Makunouchi Bento – A Lunch Box of “Ghostophonias”
Makunouchi Bento, the contemporary Timișoara duo made up of Valentin Toma and Felix Petrescu, has been a prominent project in contemporary Romanian experimentalism for the last two decades. In terms of atmospheres generated in the minds of their listeners, their music goes from “brain dance” sounds to “phantomophonies,” in which the two edit recordings from nature – human or otherwise – till they become unrecognizable. With dozens of releases and multiple collaborations with musicians of all styles, Makunouchi Bento leave no territory unexplored, carefully playing with sounds and the states they induce, either in their own tracks or in their soundtracks for real or imaginary movies. They sample form almost any source, from classic video game soundtracks to historical recordings of Béla Bartók on wax cylinders. In 2020, while the pandemic was raging, the duo celebrated their 20-year anniversary. I took advantage of the occasion to get under their skin in the interview reproduced below. Even though it was conducted at a distance, both Valentin Toma and Felix Petrescu keep the spirit of dialogue alive, as you will see. The perfect reading soundtrack here is, of course, their Bandcamp page, where you can listen to / download most of what they have composed throughout their career. More information and video stories, or other experiments, are to be found on their official website. Enjoy!
1. From your name to your East-Asian aesthetics, in tracks like Peisaj lichid [Liquid Landscape], what is the source of your fascination for Eastern, especially Japanese, culture? All I know is that you can get a lot of tasty stuff in a makunouchi bento box. What are you working on at the moment?
It’s not certain you’ll find only tasty stuff. You might also find some less orthodox ingredients, like in Serge Brussolo’s bakeries. The idea is that it’s an exotic mix that we’re not necessarily familiar with here, and so you might need a bit of time to get used to it, to figure out whether you like it or not. And just when you’ve gotten used to it you might discover they’ve changed the mix and the proportions. Or that the dog stole the meat from your bento box. We’ll let you in on a big secret: it was never about Japan-Japan. Our stories are more about an imaginary culture, a projection, the invention of Morel. National cultures promote strong images, and like any strong images their flavors are overpowering and blinding. We’re interested in the small details, the ones you can only discover if you immerse yourself in the target culture. As we can’t do that, what’s left for us is our precious and confused imagination.
We’re currently preparing for our appearance in the series Post-Muzica, curated by Mitoș Micleușanu, and we’ll soon start working on a rescoring project, but we need to wait for news from the organizers before we can brag about that. And after that, we’ll see.
2. You’ve been working with field recordings for over 20 years: what drew you to them and what audio atmosphere do you like best?
When we were younger, our sound was more electronic and synthetic. We had been inspired by IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). We first abused field recordings in Balada unui creier mic [Ballad of a Little Brain], released in 2005 through Arhiva7, one of the few Romanian netlabels, founded by Mort la Creier [lit. Brain-dead] (that’s what inspired our un/inspired title). It was, really, a spontaneous experiment, an ambition to turn some older demo recordings – for which we no longer had the raw sounds, projects, nothing – into some kind of songs. Without outside inspiration, without having studied works or artists employing field recordings, we were simply guided by the atmosphere and the melodies, and we thought it would all fit well in a somewhat natural environment. We quite liked the end product, so, since then, we’ve sort of let our music sort of run free in the fields. Currently, Felix thinks that Valentin prefers the sound/atmosphere of an old ship creaking on the waves, and Valentin thinks Felix’s favorite is to record the vocal shenanigans from our neighborhood schoolyard.
We don’t gather field recordings to add naturalist realism to our pieces. That’s not our intention. We process and abuse them because they offer unexpected elements, fabulous textures, and a faux-familiar ambiance. We believe that field recording and sampling are basic ingredients and that they contribute to the alienation of the listener. And of the storyteller! 🙂 The “obvious” magic with sounds recorded “in the field” is that you cut them off from the visual element (which would help the brain identify them), allowing the sound to have its own life, without gravity, fully completely up for interpretation. It’s a strong spell.
