Why Nicolas Jaar is This Generation’s Most Important Electronic Musician

Nicolas Jaar has commitment issues. His music slithers between psych-speckled post-rock, world-building ambient, minimalist techno, hip-hop-inflected house, and reconstituted pop. Sometimes it’s slinky and sexy, other times it maps out a cavernous space that is icy and foreboding. As an artist, Jaar can be thought of as an arch conceptualist or a sharp-eyed technician, a festival-headlining electronic music god or a museum-dwelling avant garde knob twiddler.

He’s all these things, of course. Regardless of the medium, the most interesting artists are the ones who spend their careers negotiating contradictions. Jaar is no different. He’s the NYC club kid, the omnivorous intellectual, and a product of  South America’s political unrest. His tireless pursuit of

Born in 1990, Jarr came up in the late-’00s NYC house scene, playing Brooklyn’s Marcy hotel parties. Gadi Mizrahi, who hosted the parties as one half of the legendary NYC house duo Wolf & Lamb, heard Jaar’s early compositions — which veered toward experimental atmospherics — and suggested that he add a 4/4 house beat beneath them. Within two years, Jaar had become one of the hottest DJs in NYC’s house scene, releasing his first EP (The Student) and starting his record label (Other People). At the end of this hot streak, he turned 20.

Making a playlist of Jaar’s best music is difficult, to say the least. Figuring out how to sequence the euphoric house of his A.A.L. project with the austere techno of his Nymph EPs is a fool’s errand, while blending the Southwestern inflected psych twang of Darkside’s “Golden Arrow” with the sorrowful piano tones of his 2013 Leonard Cohen cover, “Avalanche,” is near-fucking-impossible.

And what does one do with Pomegranates? The 2015 release was intended as a soundtrack to Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 Soviet-times movie The Color of Pomegranates, and combines scraps of electronic debris to approximate noisy ambient music. The music at the beginning of the collection is largely abstract sound design — the whizzing harmonics of opener “Garden of Eden” gives way to the clattering, gear-crunching ambience of “Construction” — but this leads to some of Jaar’s most beautiful music: the twinkling, near-East melodies of “Tourists,” the pastoral sheen of “Shame,” and the haunting piano ballad “Muse.”

It all makes a little more sense if you’ve seen the movie. Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates is considered one of that era’s definitive underground films. In it, as well as its predecessor, 1965’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Parajanov bucked the state-sanctioned aesthetic of social realism — a stylistically rigid movement that celebrated the nobility of the proletariat — for an hallucinatory style that veered between esoteric, Freudian examinations of a vast innerspace and oblique, symbolist critiques of Soviet politics and society. Upon release, Parajanov’s films were generally panned by native critics and banned by the censors, and Parajanov himself was sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia (ostensibly for his homosexuality).

In many ways, Parajanov’s sideways agitprop is a fitting corollary to Jaar’s own work, but Jaar has definitely had an easier go of it. By the time Pomegranates was released in 2015, Jaar was one of the most celebrated producers and DJs in the world. He had a teaching gig at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His collaborative side-project Darkside had released their critically acclaimed debut, 2013’s Psychic, and became a touring powerhouse, treating audiences worldwide to their loose, spaghetti techno. And Jaar formed an interdisciplinary arts collective called Clown & Sunset Aesthetics that performed inside a geodesic dome at MOMA’s PS1 contemporary art museum. His 2012 BBC Essential Mix was named Radio 1’s Essential Mix Of The Year, while his 2011 debut, Space is Only Noise, was named album of the year by Resident Advisor, Mixmag, and Crack Mag.

But Jaar’s breakout composition was 2010’s “Mi Mujer,” which remains his most streamed track on Spotify. It was a song that was never intended to come out — Jaar had laid down the Spanish language vocals of his mother, somewhere between a tribute and a joke — but Jaar released it after bemoaning the appropriation of Latin music samples in electronic music.

