Marielle Jakobsons and Agnes Szelag—Science and Folklore


Hear Jakobsons and Szelag chat about their music, and hear excerpts from their solo projects as well as their collaborative work as Myrmyr.

“How do you feel you’re most different as musicians?”

Dead silence is the one thing no interviewer ever wants to elicit from a subject—but that is the reaction of Marielle Jakobsons and Agnes Szelag to this ostensibly simple inquiry.

“That’s a good question,” Jakobsons finally says. “We’re always thinking about how we’re similar.”

Szelag remains perplexed. “Most different, that’s—”

“Well, I might just try to think about how we’re different at all,” Jakobsons finally suggests.

The obverse question, of course, has a much clearer answer. Jakobsons and Szelag met while getting their MFAs at Mills College and their similarities quickly drew them together as collaborators and kindred spirits. Beyond the traits that one would assume they share, given that they met in a SuperCollider class, they exist concurrently as string players, computer programmers, and Eastern European dronemongers. Their duo Myrmyr is the result of this consanguinity.

When putting together Myrmyr’s first LP, Szelag and Jakobsons felt it was important to go back to their first principles as a duo. “When we started to think about creating an album and were conceptualizing, we were like, ‘What’s the thread? What are the things that are important to us?’” Szelag remembers. What that conceptually and sonically turned out to be was a testament to their peculiarly particular shared interests. The Amber Sea, the result of their endeavors, is a lush meld of Baltic folklore and heritage (Szelag was born in Krakow while Jakobsons’s parents were born in Latvia and Lithuania) with scientific conceits. The fact that such a left-field pairing was a natural outgrowth of their mutual interests sheds a bit of light on why the “difference” question left them so tongue tied.

And regardless of the music being partially about science, it certainly uses a great deal of technology—to such a degree that the question of how to interface with the music becomes surprisingly complex. There’s the acoustic means—Szelag primarily plays cello and Jakobsons violin, but both are multi-instrumentalists whose music is filled with the exotic sounds of non-western instruments—and also the warped sounds of the electronics, which can take the form of standalone patches, nonstandard recording techniques, or tactile stomp boxes and synthesizers.

But there is freedom in the way they approach these choices, with the pieces from the album exhibiting an improvisational flexibility in the live setting where any interface, electronic or acoustic, can be used or not. “We’re always riding that line between being structured and composed, and improvising,” Marielle explains. “We’ve been playing together a while, and I think our improvisations are really strong, and often show a connection—you could listen to them and not know if they’re composed or not, necessarily.”

There are differences between the two, though, most easily grasped through listening to their solo outputs. Jakobsons’s solo project, darwinsbitch, focuses more intensely on the interplay between her electronic software and the instruments she plays. “This idea of the natural and unnatural world colliding is one of the main conceptual drivers,” she explains. Szelag, however, took a highly varied journey through music, starting with beat-oriented music, before passing through Mills, an experience that had unintended effects on her. She explains, “I thought that I would go there and I would focus, but literally it was like stepping into a room that was circular with 16 doors—and I opened a lot of them.” The result is a music that, while it shares Marielle’s interest with ethnic themes and electroacoustic sounds, combines a songwriter’s perspective with the interests of an experimental musician.

But the unaligned characteristics of their solo projects fit together to form a critical component of Myrmyr’s sound, with the ambiguity of darwinsbitch’s synthetic/organic interplay overlaying Szelag’s more songlike stucturings. That is, if Myrmyr’s sound stays the way it is, and that seems unlikely. In addition to all of the other interests that Jakobsons and Szelag share, they also have an artistic curiosity and adaptability that will inevitably lead them to explore new territory.