French producer Aho Ssan makes stunning experimental music, drawing a host of zeitgeisty contributors into his orbit. No wonder his new work ‘Rhizomes’ reads like a who’s who of contemporary underground electronica

Aho Ssan – Parisian electronic musician Niamké Désiré – is in excellent company on his latest album. 

Released on Nicolas Jaar’s Other People label, ‘Rhizomes’ is a vibrant, complex organism of a record (as well as a multimedia project and accompanying book) featuring a staggering cast of collaborators at the forefront of experimental sound, including Blackhaine, Richie Culver, Resina, KMRU, Rắn Cạp Đuôi, James Ginzburg, Clipping, Lafawndah, Valentina Magaletti, Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid and even Jaar himself.

“All my life, I’ve worked in front of a computer on my own,” explains Ssan. “Now that I have the possibility of working with other people and other artists, it’s really cool and so inspiring. We made it together as a maximalist work – it was a really long process. I learned a lot about myself [laughs]!”

On his 2020 debut, ‘Simulacrum’, commanding, heavily textured, granular soundscapes coalesce as sonic thunder. Ssan’s soundscapes are even more intense on ‘Rhizomes’, where they provide the starting point for collaborative composition to flourish. 

Ssan mainly uses digital music software, but he was also influenced by the time he spent working on a commissioned piece at the iconic French electroacoustic institution GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) a few years ago. The birthplace of musique concrète, GRM was founded in 1951 by pioneering composer Pierre Schaeffer.

“It was the first time for me playing ‘real’ synthesisers,” says Ssan. “They have a unique synthesiser called the Coupigny – there is only one of them – and the famous Serge, and the Synthi. In terms of my sonic world, everything starts at the GRM. At the same time, I took my computer there because that’s my main source.”

He admits that it takes a keen ear to pick up on all the elements at play on ‘Rhizomes’, although one artist – the Polish cellist, Resina – is part of the whole album. The Warsaw-based musician appears most prominently on the track ‘Till The Sun Down’, alongside Los Angeles hip hop outfit Clipping, but the manipulated, fractured sounds of her instrument are woven throughout the album’s intricate fabric. 

photo: Marvin Jouglineu

These twists and turns highlight the environment of creative freedom and expression that Ssan encouraged in his collaborators, and the results amount to an immersive listening experience. Sit with it for a while, and you’ll continue to discover new things – which is precisely what Ssan was aiming for.

“The intro and outro tracks were made with Kenyan composer Nyokabi Kariũki,” he says. “She’s definitely one of my favourite artists right now. I really needed this kind of track, where it acts like a mirror. So if you play the album in reverse, it still makes sense.”

Ssan was inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album ‘Damn’, which Lamar has said was designed to be listened to in reverse order. 

“I thought it was a really good idea, because for me the whole ‘rhizome’ thing is that it has to go in every direction,” reasons Ssan. “So I shaped it in this way, to be shuffled. When you listen the first time, you do it in the right order, but after that you can go backwards.”

The titular “rhizomes” come from Ssan’s interpretation of the French-Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant’s concept of the rhizomatic identity. Unlike a root which grows vertically from one place, the rhizome grows horizontally, stretching out to meet other roots. It’s not the first time Ssan has taken philosophical concepts as a creative starting point. When writing ‘Simulacrum’, he looked to French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, and he describes this interest in philosophy as being “very personal”. 

“I don’t think I know a lot – I’m just beginning,” he claims. “When I was a student, I took philosophy, but at the time I was also studying mathematics and art, and it was way too much. So I did the do-it-yourself thing. Actually, what I really love about both ‘Simulacrum’ and ‘Rhizomes’ is the walls these ideas give you when you’re creating – the impulses but also the limitations. 

“I can’t make music without a story behind it. Maybe because I’ve worked in cinema – I need a background, a kind of storytelling. With both albums, I was so happy to have the opportunity to wake up every morning and still be excited. It really engaged my curiosity. That’s why, with both albums, I looked to philosophy. Because with music, I’m passionate, but not that much [laughs]. So if I’m not excited after one month, it means I’m already bored.”

Born and raised in Paris, Ssan studied graphic design and cinema before he began composing and producing electronic music, and the interview takes an enjoyable turn into movie territory when I ask him about his favourite films and directors. 

“For ages, I was into Gaspar Noé,” he says of the Argentinian director. “Visually, he was just mind-blowing when I was younger. And I really love this Thai filmmaker called Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He did a film years ago called ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’. His 2021 film, ‘Memoria’, which is about sound, was a big inspiration for one track on ‘Rhizomes’ that I made with Richie Culver.”

Right on cue, the grey morning light filling the room behind Ssan’s computer screen switches to a beautiful wash of gold. He chuckles when I point out the cinematic quality. 

“I think it’s a simulation,” he says. “It was raining a lot here yesterday.”

Given his passion for collaborative projects, is there a dream artist he would love to work with? 

“Oh, that’s really hard – there are so many! Actually, before ‘Rhizomes’, Clipping were one of my dream groups to collaborate with. I will say maybe Shabazz Palaces or Burial.” 

We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed for those ones.

‘Rhizomes’ is out on Other People

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