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Portrait: Markus Sieber

Aukai was born of composer/instrumentalist Markus Sieber’s desire to create music that could work in tandem with film, video, theatre and the visual arts. 2018 sees the release of his latest album ‘Branches Of Sun’. The compositions on the album also grew out of Sieber’s love affair with the ‘Ronroco’, a plucked string instrument from Argentina.

Like every musician, Markus Sieber is used to going the extra mile to make the music he hears in his head and feels in his heart. There aren’t many, however, who would – or indeed, could – get to work in the mornings by strolling across a frozen lake before settling in a small cabin high up in the mountains located close to the Old Spanish Trail in Colorado where he had set up a home studio. For most of an entire month, though, he’d begin his day by pressing “Record’, and end it by pressing ‘Stop’. The world outside barely existed.

Sieber’s no stranger to solitude and frugal living. Born near Lepzig, East Germany, 15 years before the Wall fell, his parents moved to a remote village outside Dresden when he was six, spenting his free time in the summer fishing or swimming in the nearby Zschopau and Mulde rivers and, in the winter, ice skating, sledging and skiing. It’s no surprise, then, that with a background like this, and in locations such as those in which he now works and lives, Aukai’s work is imbued with a sense of peace. Even if the album took another half-year to complete, this was done in an unhurried fashion: after a month, he returned to the cabin to “shape, carve and edit” the material, inviting others to contribute along the way. Finally, he returned to Germany to mix the album with Martyn Heyne (Nils Frahm, The National, Dustin O’Halloran) at Berlin’s Lichte Studio.

The finished album finds Sieber further exploring the possibilities of the ronroco which took centre stage on his debut. “It has an otherworldly, mesmerising, dreamy sound I love,” he explains. “It comes from the Andes, and its sound literally provides the feel of the mountains, a sensation of space and freedom.” This time he uses it in a more textural fashion: “Most of the pieces are less thematic than the first album,” he adds. “They’re more atmospheric spaces that develop in a spiral structure. Some are almost only fragmentary impulses.”

If its predecessor drew comparisons with Penguin Café Orchestra, Ludovico Einaudi and Gustavo Santaolalla – the latter largely thanks to that ronroco – ‘Branches Of Sun’ will likely invite further references to Balmorhea, The Album Leaf and Snow Palms, plus, inevitably, Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto (if only for its quietly refined moods). None, however, quite capture the magic – at once meditative and instinctive – that flickers within its heart. The album is richly produced, acoustic pieces belie the cold surrounding their composition with a warmth of sound and spirit, whether the elegant ‘Colorado’ or the shimmering ‘Nightfall’, the airy ‘Iztac’ or the fragile ‘Turning Days’. ‘Become’, meanwhile, conjures up the mysticism of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli compositions, while the comparatively upbeat ‘Fragmentary Blue’’s character can be explained by the fact that, unlike the rest of the album, it was recorded during summer in the south of France. As for ‘Branches Of Sun’, it’s designed to evoke what Sieber calls “a dream state, a sense of hovering on the brink of timelessness”, something which, arguably, the entire album induces.

It was recorded with what he calls the Aukai Ensemble, including his wife, Angelika Baumbach (piano, harp), and brother, Alex Nickmann, a Berlin based composer for dance performances, on synth, piano, beats, vibraphone, Fender Rhodes and Mellotron. Also present are Anne Müller, a collaborator with Nils Frahm and Agnes Obel, on cello; Jamshied Sharifi – who’s worked with, among others, Laurie Anderson, Sting and Jacob Collier – on accordion, piano, synth, Prophet 5, Wurlitzer and tack piano; Bogdan Djukic, of award-winning Canadian folk act Beyond The Pale, on violin; and Spain’s Miguel Hiroshi on drums and percussion.

Of the here and now, yet seeped in impalpable nostalgia, ‘Branches Of Sun’ is mysteriously, captivatingly timeless. Evocative of the place in which it was written, it’s nonetheless just as likely to arouse memories of someplace else, or of feelings long forgotten, or even visions of places and recollections of emotions not yet experienced. Wherever listeners end up, however, they’ll all have one thing in common: it will be in a rare, enviable state of peace.