Chamber Music for Us Outsiders: An Interview With Disemballerina

Disemballerina is creating chamber music for queer outsiders.

By M-L

When people first hear Disemballerina, one of the first questions is how to classify the band.  The band is not a traditional metal band, though the genre of “chamber metal” has been used a least once to describe the music. Instead of distorted guitars and pounding drums, Disemballerina relies on a very different repertoire of instruments to communicate the same intensity of emotion. At the forefront are bowed and plucked strings, given the band’s recordings a dark classical sound self-described as “queer outsider chamber music”. These instruments help conjure the eerie ambiance of the pieces which often take a soundtrack-like quality. The music broods with eerie loneliness and isolation enhanced by the ritualistic elements of the band’s performance and the solemn melancholy of the themes referenced in titles and album covers.  Covers recall dark fantasy (or perhaps mythology), dead birds, ravens, and ritual spaces, and communicates melancholia that is even present in the more upbeat tracks.  Disemballerina’s most recent release, Fawn, is no exception to this melancholic beauty.

Here we interview the full band, the trio of Myles Donovan, Ayla Holland, and Jennifer Christensen, about the music, the band’s history, and their new release. In addition, we touch on human nature, antifascism, and the queer experience.  

How did Disemballerina first form and how did you decide on an instrumental project?

MYLES:  I think the goal was always to be instrumental? Even before I moved from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon in 2008, I was a huge fan of both Anon Remora–Ayla’s metal project and Discharge Information System–our original cellist Melissa Collins’ band. Both projects were largely instrumental, influenced by both metal and classical music, and refreshingly, unapologetically queer, which to me was a huge fucking deal. At some point in 2008,  Melissa and I ended up being studio musicians together for a Graves at Sea side project, and around the same time, Ayla and I started playing harp and guitar duets in her basement. Ayla and Melissa had a project called Malice Discordia that had recently disbanded, we all liked the sounds we were creating, we were all the loner queers in the metal scene, and we were all friends. Playing together just made sense. We debuted our first show in an outdoor gazebo in the Summer of 2009. Not long after, Melissa departed for Salt Lake City, and for a period the band was just me and Ayla as a duo, then this violinist Fiona Petra came and left, followed by Celeste Viera on cello, then Marit Schmidt of Vradiazei/Sangre De Muerdago on viola… but we ultimately felt complete when Jennifer became the principal cellist of the trio and joined in 2012. She’s been with us ever since and we fucking love her.

JENNIFER:  I heard Disemballerina’s demo, which a friend shared with me when it came out, and really enjoyed it.  Then, I played a solo cello set with Disemballerina at a tea house called Sizizis in Olympia in 2012.  I spoke to them about collaborating and we started playing together a little while after that. 

Who were the influences towards the development of the Disemballerinas sound? 

MYLES: for me? Classically, Shostakovich, Alan Hovhaness, Bartok, and Penderecki. Also having imposter syndrome as a violist being largely self-taught and a late bloomer lit a fire under my ass, while still carrying the torch of one day being able to play my own form of chamber music somehow with others. The New Bloods were a short-lived Portland punk band with one of my favorite violinists ever, Osa Atoe. Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live was another band with a now-deceased violinist I loved, Michael Griffin. I have a ton of respect for Kris Force of Amber Asylum and all the work she has done as a composer, performer, and sound engineer. There was a viola player in a Norwegian noise band called Noxagt, Nils Erga, who I listened to a lot.

JENNIFER:   I agree with Myles that in terms of writing music, I’m very inspired by Shostakovich, also Stravinsky.  

AYLA: Well early on (for me) definitely Ulver’s early albums as far as “acoustic metal” goes, but also Henryk Gorecki, Philip Glass, stuff like that for me.  Also, for years I’ve been inspired by Low’s early records (the “slowcore” sound), etc. But I’ve been introduced to so much music by friends over the past 15 years as well, including in large part from Myles.

MYLES: Ayla has also turned me onto tons of old country music I otherwise would’ve never checked out.

The band describes itself as “queer outsider chamber music”.   Would you say that queerness is focal to the atmosphere you seek to create with your music?

