really interested in synaesthetic artists — I love [Vladimir] Nabokov, and [Alexander] Scriabin, the early 20th century Russian composer. He’s really special. He’s really influential but also a total maniac. He wrote this piece that was unfulfilled that was called Mysterium that was supposed to bring about the apocalypse. He was very interested in ecstatic expression and did other things like try to notate music for color.

I did an artists residency in Morocco [in 2013] because I was really interested in gnawa and jilala music. I became acutely aware of how critical a space was to your experience of sound. In those spaces, where a gnawa band was playing for ten hours and people were going into really intense ecstatic trance states, so many elements had to intermingle to create a circumstance where that was possible.

That makes sense because your music is ambient and psychedelic, creating spaces,  rather than a direct narrative. And scent is the most psychedelic sense, especially in how it is tied to memory.   

I think one of the things I really love about fragrance and scent is that it’s not grounded in a narrative logic, you conceive of it in more of a poetic or symbolic logic.

I think one of the things I really love about fragrance and scent is that it’s not grounded in a narrative logic, you conceive of it in more of a poetic or symbolic logic. ​

When did you first become interested in working with fragrance?

My dog was dying and I used aromatherapy with him. He had cancer and I would put lavender on a bandanna around his neck. It really helped him to relax when he was feeling anxious or in pain.

I read a lot about aromatherapy at the time, and it was comforting to hang out and experience fragrance with him and see how it helped him. That was the moment I was like, ok, aromatherapy isn’t bullshit.

I like the idea of pairing it with digital music. So much of how we consume music now takes place in the digital realm which is all visual and sonic, and scent is so grounded in the tangible and physical material reality that we can’t access through the internet. It creates a new sensory relationship.

I was really excited at the idea of doing things that were more grounded in space and present and material with digital music because I really lament how un-special acquiring digital music feels. Having an artifact that feels very special and intimate, that makes you take a moment in time and space with the sound, was important to me.

I don’t want to be too much of a luddite, and I feel like I am a lot of the time, but I would say that’s my biggest lamentation with the type of consumerism that exists in our world today: it’s very much oriented around discarding and not ever having a treasure. And it’s nice to treasure something.

I look at the way that my grandmother took care of her objects – she didn’t have so many things, but she took such sweet care of them, and I have them because she took care of them.
And that feeling of time and of something being regarded kindly is really nice.

What is a fragrance you’re working with now?

I’m making a room mist to release with an ambient track. It’s a refreshing room mist [so people can] have a mental break for four minutes or so. It’s ylang ylang, alder wood, and Texas cedarwood. Ylang ylang is supposed to be an aphrodisiac, which is appropriate in the spring.

It’s named after this [Joan Slonczewski] book, A Door into Ocean, which is about a planet that is populated entirely by women who are known as the sharers, and there’s no land, it’s just water.

We got the alder oil in Glastonbury, England on my last tour. The place had the nicest discussion of the way alder is as a plant and its human use history:

“Alder prefers to grow on riverbanks and waterlogged moors where the boundaries between the earth and water merge. As it soaks up the water, it becomes dense and heavy, yet resistant. Alder does not succumb to rotting. This is why it is associated with both water and fire. It’s inner fire has the power to dry up such damp watery bogs. It’s water resistant wood once furnished the foundations of houses, especially those built into lakes and rivers. Most of Venice is built on alder stilts. Yet, it was also thought to offer protection against fire.” And then it talks about Celtic mythology, how alder is the sacred tree of Bran, the patron god of bards, poets, and musicians.

It smells kind of like lilac, it doesn’t actually smell very woody at all.

Where did you grow up?

I moved around a lot growing up. The house that the incense came from is in the thumb of Michigan – that’s where I spent my early childhood. I’m from Forestville, on Lake Huron, way on the border of Canada. It’s a really tiny town, population 100. It used to have a gas station and a corner store but they both closed.

I lived there during my early childhood and then moved outside of Ann Arbor for a little bit. My mom moved to Flagstaff, Arizona and my dad moved to El Paso, Texas, so my later childhood and adolescence was mostly in the southwest. It’s a really big part of my identity. The desert and the thumb of Michigan have something in common in that they both feel a little outside of time, or outside of the cultural moment of today. There’s an attitude in those areas where Washington, DC feels very far away and like it’s not actually governing that much.

