photographs, songs, and small crowds of words by nika aila states
i make music: red steppes/totonoko
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TOTONOKO - Overgrown

If you’ve followed this blog in the last year or so, you may have caught references to an elusive EP I was making for TOTONOKO, the collaboration between myself and Mateo Lugo. Here is some firm evidence that the thing exists, and can someday soon be yours.

TOTONOKO’s first video release, made with our friend Shiran Eliaserov (dancer, choreographer, and video artist), was filmed here in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Berlin, and at the Dead Sea in Israel. Shiran and I share cinematography credits, and Mateo, Shiran and I all make appearances. 

This video and its source material were a labor of love. Mateo and I live and work together, and our relationship is inextricably linked to music, but besides that we’ve been lucky enough to claim the invaluable resource of good friendship, with each other and with people like Shiran Eliaserov and Daniel Wright, who helped us with the EP. It was recorded in Silverlake (in Los Angeles) and its surrounding environs, and includes the chatter of Venice Beach, the neighborhood birds, and the roofers in the canyon behind Dan’s cabin. The songs are mostly about magic of both familiar and outlandish kinds: your well-loved ones, a mountain from which to see, and bargains with sparrows. Making it was transformative for me, and my one great hope is that it goes out there and changes something for someone else.

Overgrown is currently available for download at Bandcamp. You can also pre-order the EP, which is set for release on August 16th, 2014.

I made a red steppes record at Tiny Telephone this year, off and on from the end of March to the end of June. It was difficult, and I was probably doubly difficult, so I feel very grateful to everyone who contributed. These guys are all wonderful musicians and lovely people. 

The 1996 film Microcosmos, by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, is one hour and fifteen minutes long, during which the human voice is audible for only a very short time, in thin blocks at the beginning and end of the film. Recently, and for the first time in my adulthood, I had a rare, slow evening to watch the film in its entirety: to be once again so low to the ground, where it is easiest to appreciate the pristine intelligence of flowers that costume themselves as bees to better be loved by them, to see with incredible clarity and wonder the luminous and shifting body of the birthing mosquito, soft and violent snail couplings, the herculean efforts both of ants and the dung beetle - and perhaps most importantly, the origin of the crooked, velvety sound of the frog.


For much of my childhood, I thought of my mother first as my mother, and next as a frog lady. This was not necessarily a result of any idiosyncratic preference for frogs on her part (which I might at that age have imagined) but a consequence of her profession as a biologist and her gift of walking. My parents had, in the early 90’s, transplanted their young family from San Francisco to a particularly picturesque section of southwestern Germany where my mother did her post-doctoral research with Xenepus frogs. We were not allowed to take these home as pets (as frogs tend to escape from small children, and Xenepus can be a rather invasive species) but there was no shortage of amphibian life in the forest surrounding our village. 

I suppose she had learned early in mothering me that it was possible to keep me wandering for hours if I was supplied at regular intervals with tangerines, so a lot of what I remember of my life as a very small person involves the smell of citrus on walks to the Bären Brünnen Quelle, a tiny (vast!) pond somewhere between China and the Dentist’s office over which my best friend once lived. For me the place is locked perpetually in all seasons at once. The pond is full of bubbled hydrangea-shaped masses of eggs. The pond is full of tadpoles. Full of full-grown frogs, winter and summer newts, snow and sloppy leaves, and many other curious lives. I seem to be always in a pair of yellow galoshes and a t-shirt screened with the paw-prints of lesser and greater mammals. And when I was tired at the end of a long day of walking, I rarely went to bed in silence, but rather to cassette tapes full of other beautiful, inhuman things: the alien body of the anglerfish, the evolutionary triumphs of Equisetum and horsetail crab, the chicken’s possible relation to the Archaeopteryx. 


I don’t remember being a specifically inquisitive child, but I do remember loving the newt and the difference between the conifer and the flowering plant. I loved them for reasons which would, at the time, have been impossible for me to identify or articulate. I might have said that they were cool, or funny, or interesting. But I think they were those things to me mostly because my mother identified them as such. 

In the fall we’d collect the leaves of some angiosperm, probably maple, prong-leaved and apt to display a short and vibrant spectrum from primordial green to deep rust. We’d press them between pieces of glass and display them until the next autumn. Throughout my youth I was preoccupied with sketching as faithfully as possible the vascular systems of leaves; my mother had made them beautiful, covetable, by teaching us to preserve them. This was, and continues to be, one of her greatest gifts to me; when I was small enough and still close enough to the earth to witness it without having to bend a great body over, when that body and what it housed were as fresh and pliable as they were ever going to be, she looked at the mud smeared on my face and told me where it came from, and let me keep it.

It is hard to ignore the thought that we live in meadows increasingly paved over, that in discarding so much meat we don’t pay enough tribute to the bones of our kills, that we are ruining it for everyone. But it is also very hard to ignore my mother, who has inspired in me more reverence for life than any Greenpeace campaign ever could. It was precisely that reverence that birthed my affair with the camera - the lens, after all, was more faithful to the maple vein than my shaky sketches ever were. I have sprinted knowingly through yards of poison oak (which my mother eats, sometimes, in the spring when it’s still green and sweet) in part because she gave me the choice to love, in moments, the sight of a great V of pelicans over a bank of fog as much as I love my own legs. I would not take the pictures I do if I didn’t care about preserving what was in them.

We do need better legislation, safer practices, fewer plastics. But also: the fleeting reservoir of two cupped palms, and the strange half-frog, half-fish inside it. The slow unraveling of mystery that bares only more astonishment. The voice, miles above or right against the gauzy shells of small ears, saying isn’t this neat!


Microcosmos is spectacular not only for its photography - the filmmakers employed microscopic cameras (and some pretty powerful microphones) to get inside ant colonies and film water spiders encasing themselves in pockets of air - but also for its drama. There are a number documentaries which seek to dramatize nature (the much-loved Life series with David Attenborough springs to mind) through narrative force. These tend to be wholly preoccupied with a cycle of sex and predation. That is not to say that they are without value, but simply that they ignore the greater spectrum of plant and animal behaviour in favour of a very specific story. Films like these are vaguely pornographic in that it’s common to see the same scenes played out endlessly with only the players replaced, and that you sometimes find yourself titillated by something you believe yourself to be above. There seems to be an unfortunate and entirely accidental habit of relegating non-human life to an anonymous and violent cycle which cannot support spiritual growth except when we view ourselves in contrast to it*.

But the message and the drama of Microcosmos are more visceral and somehow more basic in nature. In the absence of a voice, there are visible and invisible hands: clearly identifiable are french cinematic tradition, the music of Jacques Perrin, and focused care in each shot. We are led to understand how rain is a force, and that caterpillars dance. We are able to imagine what it’s like to be tiny, and then we are able to realize that we are. There are short acts of comedy and tragedy throughout the film, but the real drama is in the scaling. 

And what is less concrete is only the space of the wonder we have retained into adulthood. In Microcosmos, there is only barely a voice, but of course, for me, there is a constant exclamation. It is my mother’s, telling me to look, listen. She is still explaining things to me she herself never learned; I know my own things about the world, but I owe that knowledge to her. And when I love something I cannot identify, I always call her, first, with questions of taxonomy.


This winter, when I first heard the chorus of the coqui frogs from the parking garage of an apartment building in San Turce, PR, my mother was many thousands of miles away. But the frogs still belonged to her.

*Except dolphins. Dolphins always leap majestically against a generic classical soundtrack evoking the Rite of Spring. the BBC loves dolphins.

jessica karr

jessica karr