Cucina Povera is the solo project of Karelian-Luxembourgish sound artist and composer Maria Rossi, focusing on the marginal and the observational. The repeated motifs in their work are an uncanny testament to the beauty of banality, a monument infused with the mysticism of everyday life and a love for accessible sound sources like creaky tenement floors, boiling kettles and leaky taps – stories told by means of cheap and rudimentary equipment. As in the titular practice of peasant cooking, Rossi takes simple ingredients and creates a stylistically resourceful, spontaneous hermeticism that provides a creative respite from the hubbub of the metropole. Cucina Povera plays OUT.FEST in Barreiro on 6 October.
You’ve mentioned that Karelian heritage and traditions are important to your work. Can you elaborate?
Karelia is a large cultural and language area currently split between eastern Finland and Russia. Our people don’t get their share of attention in either country, and the existence of our language is directly threatened by extinction in this vacuum of political will. The Karelian language gets sidelined and it’s not officially recognised anywhere, whereas Karelian speakers should, at the very least, be able to access healthcare and other basic services in their own language. It should also be taught in our schools. When it comes to music and the oral tradition, Karelian songs I have been exposed to are mostly work songs having to do with labour on the land, songs about herding cows, and so on. These songs are often for several voices and they present hypnotic and simple harmonies. They are fairly melancholy songs that seemingly operated in the moment, helping with repetitive aspects of work in communal ways, so it’s all quite pragmatic. This is something I do a lot – create music as a coping mechanism in the midst of the incessant whirl of distractions dealt by death-drive capitalism, the consistently expected free labour from musicians and an accelerating scene that’s no stranger to the odd chancer and some labour exploitation. Aside from that, I don’t consciously appropriate from my own or any other tradition, and just create from a starting point of formative exposure to all kinds of music from the places that I have lived in, as well as communal kinds of music-making, such as church and choir music.
You have lived in several places, including Paris and Glasgow, whose scene you’ve become part of, also via releasing your music on the Night School imprint from there. It was in Glasgow that you embarked on your solo career as well. How did these locations and environments influence you and your work? And where are you currently based?
I think what mostly gave me a push in Glasgow was access. I was able to access resources at Green Door studios, who also encouraged me to take part in production training. Another catalyst was accessing endless concerts and the creative presence of people in spaces that I would not imagine today, even in my wildest dreams. Glasgow was a place where you could go to see Senyawa shredding on self-built instruments in the Art School, Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force transform some random town hall into a torrent of dancing or see a classical concert in a derelict office building before going to a rave inside a disused rail tunnel – sometimes all during the same weekend. Living in Paris helped me to get down to recording music because I was really such an outsider living there and I just needed to make music to keep myself company. I also discovered fasting and other spiritual exercises there that helped me to function as a vessel, creating something exceptional in the end. Right now I travel a lot, but when I don’t, I split my time between Luxembourg and Finland, which are both safe havens and have a lot of really nice, mossy forests.
Your lyrics and vocals are in your mother tongue, Finnish. You’ve mentioned that people have often assumed that you sing in an invented language. How important are the lyrics and their content to you? What do they denote?
The language choice for me is not super important; the point is rather that it’s sincere, and then you don’t actually need words because you can just relate to others through the multitude of other aspects presented through the music. I create a lot from the unconscious, and the words are at first percussive and aesthetic, but then they eerily lock into place and eventually reveal themselves as being intensely moulded by my situation at the moment of composing. I once had a friend who doesn’t speak a word of Finnish repeat back to me the precise content of the lyrics of a song of mine just from listening to the music. These moments are very special, and they reveal the emotive capacities of music that, for me, absolutely surpass those that are available to us through language.
An ethereal atmosphere – perhaps sounds like a cliche, but your music is fully immersed in one, and creates one. Do you perceive certain atmospheres that are invoked by your music? Do you wish to create particular ones?
I don’t start out with any kind of wish or projection; I just do it and see what happens. The driving word is still pragmatism.
How is your music born? What instruments, processes do you employ when creating it? Do you work in a studio, or elsewhere?
I work anywhere from hotel rooms to tenement-style walk-in cupboards and other improvised arrangements dictated to me by having an itinerant and hectic lifestyle. I once recorded my work keys at a medieval castle. Those large, bulky, old-style barrel keys, all with a really satisfying clink to them, pitted against the spaces inside turrets and cavernous corridors. I enjoy playing with different spaces, their surface materials, noises around the building. The rooms I create in become instruments in themselves. Buildings have seen so much and always have interesting stories to tell, so I like to involve them. I also interview the trees in the forest, the bees in the hive, the drips off the tap.
You’ve also done collaborations. How do you approach working with other people’s musical universes?
I have collaborated so much, and it’s always done on its own terms. Last summer I collaborated on collecting field recordings from three nature parks in the south of France, most strikingly of all through playing in a valley with three giant trumpet-shaped speakers in the French Alps, and all the while my pal was playing a grand piano at a nearby ruined abbey and also field-recording the cows and their bells and the bugs and me (via that distant valley) and his at times prepared, abbey-bound piano. I created with others in the same room, then had sleepovers while listening to records. Also dissociated collabs after raves in fancy recording studios in West London. That’s mostly not possible for me now, and I sometimes do musical pen pals, where someone sends an element and the other sends it back with an overdub, and so on… But lately, I’ve not had time for anything of the sort, sadly.
Besides making your own music, you have also made mixes of other people’s music. How do you approach these, and do you see yourself delving into DJing more?
It’s not something that really interests me; I do it because I get asked and it’s always a lot of work and very little reward, so I actually don’t see much point in it these days.
What are you up to currently and what are you planning in the near future?
I am now in Morocco off the back of a dreamy residency in the dunes of Asilah, down the coast from Tangier. Next, I am heading to Portugal, where I will play shows in a church in Barreiro and a theatre in Viseu. Then I’ll rest in Luxembourg for a bit before heading off to New York and a few other North American cities. I don’t really plan for the future, but currently I kind of just want to see what will happen with this music thing, but it’s already been way beyond my wildest dreams, so every new booking and collab is a lovely gift that fills my heart with endless joy. I have seen so many incredible places and met so many interesting and kind people that I would even be satisfied if tomorrow I was forced to do something different with my life.
Interview: Lucia Udvardyova
Photo: Arne Schramm