Many artists will be wondering this year whether isolation is a curse or gift to creativity. Social distancing measures have effectively cleared space for productive homebound spells free from the distractions, demands and temptations of the outside world, allowing for a total sensory immersion in their craft. However, a public health emergency comes with its own cache of emotional pressures and stresses, and the weight of these can bear heavily down on creative projects (on top of everyday existence).
Whichever way you may have chosen to spend the extra-curricular hours afforded by quarantine, the idea of upping your ‘workplace’ productivity during the current crisis has been a lightning rod for debate during these choppy, uncertain times. Outside of work, people have been sourcing self-improvement activities like language-learning and checking off to-do lists from the confines of their houses. But what if that isn’t palatable? There’s a school of thought that makes a strong case for doing absolutely nothing over keeping constantly busy. Lean into the slowness, they say: you don’t have to be productive during a global pandemic.
Afonso Ferreira, aka Portuguese sound artist Farwarmth, has chosen to take a step back from overproducing music during quarantine. “When this whole thing started I felt this weird pressure to be productive,” he says from his home near Lisbon. “Before the crisis, I had made so much music — even after the record I kept making more — but now that the world has come to a halt… Music is all I have, which is a very dramatic and intrusive thought, but it led me to make music constantly. So now that everything has slowed down to almost a complete stop, I feel like I can also slow down in producing and writing music for a little bit and see what else is out there. I made the choice not to go down that road of producing every single day; that can’t be healthy, for me anyway.”
For Ferreira, the need to pull back from others has been greater than the need to overcommunicate with people. “I feel like I should try to connect more, but it’s something that doesn’t happen, or happens very little. I’ve had this growing feeling of needing to detach. I don’t know if it’s the right thing or the wrong thing, but it’s a need,” he admits. Ferreira is comfortable spending time alone, but he recognises the limitations of isolation, and places importance on collaboration (he has performed in the duos HRNS, PURGA and is one of the founders of Lisbon’s 00:NEKYIA collective) within his artistic practice. “There’s only so far I can go, as after a while it becomes a bit unhealthy and it all becomes a big mush of sound,” he offers. “Because you’re the only one listening to it. You’re the only one making it; there’s really no one else.”
Since 2012, Ferreira has resided in Carcavelos — a sleepy seaside town twelve kilometres west of Lisbon. The majority of his friends live a train ride away in the city centre, and although he sees them regularly, he is also no stranger to solitude. Ferreira spends chunks of time ambling across the sandy beach with his dog Izzy, collecting ideas and sometimes capturing the sounds around him. Nature has always been a source of inspiration to Ferreira, who found solace in climbing the beach’s rocky outposts when he was finding it hard to forge human connections at his new high school. “I spent a lot of time just hanging out on those rocks,” he recalls. “There’s a really high point where the sea doesn’t even reach, which is quite scary but also quite beautiful.” Ferreira would often bring his laptop along with him and use the mic to record his surroundings.
In many respects, he has come a long way since then: Farwarmth is an active member of the Lisbon music community with a sprawling group of friends and collaborators. He has since procured more gear than a laptop with which to conjure his creations. However, Ferreira’s inclination for solitude remains a driving force behind his creativity. His debut album, Momentary Glow, encapsulates this sensibility in its expansive, high-concept sound sculptures and digital noise. Although the record involved an element of working with others, it’s largely a paean to isolation and to “doing everything on your way away from everyone, whether it be your friends, loved ones, or just people in general,” he explains.
Released on Planet Mu in April, the LP is a love letter to the environment, with evocative titles like “Shadows in the Air,” “Below the White Sky,” and “Across the Black Sand,” which paint a sweeping picture of a sublime and moody landscape. Ferreira uses a sprinkling of artistic license to create a dystopian feel which at the same time feels far removed from Portugal’s sunshine-drenched holiday-ready image. “The first three tracks describe a specific moment when the weather conditions had come together,” he recalls. “It could be fall, it could be winter. I was describing the white sky and a foggy day — the grey sea as it had nothing to reflect off.” The album sends out a series of electronic sound postcards that buzz with life, from the warm sub-bass that laps gently against the record’s glitchy opener to the decaying deposits of distortion that build up around the pealing tones on “Below the White Sky.”