MYLES: I would say that queerness was the reason the band formed in the first place; we were all anomalies in the local metal scene and sought camaraderie, we wanted a very specific sound, we wanted to create heaviness without relying on sonic volume, and a friendship formed naturally around that, but also being a group made up of two queer women and a gay man attracted its own queer following in and of itself, which I for one really loved. some of my favorite shows we ever played were with other queer bands, or in front of largely queer audiences, as opposed to the typical straight metal crowd. we played to a few neofolk audiences and it was not my thing at all. 

JENNIFER:   There was a shared sense of isolation that brought the members of Disemballerina together and which sets the sound and atmosphere apart from other groups.   Disemballerina doesn’t perfectly fit in with any genre I can think of but the closest we could get to describing it is “queer outsider chamber music”.

AYLA: I wouldn’t say that being queer is focal to the atmosphere we seek to create, but rather is inextricably linked to our movement through this world on a daily basis so is inevitably involved in who we are/where we are coming from whilst creating the music, the band. 

There are elements of ritual and tradition in your music as well, how do these elements fit into the band’s sound?

MYLES: This is going to sound ridiculous but the most obvious “ritualistic” element of our presentation–playing in a semicircle of lit candles in the dark, actually came out of my own claustrophobia. I didn’t feel comfortable playing so physically close to audiences, so it was a weird protective firewall, for me anyway that made playing live possible. Also playing in the dark made me forget the audience as a player, which allowed me to focus on the music more. We tended to always write in a similar setting.

AYLA: There have always been rituals (whether private or public) surrounding the band, whether it is within practicing, performance, songwriting, or recording.  The candles holding the fire moat of protection have always been wonderful,  I appreciate Myles for that! The samples used, the evoking memory or visions of a theme in song, whole album, etc.  Some are seen by the public,  audience, listener… some are personal, relational within the band yet nevertheless always behind the sounds and moods.

JENNIFER:   I am more comfortable presenting myself in this way and the candlelight helps to set the scene for the music – which is usually composed in relative darkness as well.  I don’t know that I agree that there is much ritual and tradition involved, but this is more just how we show up.

Why is it important to be antifascist in the music scene and how does antifascism inform your creative work?

MYLES: Because the Pacific Northwest in particular has a serious problem with cryptofascism in its underground music subcultures, among other places. The music scene, particularly the genres of black metal, noise, and neofolk are notably problematic in this area.  We’ve never identified as neofolk but eventually stopped playing shows altogether with neofolk projects, because we were tired of learning after performances that there were people in our audiences who did things like host holocaust denier book events and wrote for alt-right publications. [I’m] not saying that’s every neofolk scene–I applaud the efforts of this site to emphasize that distinction– or that you can entirely control who is in your fanbase, but it’s creepy, fucking disturbing shit we never wanted to be around or any part.  We definitely have burned some bridges for speaking out. A member of Blood Axis still has a major problem with me because of this. We’ve also contributed to multiple anarchist black cross benefits and dropped off of bills with sketchball bands, on top of having our song themes and personal activism outside of playing music. the surrounding water is still always murky though. 

JENNIFER:  When I was a naive teenager playing music in the NY/NJ scenes, I had blinders on to making these political distinctions because I was overly focused on just playing as much music as humanly possible.  As a result, I ended up finding out (as Myles said) that people I had been collaborating with were involved in things I would not want to be associated with.  It’s easier to make it clear early on that we’re not interested in aligning ourselves with ideas inconsistent with our own personal beliefs.  

AYLA: I have for a long time now felt that it is terribly important to look to history so that we can spot the signs when it reoccurs, especially in relation to the racism/fascism of the last century. Look at what is happening in this post trump era of pandemic madness even. America is terrifying to me at present. 

The fact that in the pacific NW U.S. (and other places of course)  there is this surging “ecofascism” among neofolk/metal/etc musicians is despicable. Glorifying early fascists and their pastoral idealism which inspired Hitler Youth and the third Reich etc is so dangerously foolish and misguided, to put it very very mildly. I think I can safely speak for all of us when I say we are antifascist with every fibre of our beings. 

Let’s talk about the new record. Disemballerina’s new release, “Fawn”, is a 7” EP inspired by the human reactions to extreme stress and contains three songs representative of the fight, flight, and freeze response.  How does this fit into the band’s themes?

