New Urban Mythologies: A Conversation with CAO

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Drawing inspiration from the buried myths of Latin America and the subterranean jungles of Europe, Peruvian musician, sound artist, and philosopher Constanza Bizraelli (aka CAO) explores the hidden mysticism of civilizations through her ritual electronics. CAO’s debut release Marginal Virgin on the respected and unpredictable Opal Tapes label is a mysterious, sonic journey through the nocturnal underbelly of London, where she currently lives, and through the lost empires of Peru, where she was born and raised. On Marginal Virgin, CAO deconstructs spiritual spaces and rewrites cultural mythologies as techno abstractions, post-industrial poems, and vaporous drone hymns.

I first came across Bizraelli’s music after hearing her NTS Radio DJ set, featuring a selection of rare psychedelic cumbia from Peru. Between finishing her studies in London and participating at this year’s Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, we had the chance to speak about her inspirations in metropolitan mysticism, Latin American folklore, and how her music is a natural complement to her philosophical investigations.

What originally brought you to London?

Originally I came to London to get my Masters degree. I received my B.A. in Philosophy while in Lima, and I applied for a Masters in Philosophy of Art & Art Theory at Central Saint Martins in 2013 in London.

Back in Lima, I played other types of music, but I didn’t really play electronic music. I was making more guitar-based music—always experimental, but more like shoe-gaze, post-rock, and those kinds of things. When I got to London, I started going to gigs and started exploring the underground music scene here. I had had some inspirations in electronic music before, just jamming and playing around, and after six months in London, I got a couple of synthesizers and started exploring and making music. And that’s how I started my project CAO, about two years ago.

Are your productions and performances mostly hardware based?

It’s mixed, because I use some analog synths, and I also use Ableton Live.

There are lots of references to mysticism and occultism in your descriptions of your music. Did those sounds and concepts have origins in Peru? 

Definitely. The name CAO I originally took from a place in Peru on the northern coast where there’s an archaeological complex of the Lady of Cao—she was the empress of an ancient civilization in Peru called Mochica. I was researching the cosmovisions of these ancient cultures and their philosophies, so that was a very strong influence and inspiration for my project initially.

This idea of ancient Peruvian mysticism rooted in the Moche culture is one of the main roots of the exploration of mysticism and occultism in my music. But London is a very strong influence, as well as the city of Lima, my hometown. I always try to explore cities in a mysterious and mystical kind of unfolding. So I would say that this idea, the mysticism behind the idea of a city is a very strong influence for the CAO project.

The archeological site El Brujo in Peru, where The Lady of Cao was entombed.

I always try to explore cities in a mysterious and mystical kind of unfolding.

I imagine there’s also inspiration comparatively, looking at how cities relate and differ geographically and topographically. Are you musically addressing any of those differences or tensions between one place and another? 

I’m always looking at cities as if I were trying to uncover some kind of abstract mythology from them, which is not necessarily rooted in a particular cultural coagulation or previously established arrangement of archetypes. But I like to use the directionalities of these archetypes, that are perhaps very delineated, to be able to break them and build with them and build new kinds of coagulations of myths and new narratives.

I like to think of cities as if they were liquid labyrinths you can navigate, rethinking the channels and the ways of channelizing the drive to arrange everything in patterns of culturally established myths, mythologies, and narratives. So I try to use the abstract matter to be able to reform and construct new narratives. This is always accented in a specific way to the city, of course. London and Lima are completely different for example, but they have particular ways of being accented or they have particular ways in which their matter is accented, so I use these subtle accents to direct my own inspirations.

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What does Marginal Virgin signify as a concept or overarching theme?

Actually “Marginal Virgin” was the first track I wrote as CAO, and I think it summarizes the whole force of the project, the originality of the direction. And initially, conceptually, I had this idea of trying to draw a new mythology from this abstract matter I was extracting from the city somehow, as if cities were places from which I could extract matter that was in a raw state, and with this matter I could mold and construct a mythology that’s completely new and different. Obviously accented in the direction of the cities I was living in, but in a more subtle way, not in a static and obvious way.

With Marginal Virgin I was very interested in the idea of the archetype of the virgin. But in the case of music, I would take this archetype as a principal that is able to dive into very congested and dense surroundings and environments and is able to impregnate itself with its contents. It can descend to and navigate the underground, to the tellurian realms of a city or of a particular arrangement of culture.