3. You really like to “mix states,” especially through the classical calm-restless juxtaposition. How is it like when you work together: do you theorize a lot beforehand or does it all emerge naturally, after over 21 years of work as a duo? Could you talk about, for example, how you worked on Miopedi, especially given your almost compulsive collaborations with other artists? By the way: Who is Silvana, who keeps returning from the “Voyage”?
We don’t have many uptempo tracks, but we might be the authors of the most restless ambient music that you’ve ever heard. We mostly theorize for “commissioned” projects, where we sometimes have to follow a certain concept – otherwise, our music tends to emerge spontaneously. Miopedi is a collaborative project with a friend of ours, French musician Kaneel. Both Felix and Kaneel have myopia, hence the concept of miopedia (an encyclopedia of…). All the songs are passed through a blurry mental filter. Silvana is an adopted girl from Paris who travels to Suceava to meet her biological family. Or at least so we thought.
4. In Swimé, for example, you mixed accordion recordings with sounds of water and, generally, an oppressive atmosphere. For me, Rain Dragon, Hidden Genius is one of the best examples of how you approach sound. How did you come to combine such different sounds/feelings?
Swimé was something very different, a turning point almost. It did indeed start with Rain Dragon, Hidden Genius, a track that, despite appearances, is 100% sequenced. It has a very organic, acoustic sound and a tempo we twisted so that it seems live. A lot of water, wood, nature, but with glitches – it sounds like nothing we had done till then. For a while we didn’t know what to do with it… the track is actually from 2007, and probably the only person who heard it back then was Tim Exile, in Valentin’s car. Only in 2009 we made a piece that was similar, atmosphere-wise (Languid Fogfish), and that’s what prompted us to get to work and create a whole album like that. We abandoned tempo, combined melodic lines with wild sounds, did a lot of experiments – abundant field recordings – and what came out is probably our best-rated album ever. It was for it that we made our Bandcamp page and social media accounts (MySpace was already dying). Something definitely changed at that point.
5. What are the manners and contexts in which you best compose, especially since it’s almost impossible to completely move into your studio?
We’ve completely moved into our studio, our studio is our home. We compose when we get the inspiration, and then we go back and forth. Creation has always been a pretty intimate process. We were never the kind of band that would “go into the studio” for a few months to compose new material. The notion of studio is artificially maintained by the music industry to make the whole process seem more serious and formal. With the advent and democratization of the computer, the studio is the place where you have your laptop and controller. And your love for music.
6. The 9 phone numbers on the soundtrack of the mockumentary Bodrog are taken from that almost famous wall the one “as you exist the yard, on the left”? What if we called everyone on that wall?
Who calls people nowadays? Banks maybe? The time for prank calls is gone, nowadays people just troll online. The numbers are real, indeed, but we don’t know who they belong to. We picked those 9 at random, and we ask the people not to get mad at us if someone does call them. We could imagine a Bart Simpson trapped in the show’s laminated world who calls only those 9 numbers day and night, nonstop.
7. On the topic of Bodrog: how was your collaboration with Mimi Sălăjan, besides what you can see and hear?
It was pretty chaotic, haha. I think Mimi asked us to make the soundtrack to somehow stimulate him, help him get his project back on track, perhaps in a moment when he wasn’t very motivated and didn’t have a very clear direction. There was no rush and no deadline. We would receive various scenes with no connection to each other… only towards the end did he settle on the narrative thread and edit everything together. And yes, there were times when we were also pushing him to finish it, because it seemed interesting. And, we think, it was so in the end. Mimi wanted the music to be really in your face, like a movie character – that’s why it sounds the way it sounds, not really an underscore or what you normally hear with most soundtracks. There were a few scenes where we completely redid the foley, because the sound was compromised in the recording or was missing altogether. What matters is that we like it and we hope you like it too.