MYLES: The song “Pancada”, which starts off our record gets its title from the Portuguese word for hitting and striking. It also, as I was made aware by one of my ex-boyfriends from Portugal, is a term for an animal that bites at anything that comes near it, even people it loves, due to its abused past. My ex used it to describe himself the first time he hit me in the face, which for me caused a deep reflection on the origins of trauma and what every person is reacting off of and how. 

JENNIFER:  “Garnets” touches on the numb, comatose melancholy produced by trauma as the mind struggles to process and make sense of what’s happened.   The sounds attempt to replicate this time loss, grasping for a hold on something solid to pull oneself out of this psychological state.

MYLES: “Somnambulist” just translates roughly to sleepwalker, this idea of mind flight from the conscious world while still going through the motions physically. I built a glass harp out of wine glasses for the ending and used an instrument from 1927 know as the Marxophone. I think the doors used it one song. we’re classic rock now.

AYLA: unfortunately we can all relate to trauma and trauma response and who each of us is.  it is of course made by what we have gone through.  I’m stoked that we are talking about it, even just in thematics and concerning the recent release of the recordings… because healing and self-reflection are so crucial to humans, especially at this harrowing moment in human history. 

How does the songwriting process work in Disemballerina?

JENNIFER:  For the most part, the process comes really organically.  We’ll play a theme and we’ll record what we like so we remember while we build a song to surround it.

MYLES:  Ayla is a riff machine, I’ve also brought songs and parts to the table, as has Jennifer. We also do a lot of improvised writing and play off of loose ideas.

AYLA: yeah a lot of times I would bring a finished guitar song skeleton and we would tweak it and Myles and Jenn would bring their magic to it and deeply fill it out, add epilogues, etc. But generally a joint effort over the years always.

Are there any elements of the record you’d like to draw our attention to?

MYLES: besides our amazing cover artist Jennifer Baker, our new label Riff Merchant is doing a second pressing of the 7″ on picture disc!  there is also currently a small dance company in New York City working on Choreography for these three songs. it’s a dream come true for me, and so wonderfully not metal.

Was the turbulence and stress of the last two years an influence on the album’s development?

MYLES: Actually no, these songs and the album theme were decided upon in 2016, Covid, if anything,  just created an urgency to get everything done. I currently live in NYC with my boyfriend and have worked all of the shutdown as a grocer. If people draw catharsis and associate this record with the pandemic, then wonderful–we all need something after this– although it wasn’t the original intention.

JENNIFER:  I agree with Myles that the album wasn’t inspired by the pandemic but that certain elements of the pandemic inspired us to complete the process so that something good came out of these surreal times.

I like to end interviews with musicians with a list of recommendations. Are there any bands you can recommend to fans of antifascist neofolk music?

MYLES: I play harp in a band in NYC called Narco Medusa with guitarist Jessica Howard from Another Dying Democracy, I used to play viola in a gentrification themed instrumental project from Philly called Forgotten Bottom,  I’m a rotating guest musician in the band Ominous Cloud Ensemble along with members of Sun Ra Arkestra, and I’ve played as a guest on multiple albums by A Stick and a Stone.

I don’t listen to Neofolk, but my favorite projects right now are Show Me The Body, Eartheater, Like a Villain, Reg Bloor, Brandon Lopez, Damiana, Moor Jewelry, Twisted Thing, Ariadne, Human Beast, Weeping Sores, Jupiter Blue, Persephone, Chelsea Bridge, Bob Hatt, and Rakta.

AYLA: I don’t listen much to neofolk either, but I’ve been rekindling the flame of love and affection I have with Jazz music and have even found people I’d never heard of somehow.  Like Ahmad Jamal. Incredible pianist, up there with Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner (two of my favourites). Also, I’ve been listening to lots of modern vocalists I’ve fallen in love with. SZA, Solange, Doja Cat, etc. But also just still listening to everything under the sun! I’ve also been listening to the theatrical readings of the Tolkien MiddleiEarth books on Spotify and they’re incredible. 

We have added Disemballerina tracks to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, so make sure to add that as well and we will be adding a lot more new ones in the coming weeks!


A Story Echoed Through Time: An Interview With Forêt Endormie

Part of breaking out of the singular narratives that have been available around neofolk has been expanding what the genre can be, the branches it reaches out and touches a whole range of traditional music. Part of this is a turn towards neo-classical and chamber music, reviving these orchestral sounds, integrating a nature-focused romanticism, and combining it with the same post-industrial feel that gives neofolk its dark edge. 