By impregnating itself, it’s able to procreate new forms and at the same time, this Marginal Virgin never loses the ability to be new. It never loses the ability to be bewildered, to be enchanted, to be seduced by the newness of something. So it always has the primordial innocence and drive, that every time it descends and sees something, like a very complex structure, it wants to unfold and discover and know that it always has the gift of being impacted.

I was researching this concept philosophically and I thought it adapted very well to the kind of music I was making and the way I was exploring the city through music. Especially because I was also new in London, and everything was exciting and every discovery was always the first. So yeah, I think this concept depicted a lot of my first and second years in London.

By impregnating itself, it’s able to procreate new forms and at the same time, this Marginal Virgin never loses the ability to be new.

On tracks like “Les Jungles Occultes” and “Sex with the City,” the subdued rhythmic elements relate the tracks to familiar forms of dance music, a format that can be used as a frame to be totally expressive outside of a traditional arrangement. 

“Sex with the City” was constructed in this directionality of cities, because it’s mainly about my night walks in the city center of London. I used to go out after midnight and just walk around. It’s a very magical place where you have all of the banks, and it’s completely desolate because it’s mostly offices during the day. I got the impression that in these moments, I could see the machinery at rest. And somehow I can contemplate this essence. Not in a metaphysical way, but in a lively way.

And for “Jungles Occultes,” last year I was collaborating with a performance artist and we were organizing events in a dungeon in London. It’s a proper dungeon, it’s like a basement behind a warehouse space in central London. I was very inspired by this place, by all the telluric references of being underground, literally in the underground of London. So this track was very rooted in the ideas of discovering the exuberance of a life that’s underground, which is like the double of the city but in its underground version.

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Was this a ongoing project that you worked on up until the release? Or was it something you finished quickly with inspirations that had been brewing over the last several years?

Yeah it happened naturally through the process as I was getting my Masters in Philosophy as well, so I was also researching subjects that had to do strictly with philosophy. These ideas not only emerged from music but as well from my philosophical practice. So I think it was there the whole time.

Folklore seems to inform a lot of the cultural identities in South America. Is folklore or traditional narrative relevant to your music?

The idea of folklore has always been present in my music, ever since I started making music in Lima. When I did my B.A. in Philosophy, my thesis was called Folklore Interior: Por una estética de lo Hiper-Terrenal (Internal Folklore: For an Aesthetic of the Hyper-Terrestrial) and it was all about these ideas, because I was trying to generate folklore. But not folklore in a traditional way, because I thought it was a bit obsolete in Lima, but I was trying to recollect how the idea of folklore was essentially informed and not necessarily attached to particular types of folklore. So I was trying to draw folklore that was specific to Lima, completely contemporary and not rooted in any tradition. Folklore as if we were in year zero and there were no history. Folklore from Lima, from this year, from now. So I was trying to work with this idea of folklore in an abstract way, a newness of folklore.

How do you see your Latin American identity informing your agency in the electronic music world? Are there specific cultural qualities that you feel support your personal expression? 

Definitely. Peruvian culture, from Lima especially, is essential in my music. My previous project was all about Lima and the city in an abstract way. It’s like a fundamental influence for me, definitely. I think it informs 70% of who I am musically, even though I’m not based in Lima anymore. Latin American music is something that I always listen to. I really love cumbia and chicha, they’re main influences in my work, even if it doesn’t sound like it.

And there’s a darkness in Peruvian psychedelic cumbia that pervades the celebratory rhythms that are typical of Latin American music. 

Yeah, I like that mix of cumbia andina from the highlands with psychedelic music, and how it results in nostalgic and melancholic soundscapes and melodies. I find it very convenient as an influence.

You’re headed to RBMA—are you looking develop or explore anything specific?

I am very excited about it, and yeah I’ve been changing the way I play live. I want to explore more programming and composition without rhythms. And lately, I’ve been working more conceptually because since my background in music was more in black metal and punk, crust, post-rock, and experimental music. My way of composition has always been driven by emotion or by impulse, and now I’ve been working more conceptually, so I want to be able to synthesize both forms of composing. Like the one that is more emotional and the one that is more thoughtful and structured. So I’ve been trying to develop that side of me more in the last couple of months and I think that when I go RBMA, I’d like to explore that side of me more. And obviously I’d love to collaborate with other artists to see what we can do together.

 

Check out CAO’s music and writing on her website, Facebook, and SoundCloud.

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