Nina Keith’s debut album MARANASATI 19111 makes the complex topics of memory and death accessible.

The subject matter of Nina Keith's debut album, MARANASATI 19111, is a heavy one.

Maranasati is the Buddhist concept of death contemplation and its practice involves confronting death to erode the anxiety, fear, and pain associated with it. Death contemplation was sometimes practiced in traditional monasteries by prominently displaying a human skeleton. To bring an immediate awareness of death’s commonality Buddhist meditation would quite literally occur in the presence of a corpse.

A similar uncomfortable presence can be heard in Nina Keith’s work. It lingers between the lines of her piano and creates a hallucinatory experience akin to the mindfulness of Maranasati. Strange synthetic components coalesce and dissolve. Modular synthesizers and ephemeral vocals create sonic hallucinations. Found sounds and nature recordings produce textures that are uncanny and alive. The piano, an alluring siren, beckons the listener deeper into contemplation.

How does Maranasati influence your creativity? Also, what is the significance of 19111?

To preface, I don't have a strict practice of Maranasati that adheres to any tradition of Buddhism, although it feels like the strongest cornerstone of what sloppy and erratic spiritual practice I do have. There is something to be felt within it that I can't put into words. If I follow that feeling and keep some momentum with my awareness it starts to be a lens through which I see the world, filtering out a lot of bullshit.

I have an app on my phone that sends random alerts throughout the day that say "don't forget you're going to die." There have been times where I'm obsessively editing something or re-recording an improvisation and my phone will go off and it's like "oh shit right" then I'd just send that part through my cassette player or something so that I can't mess with it anymore. Half of the feeling is this urgency of not wanting to mindlessly waste my time on this earth. The more important half is what's really hard to put into words for me, this sort of groundlessness feeling. It always feels reductive to try to describe it. It helps me not take things too seriously though and loosen my attachments, whatever dozens of them are at the forefront of my consciousness at any given moment.

This album is like a soundtrack to my process of trying to stabilize memory networks related to death. When we go through painful grieving processes around death we can, unfortunately, log all of our pain and traumatic memories in the same network as our general awareness of death and impermanence. I think it's possible to parse them out though. It's normal for them to be tangled together and for there to be resistance to thinking or talking about death.

In classical music, Death, as a subject matter, isn’t uncommon.

Classical music’s most iconic evocation of death is Frederic Chopin’s Funeral March, Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat. It was played at the funerals of John F Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher. It was also performed at the composer’s own burial in Paris. Whereas Chopin’s work was dark, dense and serious, Nina Keith’s work is light and less melancholic, emphasizing life lived as opposed to life lost.

When you listen to MARANASATI 19111, you can feel a storytelling presence. However, the content of the album’s narrative evades easy telling. With track titles like “The Woods Of America’s Unknown Child”  and “In the Woods, We Both Saw It, Weren’t Dreaming” there are opaque narratives beneath the surface. Typically, one could turn to an artist’s promotional materials to understand their meaning or at least shed some light on the mystery but each bit of information acquired contains an equal mystery. For instance, describing her debut single “Hereditary Trauma Dream Sprinting” she said it’s about “my experience with recurring nightmares which resembled stories that my parents later told me that I had no prior knowledge of.”

When art, of any form, is closely aligned with the personal experience of the author, meaning can become opaque. What expectations do you have, if any, for the clarity of your message?

I kinda wish I could have made it a little more opaque honestly. The album for me is about this unnameable feeling and my attempts at untangling obstacles that were in the way of it for me. I hope that no one feels a need to think specifically about North East Philadelphia in order to fully get it. All of the song titles are personal to me and I hadn't really thought of what people's reaction would be to them as I named them. I was expecting they'd be mostly indecipherable. I just did an interview with someone who had done so much research and decoding, mentioning a few specific tragic things that happened in my neighborhood that I hadn't imagined anyone would piece together. The last thing I want is for the album to have any sort of true-crime adjacent vibe.

My hope is that the album serves as a catalyst for a listener to feel the same feeling (the nameless / groundlessness thing). To be honest I don't like to get too hung up on this thing though. It meant a lot to me to make it and I can't control how it's heard. If someone is listening to it while mindlessly playing Xbox or something that's also fine and great.

George Wylesol's wonderfully unconventional album art creates a strong first impression.

MARANASATI 19111’s artwork depicts a headless figure in ghostly white, standing atop a constructivist machine for grinding. Behind the figure is a window, or is it a painting, or perhaps a splattering of flesh? The double meaning compounds the unease. It’s both beautiful and grotesque, the meaning of which is certainly a personal one for the artist and also one to be imagined by Nina Keith’s listeners. It fits the ethos of her music wonderfully by giving territory to the listener’s imagination. Breadcrumbs of narrative stimulate the mind and enhance the experience of the world she’s constructed.