This is not the only time that Jaar’s family showed up in his work, nor the only time that he has engaged with the issues surrounding the Latin American diaspora. Jaar is from New York, but his family is Chilean. His father, the celebrated multimedia artist Alfredo Jaar, was born in the Chilean capitol of Santiago in 1956. Alfrado’s family soon moved to Mozambique, but they were devoutly liberal, and when the socialist Salvador Allende was democratically elected in 1972, the family returned to Santiago. Unfortunately, Allende’s reign was short lived, and the following year, when Alfredo was 17, Allende was assassinated as Augusto Pinochet rose to power in a bloody coup.

Much has been written about Pinochet and Allende, particularly of the CIA’s involvement, but the net of it was that 3,000 were killed and many more “disappeared,” tortured, or imprisoned by the Pinochet-backed Chilean death squad the Caravan of Death (Caravana de la Muerte). Jaar’s family stuck it out in Chile for nearly a decade after Pinochet took power before moving to New York in 1982. Pinochet himself held onto power until March 11th, 1990, when he was disposed following a country-wide referendum. At this time, Nicolas Jaar was 3 months old.

Nicolas Jaar has never been an explicitly political artist, but this particularly gruesome chapter of history shows up in his work, particularly on Sirens, from 2016. That album is both his most personal and political work to date. If Pomegranates and the Nymph EPs found him exploring particular strains of his music — musique concrète and fractured techno, respectively — then Sirens is a synthesis, blending the warbling post-rock wanderings of his Darkside project with the textural elements of Pomegranates and the conceptual, cinematic framework of Space, while adding a veneer of pop to give the songs more structure. The collection also, perhaps tellingly, abandoned sampling, and was solely constructed with live instrumentation and Jaar’s voice. “The Governor” and “Three Sides of Nazareth” have a presence that’s lacking in his other work — in particular, the cowpoke vocals and driving baseline of “Governor,” which are juxtaposed with the swirling, subterranean sound effects.

The spectre of violence and political unrest hangs over all of Sirens, but the most pointedly political track is “No.” It contains one of the albums few samples — a clip of Andes folk music — and its title references the 1988 referendum that would eventually bring down Pinochet (the choice was, effectively, “yes, he stays” or “no, he leaves”).  

Speaking to Pitchfork, Jaar noted, “What interested me a lot was that, in 1988, there was a referendum that asked the Chilean people: ‘Do you want Pinochet to stay for eight more years?’ That simple, yes or no. So the resistance—which was artists, leftists, activists—created a campaign for the ‘no.’ They effectively turned a negative message into a positive message, which seems like the most elemental change that you can do.”

The track ends with a snippet of sampled dialogue between Nicolas and Alfredo Jaar taken from when the former was a child. It can be translated as such:

“Alfredo: Stay against the wall. Put yourself against the wall. Go there and tell others. The one you like, tell a nice story.

Nico: Once upon a time there was a little bird that was flying. And there, there was a man with a very big gun and did like this (gunshot).”

It’s tempting to view Sirens as a culmination (or synthesis) of Jaar’s approach — the marriage of the personal and political; narratives built from scraps of memories and noise — but 2012 – 2017, his 2018 release under the moniker A.A.L. (Against All Logic), displays yet another side of Jaar. The tracks are hedonistic, transcendent, and eerily (for Jaar) coherent. “Rave On U” builds off clomping high-hats and smeared synth textures for a banger, while “Cityfade” comes outfitted with gospel handclaps, a streaking piano line, and a submerged children’s choir, and is his most accessible work to date. “I Never Dream,” meanwhile, is pure dancefloor euphoria, building off shuffling rhythms and lightly processed female soul vocal for a finish that’s as pretty and blissful as anything Jaar or any of his contemporaries have ever made.

When building a playlist, the curator always tries to find the center of an artist or a genre. With Jaar, that’s nearly impossible; his work is endlessly digressive and varied. There are strains of ideas and sounds that appear and reappear, but putting a finger on one feels impossibly reductive. The journey may be bumpy, but it also includes some of the most important and idiosyncratic music created this decade.