Anyway, we’re currently trying to motivate Mimi to finish his next short, where we’re doing the music and sound design again. Projects with friends turn out well, if you have good friends. And if they turn out…
8. How is it that you were inspired, on your album Trcutu (2005), by the famous Gymnopédies, or other works, of Erik Satie? How did you approach the brilliantly overlapped samples of various nature sounds, from water to birds of paradise? Not to mention Dansul Soldatului [Soldier’s Dance], lively and cheerful, as if that soldier were going on a cherry hunt through Pac-Man’s labyrinth.
Trcutu wasn’t really thought of as an album. We wanted to make a special concept for our second participation in AVMotional, Cluj edition. In the first stage, we wanted to do something based on soundtracks from (spaghetti) westerns, then we changed our mind and decided to use classical music instead. We chose a few compositions we liked and reinterpreted them quite differently (though there are a few more standard parts). Of course, the tracks with chiptune / video game vibes give the material life and dynamism. It is one of our visions of “classical music” adapted and modified to fit into contemporaneity. We find it more honest and provocative than “neo-classical” music. Even the title suggests the intention and the result: a decayed, inexact past [trecut] interpreted by ear and reflected in the monitors.
9. Referring strictly to the series The Guardians of… I have to ask: how much of what you record do you use? I know it is impossible to calculate, but I would be happy with an estimate, in anticipation of the series’ third part.
We use almost everything, sooner or later. We don’t have drawer material. Felix experiments a lot but doesn’t record everything. Valentin tends to work more when he feels inspired and, when he does, he doesn’t like to leave parts unfinished.
The Guardians series started as a compilation of old tracks, singles, or tracks for compilations missing from our Bandcamp, not included on any of our albums or EPs. There is a part 3 already, still as an open playlist, also including newer, stand-alone pieces. It is a joy for us to release the tracks we’ve made into the world. It’s a pain to keep them “in the drawer”… We do not hold prisoners.
10. With so many options available in the studio, how do you prepare for concerts? What are your essential devices, given that a technical rider is impossible for your setup, besides the speakers, of course.
V: The laptops are always there, but they can always host new tools. The laptop provides the skeleton. Besides that, we improvise. We always think about what we can bring extra to what you hear in the original track.
F: My minimal setup nowadays: an iPad (or two) and a MIDI controller. Easy to carry, powerful, flexible, and a perfect compromise between “computer” and “instrument.” It might sound strange and complicated but it’s not: I approach each concert differently, even if we play the same tracks. You won’t hear the same thing from me in two different concerts, even if they’re one right after the other. I like to think of each live appearance as a unique concert and to come into it with new elements and distinct layers. And I don’t mean solos here. We’re not an overbooked band, and we don’t go on tours. Therefore, we have the time and enthusiasm to experiment every time. A concrete example: in our concert Ghostophonia I wanted to add (through granular synthesis) a dog’s howl that sounded like a wolf’s. I tweaked it till one of the processed versions sounded like the shout of a girl in a folk dance. That version was played live and also made it to the album. At the next concert, who knows?! Keep your ears peeled. We like, and offer, sonic adventures.
11. How much do you modify your real or virtual instruments through Kontakt or other pieces of software? Do you use modular setups in, for example, Max4Live, or do you prefer to go at it with the soldering iron?
V: For me it’s the result that matters. It can be more interesting to get an original result from a tool that’s unmodified but unexplored in its full potential than to have engineering for engineering’s sake. Maybe, on the contrary, some become interesting only after being modified.
F: I generally modify/adapt virtual instruments. I don’t have many real ones, nor do I have too much space in my apartment. I’ve also made a few VST effects (made in SynthEdit) public and contributed ideas and beta testing to a bunch of others. I’m not a programmer, but I’ve tinkered around in NI Reaktor or modified plugins in Max4Live, as much as curiosity and intellect allowed me. We’re boys and we like to take things apart, change them, leave the cat inside the piano. The results are interesting, even if they don’t always “sound good.” If I like an effect or a virtual instrument I always try to get in touch with its creator and tell them my opinion and experience with it. That’s how I came to influence and modify tools. If I was able to get my hands under the hood. I’m dissatisfied by default, and this drove me on when I lost any other motivation. I like Lego-style music platforms that let you combine as much as you want: Reaktor, MaxMsp, PureData, and, more recently, VCVRack. I encourage work with virtual instruments, because soon we’ll all be buried in electronic trash: analog or digital, it won’t make much of a difference.
