I’m Arjun Ram Srivatsa. I am an artist, musician, poet, animator, creative director, video director, video editor, motion designer, graphic designer, sound designer, podcaster, journalist, art critic, fiction essayist, trend forecaster, birdwatcher, socialist, and friend living in Manhattan.
I hold a masters degree from Columbia Univeristy’s Graduate School of Journalism.
I was most recently the Director of Programming and Development for Pitchfork. From 2020 to 2021 I hosted Diversity Hire, a podcast about being “POC” in media.
You can find more examples of my work on Instagram.
Music is a temporal art form, a medium bound to a linear experience. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky described music as a chrononomy: a measuring tool for time. Yet some musicians can achieve a sense of infinitude in their sound by mimicking nature’s eternal characteristics. Laurie Spiegel’s endless arpeggiated synths flow like rivers, Lubomyr Melnyk’s cacophonous piano compositions blow like torrential winds, and Alice Coltrane’s rolled harp chords expand endlessly like our universe. On Palaces of Pity, French producer Malibu suggests boundlessness by embodying the expansivity of the ocean. Submerged synths undulate like waves folding into themselves, producing a sense of agonizing solitude that feels like drifting in a lifeboat with no land in sight. The sound begs you to slow down and stare into the horizon, squinting to find out just how far you can see before the world goes blurry.
In the years since her 2019 debut One Life, Malibu, whose legal name is Barbara Braccini, has developed her oceanic sound. On her monthly NTS radio show, United in Flames, she treats songs by Madonna, Dean Blunt, or Enigma like water-soluble compounds, dousing them with reverb until they dissolve into a sea of sound. In 2021 she morphed Himera and Petal Supply’s hyperpop banger “You Make It Look So Easy (S.M.I.L.E.Y)” into a heart-wrenching ballad, and earlier this year she released “Idle Citi,” a seven-minute collaboration with Swedish instrumentalist and vocalist Merely featuring seagull calls and the sound of thunder. Braccini, whose father was an oceanographer, has made the ocean her muse, using its duality of stillness and turbulence as inspiration to produce music that ebbs and flows eternally.
Palaces of Pity harbors the emotions you hold onto, willingly or not. There are few intelligible lyrics, most notably the voice in “Cheirosa ’94” that asks, “Can you feel it? When I look at you I feel it too.” Most of the album is narrated by longing moans that beckon like sirens. Braccini expands on this isolated yearning by building depth with distance. Ominous bass stabs mimic a faraway thunderclap on “The Things That Fade” and gull-like synths chirp in the skies above “So Far Out of Love.” Braccini has described the album as a sequel to One Life, which was inspired by the loss of a friendship. Palaces of Pity in turn represents the feeling of distant trauma, the way pain may fade from the surface while remaining within you.
Malibu’s music is as formless as water. Sounds creep into the picture with long attacks, slowly building into a frothy crest before dissipating into a silent trough, only to reincarnate as a new wave. “The Things That Fade” begins with a windy synth that moves from ear to ear while Braccini coos in Auto-Tune. A bass synth momentarily submerges everything underwater before her moans break the surface and the synths begin building once more. Along the way various instruments—cellos, guitars, mallets—appear like seasick hallucinations. These oscillating dynamics can be disorienting because they suggest a non-linear experience, perhaps the gradual and irregular process of healing.
By referencing the constant characteristics of the ocean, Braccini approaches a world where music can live outside of time. “Illiad,” the final track, is a nine-minute soundscape that feels like falling forever. It begins with overlapping voices, one cooing, another crying. As the vocals vanish the music settles into a descending three-note melody, conjuring the feeling of sinking into water, and a whale-like call reminds you that you’re not alone. Then a delayed synth begins to dance over the melody, like streaks of light piercing the surface. The song fades so slowly that it feels like you’ll never reach the ocean floor. Perhaps, in the Earth’s deepest waters, you can sink for eternity.
It is a warm August night in Berlin in 2018. Inside a former power plant located by the River Spree, people stand between towering columns under red lights that color a dense fog. With varying degrees of attention they listen to a performance by the Copenhagen-based artist Astrid Sonne, a progressive composer who melds synthesizers with classical instrumentation to craft complex compositions. She is debuting a new piece titled Ephemera. Meanwhile, two camera operators are filming Sonne’s performance from different perspectives, one static and one handheld. Four years later, the footage will yield an unusual document of the night.
Using the audio from those video recordings, Sonne composed Ephemeral Camera Feed, an EP that captures the spatiotemporal nature of live music. Rather than editing a clean line-in recording of the performance, Sonne uses camera mics, in essence capturing vibrations passing through air from different vantage points. The music is situated within the venue with all its incidental ambience, coughs and chatter from the crowd turned unintelligible by the hall’s reverberance. In doing so, Sonne highlights how venues act as vessels for moving air. The space becomes a container for not only its inhabitants but also the waveforms she produces.