George Wylesol's album cover for MARANASATI 19111 by Nina Keith
Album artwork by George Wylesol

MARANASATI 19111 by Nina Keith is infused with memory.

Her music posits that dreams, hallucinations, and self-reflection are all ways of replaying the past. They are an echo that reaches into the present with new depth and complexity. Inevitably, they also bring along forgotten phantoms and buried memories that shape our future self. Nina Keith produces this effect through a technique called tape delay. It’s made by a physical reel-to-reel tape machine that has three functions – erase, record and playback. Timing these three functions gives her the ability to delay sound, control the repeat rate and produce an echo.

The way Nina Keith uses tape delay is similar to postmodern film and literature techniques that reassemble time and narrative to build intriguing storytelling experiences. It brings to mind the HBO series WestWorld and its theme of working through the past, present and future to discern the story arc. Like Nina Keith’s tape loop, forgotten memories creep into the minds of the show’s characters through hallucinations aiding them on their path toward self-autonomy.

I’ve read that MARANASATI 19111 was inspired by your attempts to untangle childhood memories. Have you found music helpful in terms of processing past experiences? How so?

Yes definitely. I've found writing on the piano to be a really conducive meditative place for me. In a very literal sense, it's forced some amount of discipline on me. If I'm thinking about something painful while I'm just sitting on the couch, theres a good chance I'm going to end up pulling out my phone and fucking around instead of truly feeling whatever that thing is for more than 30 seconds. There were a few songs on the album where I'd write a part and be playing it repeatedly while I was crying over whatever I felt the song was about. I'd just sit there playing one phrase until the intensity of those emotions calmed down and I could write the next part.

Again there's something magical there too and I always feel that my words are reductive in talking about it. Sitting in front of a piano has been very healing for me though.

MARANASATI 19111 sounds both analog and digital.

Nina Keith’s Instagram feed is filled with images and recorded snippets of her synthesizer. She uses the machine as a tool for physically sculpting audio pitch, resonance, decay, and the timing of audio loops. The visual complexity of the set up is striking. A multitude of audio cables connects from one location to another forming a dense tangle of wires and blinking LEDs. Although electronic, the analog quality of twisting knobs and connecting one audio jack to another gives a physicality to her performance.  It adds a feeling of technical prowess to the already superb piano melodies that echo in your mind long after the album is over.

MAY 30, 2017, @ninak3ith, Instagram
MAY 12, 2017, @ninak3ith, Instagram
JULY 15, 2018, @ninak3ith, Instagram
MAY 26, 2016, @ninak3ith, Instagram
JUNE 9, 2018, @ninak3ith, Instagram

I love the complexity of your synthesizer set up. I’ve watched a ton of videos on your feed. I love the physicality of turning nobs and the overall aesthetic of the blinking LEDs of your Eurorack. What draws you to this form of music production?

It's definitely the quickest path I've found to create sounds I haven't heard before. I love how unpredictable it is. There is a push and pull with it. I usually try to patch somewhat chaotically and listen till something alluring starts to appear. Then, I try to steer it in the direction of that thing and away from all the textures it's spitting out that doesn't fit the aesthetic. It takes a lot of patience but it can be so rewarding.

There's also this freedom within modular synths that is kind of unparalleled. Most of my favorite textures come from creating feedback loops and guiding them with noise or random sources (basically different forms of very slow noise). The ability to modulate every parameter with noise is really crucial to me. I wish every audio plugin on my computer had a feedback knob and a noise generator that could be routed everywhere. Analog noise is so magical and useful, especially with feedback loops. It's sort of this guiding force that can disperse the buildup in whatever frequency through dozens of different patch points in the loop.

Also just the idea of an analog circuit spitting out noise infinitely random without ever repeating itself is so special to me. I've had to sell two-thirds of my modular setup due to financial woes this year and have come close to parting with all of it but every time I look at my noise generator (Quantum Rainbow) I feel too emotionally attached.

Nina Keith catalyzes the imagination of her listeners through personal storytelling and technical craftsmanship.

Yet, like all powerful art, her music cannot be concisely described. The best experiences of it will be personal. Her music and her personality evade an easy explanation but there is one thing that is abundantly clear. Nina Keith is giving the world a little piece of herself. MARANASATI 19111 is a gift or paying forward of personal experience, trauma, love, and inspiration. It is a constellation of memories and experiences that have made Nina Keith the woman she is.

All songs written and recorded by Nina Keith

Piano, vocals, flute, idiophones, modular synthesizer and tape recorder by Nina Keith

Additional vocals by Becki Freiberg on tracks 2, 3, 8 and 11

Mastered by Taylor Deupree

Album Cover by George Wylesol

Photography by Madeleine Bishop

Published by Grind Select

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