I did my masters research in feminist geography in El Paso and Juarez [in 2008-10], when the violence in Juarez was at its apex. I was talking to women about their experience as borderlanders and how that was changing in the context of violence, how their sensual experience of navigating space was changing, and [how] their sense of who they were [was changing] as a result of that. It was really profound, the way it reshaped people’s lives on a day to day level. Maybe part of why I’m so attentive to space is because I spent several years fixating on the gendered body in space.

What is the Ardis Multiverse?

This fall I announced Ardis Multiverse, which was me putting a name on releasing multi-sensory work. Ardis is a Nabokov reference – it’s a place in the book Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle, which is a mythic home for these cousins who are in love with each other. They speak in a dream language. That book is simultaneously a love story and a treatise on the nature of time. Ardis also means “the point of an arrow,” so it’s a nice point of nexus. “Multiverse” was because it’s multi-sensory, [as well as tied to] the concept of the multiverse instead of the universe. It’s pretty psychedelic.

The hope is to connect with other artists who are doing multi-sensory work. I still hope to work with other labels on releasing music in more traditional formats, but it feels empowering to do releases in mutli-sensory form because it’s easy to do small batches of things and it fulfills a lot of my objectives for releasing digital music in a way that’s satisfying.

The EP LALA [produced with Jeremiah Meece] was the first thing that I put out in that way. Those songs were from the perspective of this she-demon succubus character who lives in a cave. She’s really destructive and violent but also feels sympathy. She’s a femme fatale figure that has global empathy. She isolates herself to protect the world from her.

When I made the accompanying fragrance, it felt very obvious how to do it, because the songs were already such a world. The colors were scarlet and blue and all the components for the fragrance were scarlet and blue. There was a notion of putting together fragrances that would both elicit cosmic supernatural feelings and also be protective. I used dragon’s blood, which is a resin that’s called that because it oozes red when you burn it. There were juniper berries in it, which is kind of an intoxicating but also a gross fragrance.

I made the incense as a Kyphi pellet, which is the next step of difficulty from the loose leaf incense. Kyphi was an ancient Egyptian incense form, designed to be an offering for the gods, which is also appropriate for the content. You make the pellets by using binding things like honey and red wine, which are also offerings. You get a mortar and pestle and make a mixture of all the dry ingredients and then you add honey and red wine and mix it together and let it dry. You burn it on a charcoal disc. For LALA, I also put some chocolate in there, which I was really nervous about, but had an urge to do. The fragrance ended up being very sweet in a way but also very metallic.

I enjoy the process of increasingly trying to conceive of music in fragrant terms. It implies giving yourself over to poetic logic a lot more frequently.

What draws you to this type of work now?

If you think about artists as having some set of ethical obligations for what they’re putting out into the world, and we live in the time we live in, in which any act is a political act, and creative acts can have the power to be really significant political acts because artists push cultural transformation, then doing things that deprioritize individualism and prioritize connection and attentiveness to the value of other materials other than human actants is valuable. If we view our world as one in which humans are the only entity that has agency, then that has a lot of implications. If you instead look at nonhuman actors as having agency, and if there is an assemblage of interconnectedness instead of having a hierarchy of connections and power geometries, I think that’s helpful.

[It ties into] a lot of the research I was doing in grad school—this postmodern feminist stuff, thinking on the scale of the body and how it’s microcosmic. You don’t have to always be at the macro level to talk about power structures. You can look at all these transnational issues through the lens of one person walking across the border.

And fragrance is special because it’s both mundane and sublime. If you’re putting perfume on it’s a really mundane act but it also connects you to a history, and to all these earth materials that have their own history. You get this essence of something that’s long dead but still has this blast of beauty in it.

That’s very eco-feminist as well: connecting to things in the world besides human rationale.

Working with fragrance is similar to working with textiles or with any number of elements that have traditionally been relegated to women’s work. It’s confronting what gets to count, and thinking about how we can attack hierarchies.

I’m typically interested in forms of expression that value and explore terrains that are typically understood as women’s work or folk art, and how our conception of what is meaningful creative work can be located there.

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