The performance took place at Atonal festival at Kraftwerk Berlin, an industrial venue originally constructed as a power plant in the 1960s to provide energy to residents of East Berlin. The event space inhabits the plant’s 100-meter turbine, whose awe-inspiring proportions offer anything but a neutral listening experience. Ephemeral Camera Feed uses the shifting dynamics within that space to create a visceral, somatic experience for the audience. Sonne had previously released raw audio of the camera footage, and although this edited EP sounds cleaner, it’s still spacious.
On “Ephemeral I,” hopeful strings float over hisses of fog and idle chatter. Attendees are heard clearing their throats, whispering, and laughing. It’s hard to hear what they’re saying, but certain sharp consonants cut percussively through the music. I almost want to shush them, but then I’d be weirder than the weird guy on the subway who laughs loudly while listening to podcasts. Also I’d lose my place in this space, a simulation of being surrounded by strangers all facing the same way. It allows me to imagine what couldn’t be captured in audio: the lights, the air, the floor, the rumble. Sometimes the sounds can mimic the physical, with synths piercing the venue like light through fog. Recorded electronic music often exists in a void: Sound waves generated by machines encased in steel and plastic are sent to our ears through digital means. On Ephemeral Camera Feed, the physical space is as important as the music itself.
“Ephemeral III” begins with synth stabs that act like ellipses, punctuating the stillness to create tension before an onslaught of arpeggiated plucks urgently fills the venue with reverberance. By now nobody is talking; the room is too preoccupied with bracing itself against the intensity of Sonne’s music. Listening to the track on the train to work, I dream about being pummeled by waveforms at the venue: my head smacked into a dizzying haze, my chest vibrating as my heartbeat rises, my feet trembling as I try to hold my body up. The synths phase hypnotically and the track culminates in a dense flurry of overlapping arpeggios that flood the venue.
The music on Ephemeral Camera Feed moves from ear to ear, entering and exiting from different directions, detailing the architecture of the room. A growling bass synth mimics a vibrating floor on “Ephemeral II,” which is emphasized when someone drops what sounds like a lighter. Ominous sirens wander the hall on “Ephemeral IV,” howling and echoing against walls. The crowd converses under the electrocardiogram-like beeps that open “Ephemeral V” before the synth lines expand and start maneuvering through conversations. Sonne melds the sanctity of experiencing live music with the profanity of eavesdropping on strangers. Ephemeral Camera Feed carries the weight, length, and height of the space and all that it contains. The cliche is to say music has a way of transporting you to another world, but with these pieces, I feel less at peace and more jealous about the fact that I wasn’t there. Fortunately, thanks to Sonne’s unusual document, I almost feel like I was.
When I got off at 59th street Columbus Circle, I realized how late I was running. I checked the event page on Meetup.com and saw that George Ortega, the host, had replied to my message. He offered to be interviewed at 4:15 pm, 45 minutes before the event was scheduled to start. But it was already 4:50 pm, and Google Maps said that the Whole Foods was 20 minutes away by foot. I furiously inhaled my last cigarette as I walked briskly across 57th street, all the while beating myself up for my poor decisions. It was too cold (why didn’t I bring a jacket?), and my Doc Martens were chewing my toes (why didn’t I wear sneakers?), so I stopped and hailed a cab. Another regrettable decision. Traffic was backed up, and as the driver attempted to engage in small talk, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
I live in a constant cycle of fear and regret. I am bombarded by choices about how to spend my time; what to eat, what to write, what to do on a Saturday night. Too often do I find myself stuck, frozen in a state of options paralysis, wondering if my next choice will lead to more stress. If I ever get around to making a decision, I immediately begin convincing myself that I’ve chosen the wrong path. I am trapped by the inescapable burden of wondering what could have been.
I arrived at the Whole Foods ten minutes late and walked upstairs to the cafe. In the middle of the room, six people were gathered around a long table. A laminated sign was propped up on the napkins dispenser that read, “Meetup: Exploring the Illusion of Free Will.”
I sat down and crossed my leg, accidentally kicking the knee of Dave Olshefski. Olshefski, 56, a retired IBM researcher from the Upper West Side, had spiky grey hair and wore a plaid button-up over a black t-shirt. He looked like a dad who had never grown out of his grunge phase. “Hey! You kicked me!” he said with a smirk. I apologized, and Ortega leaned in and asked, “Did he mean to kick you, or was it predetermined by the causal universe?”
