Language Muddles Music: Sebastián Maria
The thread between structure and consciousness weighs on the mind of Sebastián Maria, the Colombian-American composer, producer, and DJ based in New York City. From our very first conversations, it is clear Maria seems to never stop thinking; about the nature of art and authenticity, as well as about the multi-linear relationship between cultural subject and product. But things come with a caveat. “I don’t like to think of my music as political,” he says, over Zoom. “But, in a way, I guess it is—because it confronts bigger and older questions of consciousness and perception.”
While admittedly expansive—he humbly brushes off this response, calling it a “kind of grand proposal”—his posture is not at all without justification. Maria, who self-releases his projects through Bandcamp (sebastianmaria.bandcamp.com), is clearly and deeply concerned with exploring the practical limits of expression and perception. His music functions partly in the service of his interest in language, in some ways defying what he calls the “behavior and context of speech.” In this vein, his practice almost seems to reject form itself—offering a dense, theory-driven bricolage of sampled elements adjacent to noise, glitch, and field recordings. It eschews easy narratives, flirting openly with the avant-garde, all while colluding with textures and rhythms drawn from Latin sound-worlds—particularly those of La Costa, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, like reggaeton and cumbia.
Not surprisingly, Maria tells me he is more concerned with ideas than with any degree of personality, or what he justifiably deprecates as the intrigue of “celebrity.” Even his DJ practice—as a founding member of the Latinx collective Sazón Department—is, in his words, detached from the focal points and social commitments of party-going, even in the context of the NYC experimental club circuit. His recent employment of CDJs—hardware that allows DJs to play and manipulate digital files from, among other sources, compact discs—in such settings is instructive. “I try to use them more as instruments, in more destructive ways,” he says, “instead of the standard play one song, then play another, and seamlessly beat-match them together and then you’re a DJ. I like the idea of breaking down that third wall.”
Despite this apparent rejection of the personal, his practice remains endowed with a presence that, while not obvious, evokes a certain sense of individual consideration, as well as a spiritually grounded nature (his 2019 breakthrough, LUNITAS, was composed entirely from field recordings personally collected between moon cycles). This dovetails with his keen awareness of social and cultural constraints, which he provocatively re-casts as ambiguous counterpoints to himself. “I give myself a platform to experiment with Latin music as people know it,” he says, “but I present it in a kind of upside-down way … in a tongue-in-cheek way, my Latin background makes it Latin music no matter what genre it is.”
While Maria’s musing seems to almost reflect, for a poignant moment, a kind of structural hyper-vigilance on his part, he admits there are also smaller, more practical limitations to his project. “Within a party context, I totally understand there are restraints,” he comments. “And I do think partying and celebration itself can be a political practice—or at least it can reinvigorate a certain cultural resistance.”
He nonetheless remains wary of broader, stereotyped gestures of protest that, in part, feed into what he has perceived as a glut of activism-inflected art in recent years. “I started leaning in the opposite way,” he says. “And I started realizing like, beyond music I feel like whatever you do individually can have just as much if not more of an influence on the structure of society than writing a song that's like, ‘Fuck Racism’ or ‘Fuck Trump.’” As such, Maria seems to understand the process by which activist music reflects a critical distance among material conditions and casts a paradoxical shadow on its creators. As a result, he seems to consciously avoid pigeonholing himself at every turn—resulting in a body of work that is as consistently surprising as it is conspicuously intense.
Recent projects, like LUNITAS and 2020’s L.L., are animated by the dramatic dialogue and positive tension between Maria’s Hispanic and Anglophone halves. In particular, L.L.—an abbreviation for both “language limit” and “limite languaje”—foregrounds sonic and spiritual dissonance to a degree that it seems to comment on the futility of idiomatic frameworks of meaning itself. “I think that might've been my first fully … instrumental album,” he says, mentioning his extensive work with samples and their seeming ability to reveal themselves to the creator and listener. “There were some vocal samples but they were all used kind of like instrumentals, instead of trying to deliver any clear message. So [that was] my first time exploring … the possibility of storytelling, of creating narratives, of creating a full experience with just music.”
Ultimately for Maria, language seems prophylactic, unnecessary, and almost repressive, preventing the achievement of the resonant sublimity of absolute music, embodied by what he calls “the chaotic neutrality of experience.” This reflects a shared truth that lyrics, despite their direct nature, are rarely at the center of a song’s meaning. “I find that language kind of muddles the full potential of music,” he affirms. “Especially in the fact that I think music—unlike a lot of other media—maybe does a really good job of getting between gray areas.” He further reflects on his unlikely trajectory, confirming a broader view of culture that highlights the disconnect between performance and politics. “I think anything that presents an alternative to an established status quo is inherently political,” he says.