Forêt Endormie came to us via Falls of Rauros, and shows the interesting crossover that black metal has. Jordan Guerette, who founded Forêt Endormie in 2016, was a classically trained guitar singer and did what neofolk does so effortlessly: bring the traditional music aesthetic into a modern pop cultural modality. 

We interviewed Jordan about the ideas underlying Forêt Endormie as a chamber music neofolk project, how the instrumentation and songwriting works, what it means to revive a style so often thought as antiquated, and what it means to have a revolutionary antifascist approach in such a seemingly uncommon space.

How did Forêt Endormie first come together? What was the founding ideas behind it?

Forêt Endormie first came together in late 2016. I was working toward a graduate degree in composition, and I put together a group to perform the “String and Hammer Quintet” suite at my final recital as a student. The initial lineup of Forêt Endormie consisted of these very same folks. Since 2010 or so, I had been toying with the idea of forming a group that could perform both in concert halls and venues that are intended for “bands.” Soundwise, I wanted the group to draw heavily from various “classical” traditions as well as neofolk and various American folk-inspired guitar styles. I am very interested in the music that emerges where “folk” and “classical” traditions come together.

What instruments are involved? How do you write your songs?

On both of our releases so far, 2017’s Étire dans le ciel vide and this year’s Split with Quercus Alba, the instrumentation is essentially the same. Most of the pieces are written for piano, violin, cello, vibraphone, electric guitar, and voices, and some of the pieces include unpitched percussion. Recently we have replaced cello with double bass, and I am loving the results. I think the extended range really complements the other instruments in the ensemble.

I write all of the music in my home studio, using notation software, a keyboard, and/or a guitar. I am primarily a guitarist, and though I often use guitar as an orchestral color, I am also really interested in using the instrument in an idiomatic way. When I am putting together pieces or sections of pieces that are anchored by a fingerpicking pattern, for example, I will write that on guitar first rather than in the notation program. The style that I’m drawing from tends to determine how I begin writing.

The music is really confrontational, it refuses to stick to a pace. What kind of emotions are you trying to convey here?

Confrontational is an interesting word to describe our music, I think I like it! Generally, I tend to ruminate on some of the contradictions that most of us encounter in this modern world – comfort and anxiety, freedom and rigidness, godlessness and spirituality. The average person in the United States is more physically comfortable than ever and it seems to me that this somehow leads to even more anxiety and depression.

I’ve written a lot of music that often has musicians working through musical ideas more or less on their own, with only fleeting moments of playing in unison or harmony with another part. This can maybe be heard as both hyper-organized and a bit wild and free – more contradictions to ponder.

We’re currently working on our second full-length and I’ve found myself really trying to conjure a sense of place with music and words. These places tend to be hostile to humans – dusty, neglected farmlands; gathering storm clouds; the open ocean with the sun blazing down. Maybe listeners will find themselves transported to these places as well, or maybe not.

Obviously this is a chamber project, which might feel antiquated to people. Why did you decide to look to an older ensemble style? 

I grew up playing in rock bands, so to me, having a more varied tonal palette to work from still feels novel. Many people do associate strings and piano with bygone eras. I’ve definitely tried to use this sense of another time and place to my advantage. The new music we’ve been working on has synthesizers and will incorporate more effects and layering. I’m curious to know if folks will continue to have the impression of looking backward in time when they hear our next album.

Where is your inspiration coming from? Who are you listening to as you are writing this?

The project was begun out of love for composers Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Olivier Messiaen as well as classically-influenced bands A Silver Mount Zion, Clogs, and Amber Asylum. I also was digging into Leoš Janáček’s string quartets, Rebecca Clarke’s

Piano Trio and Sonata for Viola and Piano and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor.

My favorite composer is Joanna Newsom, and I continue to return to her music regularly for inspiration and guidance. We actually have been covering her 2006 song “Only Skin” at some of our shows, which has been really fun! Transcribing the arrangement for that was a total marathon and I learned a great deal from it.

For the new batch of music I’ve been working on, I’ve been listening to Toby Driver’s last two solo albums, James Blackshaw’s Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…., Preterite’s From the Wells, Menace Ruine’s Venus Armata, N Nao’s À Jamais pour toujours, and Austin Wintory’s score for Banner Saga. I also always return to various Blut Aus Nord, Tenhi, Jason Molina, Mount Eerie, and Six Organs of Admittance records.