Ortega, 60, an unemployed writer from White Plains, NY, founded the group in 2010. He spoke with a strained voice and a joker-like smile. He looked like Bill Nye. He told me that our world will become better once people reject the notion that we have free will. He said our lives are already predetermined by scientific and social constructs, so there is no such thing as choice or decision.
“Everything that happens happens because of the state of the universe before it happened,” he said. “The universe at one moment makes happen what happens in the next moment, and was caused by what happened in the previous moment.” The group has 1,072 members. They meet every first Saturday at a Whole Foods cafe in the Upper East Side.
The evening was filled with long winded, tangent-filled conversations about the benefits of denying free will. “Believing that people have free will causes us to irrationally punish people for their actions,” said Ortega. This piqued the interest of Alec Merdler, a 23-year-old software engineer from Brooklyn. Merdler had slicked back hair and the youthful confidence of your average reddit conspiracist. He said that humans should not be punished for their poor decisions because our actions are dictated by structures that are out of our control. To me, this argument made sense when considering inner city crime, where people are subjected to systemic poverty and racism. Yet Merdler went as far as to say that he feels sorry for pedophiles, who should not be blamed for their lack of agency over their actions. “No one is responsible for their likes and dislikes,” he said. “Once I was exposed to free will, I just did not understand ostracizing anyone for their uncontrolled motivations.” Merdler said that pedophiles need rehabilitation rather than punishment. He also believed that people can transcend from their conscious self by using MDMA.
I sat next to Harry Cason, a 68-year-old teacher from Midtown who was the only believer of free will at the meeting. “To say that we don’t have free will is to a large degree true,” he said to the group. “But I do think we have the capacity to create something that has never been thought of before.” Cason looked professorial, wearing a brown sweater over a light blue button up shirt. He had a bit of water pooling up on the corner of his eye that seemed to never tear away. “You guys are saying that the whole controls everything, but I’m arguing for the part,” he said, getting more agitated as he continued to defend his point. “I don’t understand why there’s no room for the parts to play a role.”
But nobody agreed with him. “If we consider ourselves a part of a whole, then we are still subject to the causality of the whole,” said Ortega. This caused Cason to throw a tantrum.
“Then why do you have to get out of bed?” he asked defeatedly. John Arkin, a 66-year-old retired builder from New Paltz, New York, was bothered by Cason’s line of rhetoric. Arkin wore a puffy vest and blue jeans. He spoke in a condescendingly authoritative tone, batting down any argument for the existence of free will. “Excuse me,” Arkin replied. “Why get up in the morning? Because you care about the people you love.”
“But it’s all been determined!” Cason yelled, throwing his hands in the air.
“Excuse me. You are not listening. It’s just the matter of simple, obvious facts!” replied Arkin.
Cason and Arkin bickered at each other like children, speaking in a tone similar to bad actors in a B-movie. Ortega intervened to point out that their argument tied into the causality of the universe.
“Under the free will perspective, you are angry at him, and he’s angry at you,” Ortega said. “But if you reject free will, you’re just angry that it’s happening! Don’t you see the benefit of that?”
As the group continued to fall into the same spiraling argument, I looked around the cafe. A rotating cast of sad-looking New Yorkers sat alone at double occupancy tables. A Karl Marx lookalike sat in the corner, sipping his soup as he stared out into the empty distance. By the window, a woman held a phone to her ear, blasting the new Drake song. If we truly have no control over our lives, it’s depressing to think that we are forever stuck in an existence that has wrought such mundanity.
Casin continued to fight for free will. “I believe that this sort of thinking leads to absolute hopelessness,” he said of the group’s proclivity to determinism. “I’ve become a nihilist!” Merdler put his hand on Cason’s shoulder and said, “It’ll pass.”
Arkin apologized to Casin and explained to him that even if we don’t have free will, we still need to suffer consequences. “I still agonize over decision,” he said. “Rejecting free will doesn’t give me a pass on choice, but it does give me a pass on regrets. I would have so many regrets if I believed in free will, I would give myself cancer!”
“But if everything is predetermined, then your regrets are predetermined!” joked Casin.
“And your cancer, too,” I muttered.
The meeting ended at around 8 pm. As I began my trip back home, I started to recognize the amalgamation of structures that control my life. My existence was dictated by the weather, the traffic, the network of networks that make up the city of New York. I had to pee, but there weren’t any bars on my way to the train station, and when I tried to look one up, my phone died. I dipped into the subway and stood at a platform for fifteen minutes, only to realize that uptown trains were only running on the express track. As I sat on the A train, blowing past my stop, I felt like a corporeal cog thrusting onward in a universe that had already been preordained.
When I got home, I wondered if I should text a friend to see if there was a party somewhere. I thought that I should really start transcribing the recording from the meetup. I stopped thinking, poured myself some wine, and rewatched an episode of Mad Men on Netflix.
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