12. You said in an interview for BlackRhinoMusic.ro (conducted by Andrei Bucureci) that “inspiration is the trigger of the aural gun.” Great play on words! As for inspiration: do you wait for it or call on it?
If you wait for the trigger to press itself, you might get bored. What’s important is what you load the gun with. We avoid blanks, that’s uninteresting; the barking dog has no time to play the mandolin. We might not have the best aim, but we shoot in the dark with confidence.
13. Who is your favorite experimentalist? We can go from Russolo to Aphex Twin or Matmos, passing of course through Romanian hyperspectralism.
V: In the end, it would be best if that were us. It’s not very productive to have some favorite experimentalists and then discover they’ve been inspiring you behind your back. In any case, experimenting is subjective, especially if you look fifty years back.
F: My favorite experimentalist is not “somebody,” but “something”! It is “Teatrul Radiofonic” [radio drama]! I hope that makes sense.
14. What solo projects, besides Toma Carnagiu, are you preparing?
We’re not necessarily preparing anything solo. Toma Carnagiu comes to light when he feels it’s time to offer something and goes to bed when he feels stuff is fizzling out. He woke up a bit in 2020 for a beat with Silent Strike and some freestyles with “Facem Records.” Now he’s still sleeping.
It’s hard to survive even as a team of two at the moment. Solo could be suicide. Collaborations, feedback, help, and having the (right) entourage are so necessary to stay sane and be able to create. The psychic disaster and the loneliness born out of The Century of the Self testify to this. Plus, I don’t really want to contribute to contemporary music. The digital leaves too much space for temporary material and the temptation to release “content.”
15. We received the following question in our inbox: how did you work in Silent Strike’s studio, among so many sounds and lights, for your 20-year anniversary when recording Ghostophonia? When I see photos from Silent Strike’s studio, I’m reminded a little of Richard Devine but also of The Caretaker, where the artist looked for things left behind in the hotel from The Shining.
We never physically stepped foot in Silent Strike’s studio, nor did he in our dens. Collaborations can take place at a distance now, and we tend to work in the dark. The rehearsal for the live performance took place just before the concert, in the hall of the Ion Vidu High School in Timișoara.
The comparison with The Caretaker makes sense. Ghostophonia is indeed a kind of hauntology, but the result is more varied, and it contains quite a bit of original material, besides the ghosts of the last century. Richard Devine uses a lot of devices. We opted instead for more flesh, blood, organs, saliva.
Bartók’s recordings on wax cylinders give you chills and are cryptic. Perhaps they are not impossible to decode, but why bother when they are so open to interpretation? It is not a project born out of “respect for tradition and our forerunners.” It is a project that resonates strongly with the dark side of folklore, unfiltered Romanian mythology, and the noise of a preindustrial landscape. Like in everything else, there is now more noise than signal in those archaic recordings. Our small group of amateur psychics added a lot, everything we imagined was missing. It’s hard to collaborate with people from other cities, and even harder with your ancestors. That is why we lie, weave, pretend, augment.
16. How is the pandemic affecting you, musically speaking?
It has helped us reach the level of pop musicians – we now finally have as many concerts as them: close to none. But not none at all, because, look, in 2020 we had the pleasure of taking part in the Simultan Festival in Timișoara. On the other hand, sure, we’ve missed a few opportunities to perform Ghostophonia live, perhaps also Drowned in Bodrog (the second album we released in 2020). Or a concert celebrating 10 years since our release of Swimé in August. Or a 20-year anniversary concert in November. Well, they never happened, but we have something to blame at least! Otherwise, we’re fine.
Translated by Rareș Grozea