The world can be hard to bear. Accepting that life is suffused with a low-buzzing undercurrent of dread is just part of being alive now. Maybe it always was. Injustice isn’t new. The unrelenting noise of living on an overpopulated world that is quickly being stripped of its resources is not new. But it feels increasingly unsustainable. I am increasingly troubled by the role that art plays in times like these. It is rare that happy songs feel sincere. It is rare that doomy ones feel like more than caricature. And yet people try. The Iran-born, Paris-based duo 9T Antiope tells me via email, that they feel a responsibility to.
“It's a choice, to reflect the world as it is: brutal, unjust, and angry,” they write. “Our personal experiences within that world as well tend to be not far from its truth.”
Their new album Nocebo, out Friday February 15 via the borderless New York label PTP, is a crushing response to this feeling. On two sidelong pieces the duo—composed of longtime collaborators Nima Aghiani and Sara Bigdeli Shamloo—ooze between brittle ambience and shattered noise, layering abstract poetry over delirious swirls of acoustic instrumentation and synthetic drones. They tend to work in stark monochromes, painting the world in claustrophobic grays and blacks, clouding any hope in atonal scraping and distortion. It’s heavy, the way it had to be.
“The concept of ‘happiness" is heavily disfigured and in most cases overrated,” they say. ”Optimism tends to lean on that side as well, as if seeing everything with a positive attitude is the definite solution. We both believe that optimist art is mostly used for propaganda. What could it be other than that?”
Nocebo is the second part of a trilogy of records that began with 2017’s Isthmus, each of which, they say, explore the idea of “location.” Isthmus was an exercise in worldbuilding, concerning itself with the imagined collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, and the way that the hybridization of the two could create something distinct from the sum of its parts. Nocebo is something of an inverse to this idea, instead of a creation of a space, it fixates on the absence. They refer to it as an exploration of “non-location,” and it’s a music of isolation, and disjunct. “It’s like an implosion,” they write. “That moment when everything slows down before a blast maybe, that pulsating state where you go back and forth between a nightmare and a sweet second before waking up.”
In part, Sara says that this “dive into darkness,” was fueled by her meditations on death, which she started after losing two brothers six years ago. She says she took refuge in writing about death. “ Nocebo for me has been finding the audacity to explore all the things I took away with me during the time I had one of my brothers in coma after his accident and the other in a comatose state after his cancer medications,” she says. “I've kept the images within me, but never dared to explore it or to talk about it.”
That changed when she read about the medical condition Uppgivenhetssyndrom, a trauma-related dissociative condition that can result in patients going into a coma-like state. “It just lit up that spark to take a chance and reflect on my own experience of having a loved one in coma,” she says. “In the past couple of years all I've written about has been death, but only quite recently I have been able to face it more openly.”
Some of the isolation that Nima and Sara feel, they explain, is self-selecting. Working in the worlds of experimental music is inherently closed off from parts of the world. “For me this separation from the bigger society also starts from childhood,” Nima says. “I went to music school, it's were people grow up, meet each other, work, marry, have children, etc. and may barely touch the outside world, so I imagine it also seems natural to me to have a limited number of friends and contacts.”
But they’re also fixated on the idea that it comes from outside of them too. As artists from Iran, they’ve seen first hand the way that the government mandates isolation on certain groups of people. “This has probably become a part of our identities somehow,” they write. “When it comes to travelling for Iranians (or middle easterners) for example, the situation is still ridiculous! The travel bans, the visa process for every other country, all which comes from a global system using all of its power to push you further back.”
You can hear this heaviness and isolation in some of the words that Sara intones amid the cacophony. At one point she goes on a long rabbit trail around the word “nothing,” describing a space using that as the primary characteristic. “I know it hits ‘Nothing’ though,” she says drolly as the music drones underneath her. “That's the sound Nothing makes. Tastes like Nothing, smells like Nothing. I know Nothing very well.” It’s not worldbuilding anymore, it’s the opposite—looking at a space and describing only absence. The emptiness can be overwhelming. It’d be easy to describe music like this as claustrophobic, but it’s the inverse. You’re not trapped in a small box, you’re alone in a void.
But the very existence of this project, a fruitful collaboration between two people who found each other, has a little bit of hope to it. Even if they feel isolated from the world, they have one another to bounce ideas off of, to take refuge from the void with. United as “realists and perfectionists” as they put it, they support each other in the face of a world that’s hard to be optimistic in. “[It’s] not that we necessarily believe everything is doomed,” they say. “It's just a way of not getting surprised when everything does get worse.” But at least they’re here, reflecting that world together.