How do you define your music? Is there a community of musicians you feel centered in here?

Recently a local publication described us as Franco-gothic chamber-pop, which I actually really appreciate, though I’m confused by the “pop” qualifier. I have tried to come up with a snappy genre tag for our music: chamber folk? neoclassical folk? It’s tough for me to figure out what people are hearing.

I will say that my community has always been the metal community, the corner of which I occupy continues to be incredibly supportive and open-minded. Though Forêt Endormie has branched out and plays shows for other audiences at non-metal venues, the overwhelming majority of album sales and support has been from folks that I believe would identify as part of the metal community. Underground metal has proven to be special and unique in its support and close-knitted nature. Being a part of it and the friends it has introduced me to is perhaps the greatest gift that playing music has given me.

What are you singing about mostly?

I’ll focus on the Split with Quercus Alba here because it’s the It’s the first release with original lyrics in French, and it’s sung exclusively in French, which I intend to be the norm for future releases. I am interested in the tension between comfort and anxiety, the rigid organization of human society, and acknowledging the uncaring truth of the natural world. Societal contradictions and what we give up for comfort are subjects that are endlessly interesting to me. “Entouré” and “Une étincelle que je veux avaler” helped me process feelings of anxiety and isolation, while “Cette Lanterne” is about how throughout history, we have invented gods to bury those feelings. Lyrics for me are tougher to write than music, but I’m gradually becoming more comfortable with putting my thoughts out into the world.

The music feels operatic, almost like theater. Is there a staged, storytelling component to it? What are live shows like?

I’m glad that the music can bring images to mind, as I do intend to conjure visuals with what I write. Thus far, live shows have been relatively straightforward performances. We play from sheet music and I suppose it feels a bit like watching a more traditional chamber group in that way.

I’m absolutely open to working with artists from other disciplines and would especially love to have Forêt Endormie collaborate on new theater works. Music is perhaps the most abstract of all art forms and I really appreciate when it is used well to enhance film, theater, and video games. Hopefully that opportunity will present itself at some point for us, that would be great fun!

Why is antifascism important in these music scenes?

There is a serious lack of diversity in the voices that we hear from in black metal, neofolk, and related styles. This seems to be improving as time goes on, though simultaneously the far-right is getting louder and appears in the mainstream much more frequently than it seemed to 10 years ago. Given this increased visibility of right-wing fascism in the US and across the world, it is crucial that our humble music scene at the very least ensures that our community a hate-free place that embraces all folks regardless of where they were born or their genetic makeup. We also need to make sure that those who buy into far-right ideology know that they are not welcome and that they can fuck off.

Do you draw on any older folk traditions or spiritualities?

I can’t really say that I consciously draw on older folk traditions. I am interested in many styles of folk music, and I think that certain groups – the work of Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik comes to mind – do an amazing job of working with traditional folk styles and making folk music accessible to modern audiences. There are many music traditions that I love and am interested in – Gamelan being an example – but I don’t consciously pull them into my music for fear of treating the music too shallowly. Maybe I will feel differently in the future. As far as newer folk styles, I have been spending some time learning some of John Fahey’s music.

I am godless, so for me, spirituality comes in feeling connected while marveling at the cosmos or art, or in having a good conversation.

Have you experienced any far-right influence in the music scene?

I have been lucky enough in my tiny corner of music-making to experience almost no direct far-right influence. In my world, it seems to be a thing that exists only on the Internet. I’m grateful for this, as the far-right is having very real consequences for other folks in all sorts of communities across the globe.

What bands do you recommend for antifascist neofolk fans?

You’ve already interviewed so many wonderful artists. I’d like to recommend a few that I love, though some of them are not neofolk at all: Preterite, Menace Ruine, Nighttime, N Nao, Circuit des Yeux, Quercus Alba, and Falcon’s Eye.

What is coming next for you?

We’re finishing our second full-length with Colin Marston in the next few months, and hopefully following the release we’ll play some dates outside of our beautiful hometown to promote the record. Aside from that, I’m going to keep writing and playing music with these wonderful friends as long as I can.


We have added Forêt Endormie to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify and have two of of their tracks from Bandcamp below.