A classical sensibility also floods the album’s deeper crevices. Ferreira, who was born in Porto, was enrolled at the Conservatório de Música de Bragança (also in the north of the country) by age seven and studied piano for five years, later resuming his studies near Lisbon at the Academia Improviso in Oeiras. There, his musical education was “freer” and more focussed on improvisation. He completed grades as part of the Rockschool piano syllabus and left in 2016, having acquired a wealth of musical knowledge. Although he admits that he has since found himself engaging in a great deal of “unlearning,” Ferreira has also been able to apply aspects of his classical training to his electronic music compositions.
On his new album, which collects tracks from a four-year period, Ferreira’s use of organic instrumentation pays homage to his classical DNA, drawing human connections to stir up emotional resonance. “Shadows in the Air” features his friend Victoria playing the transverse flute; a recording he made at the classical music school in Porto. You can hear the flute as clear as a summer’s day on the softly stripped-back ambience of “Sunlit Mirroring.” His friend Bruna makes an appearance on the cello at different points throughout the album (particularly on “Into The Grey Sea”). The source recordings, which also feature Ferreira playing the accordion he inherited from his grandfather, are often processed and mutated into unrecognisable shapes. Thick with texture and tension while channelling both rawness and refinement, Momentary Glow is an ambient noise tapestry from an artist who is only just warming up.
“I never heard my grandfather play, but after I inherited the accordion from him I then didn’t play it for the longest time. It’s so heavy; and I’m not the strongest fella,” he jokes. Among Ferreira’s magpie-like stash of instruments are a keyboard and melodica he found in a rubbish bin outside his house.
As a teenager, Ferreira first got into electronic music through Yung Lean, and later felt inspired to make his own creations. “It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” he recalls of his formative encounter with the Swedish firebrand. “It was the first time I was able to discover what else was out there. I was seventeen at the time. Grimes for me as well — for the longest time I only listened to Yung Lean, Grimes and Purity Ring, and then the whole vaporwave thing. I often did improvised recordings on the piano, and after hearing these things, I was still very focussed on the piano as I was still studying it, but I was trying to make my own compositions. Keyboards haven’t really posed any limits for me. If I have an idea I can put it out immediately — I just get a keyboard and record it.”
He began making and more heavily consuming electronic music after leaving music school four years ago, and describes himself as a “late bloomer” who didn’t experience much nightlife or live music until he started self-releasing in 2015. Admittedly, he was pretty young when that happened; seventeen, playing his first show in a venue near Carcavelos called Smup. For his eighteenth birthday the following year, he played a show at Lisbon’s beloved underground hotspot, Desterro. He went on to release a clutch of EPs on a mixture of local and international labels, and in 2016 put out a full-length release called Beneath The Pulse on Portuguese label Alienação, which he co-founded with João Melgueira. 2018 saw the release of Immeasurable Heaven on erstwhile London-based imprint ACR.
In spite of his predilection for being alone, Ferreira is quick to acknowledge the support he has received from others and the impact this has on his musical trajectory. “The scene basically means everything because I wouldn’t have done anything that I’ve done to this day without it,” he enthused.
Ferreria’s music-making revolves heavily around improvisation, which he finds cathartic and necessary. “Improvising plays the role of recycling of the soul, of purging things out without putting any deliberate thought into it,” he offers. “I can’t anticipate the thoughts that will come out, I just know that I need that cleansing to happen. And that works when you’re on your own as you have no other choice but to confront those things that can weigh on your shoulders.”
Diverting the conversation back to the anxieties of the present-day, and Ferreira highlights art’s invaluable function for providing entertainment and comfort. “What do you do when you’re at home? You consume culture. Whether that’s listening, reading or whatever. And it’s something that can be taken for granted,” he says. He expresses concern over the lack of external support for the arts here in Portugal particularly, while at the same time emphasizing the resilience of many music communities in holding themselves up. “All the support in music comes from the listeners. Initiatives are coming from listeners and artists; it’s not coming from anywhere else. And there are definitely way stronger bonds here than there were four years ago.”
How has he attempted to distract himself from the everyday stress of the current global crisis? With model-making using Lego Technic. “For the characters there’s a lot of manga inspiration and sci-fi stuff, post-human humanoid robots and AI. It’s a silly thing that helps me with all the things that have been going on. I can get lost in it for an entire day. Time goes by and I’m just building stuff…I think I apply the same process of music-making to anything I do — I just wing it, improvise, and go about the build as I build…”