As 2021 draws to a close, dancefloors still remain in limbo. Some clubs, shuttered due to Covid-19, have started to inch towards reopening for good with the help of vaccine cards. In what proved to be a deeply polarizing issue, parties without evident health considerations—some critics dubbed them “plague raves”—sprouted up across the world, daring any would-be dancer to brave the threat of infection in exchange for a night out. Whatever the venue, the slow reemergence of club nights in 2021 shows that the DJ’s art is just as vital as ever—not just as a party-starter, but also as a documentarian, a curator, or a fabulist.
This list is an effort to capture the breadth of that role: it houses fifty of the most exciting transmissions from another uncertain year. They showcase all sorts of artists working at the top of their game, whether they work with gauzy ambience, blazing club tools, retrofuturist floor-fillers, miles-deep house and techno, and plenty of stuff that slips between the cracks. The immediate future of dancefloors may be an open question, but if the names in here are anything to go by, there’s little to worry about.
Here are some of the best DJ sets 2021 had to offer. — Michael McKinney
160-BPM dance music for the uncanny valley: haunted-house MIDI symphonies, footwork turned inside out, and an alien sense of humor.
- Yen Tech – Fact Mix 807
A radio play suited for a neo-fascist world, a thrown gauntlet for club-music futurism, and an elegy for a million lost futures.
- Eris Drew – Daisychain 170
One of house music’s sunniest spirits slows things down a bit, dropping into sludgy dancefloor idioms: zonked-out breaks, left-field house, and countless forms in between.
- James Bangura – Earful Of
James Bangura is a key name in New York’s club-music renaissance, and Earful Of shows why: blazing breaks, new-school jungle, slamming techno, and jubilant house tossed into a wildly unpredictable hour.
- Cora – HNYPOT 384: Cora’s 日出银河 Mix
Deep-space trance and techno: pitch-black grooves, screaming hardcore, and dancefloor scorchers, blended to hypnotic effect.
- Physical Therapy – Live @ Nowadays
A characteristically omnivorous mix—hard-drum pop-radio retoolings, gnarly dubstep, kitchen-sink breakbeat—from one of New York’s most vital selectors.
KMRU’s ascent is no accident. ML065 shows the sound collagist in his element, working with windswept and slow-motion synthetics. Groove Podcast 297 shows him stretching into more outré territories, conjuring an hour of teeth-chattering horror-flick ambience.
- Ausschuss – Exhibition Mix
On their Exhibition Mix, Ausschuss slows futuristic dance-music idioms to a crawl. This is a sludge of skin-crawling electronics, as indebted to Autechre as it is to DJ Screw.
- Bell Towers & DJ Perks – Positive Messages #66
Three hours of anything-goes house, new beat, and disco: this is slippery and playful dance music fit for soundtracking any great night out.
- Nebula – U//D Mix
On their mix for Melbourne’s Upstairs//Downstairs, Nebula balance the gnarled and hypertechnical sides of drum-and-bass and jungle, resulting in a hardcore set for Dutch angles and blind alleys.
- Ray Keith – Bang Face Weekender 2020
A masterclass in rough-edged drum-and-bass from a veteran of the stuff: storming synthesizers, bass-blasted percussion, and white-knuckle energy.
- Livwutang – Honcho Podcast Series 95
Slippery, spacious, and dubbed-out selections from a key DJ with miles-deep crates: club sounds knocked off center, slowed down a bit, and left to bake in the sun.
- No Moon – Truancy Volume 278
No Moon typically works in club-focused stylings, but his mix for Truants is from a different galaxy entirely. This is beguiling and intimate ambient music, full of gossamer synths and moments of quiet awe.
- HMT Hard Cru – HMT: Dry
Dance music for the gut-busters: slamming donk records, dollar-bin gems, and a million shades of hardcore jack-knifed into the hookiest bits of pop radio.
- Andrea – RA.767
Andrea is something of a chameleon behind the boards, blending breaks, dubstep, techno, and ambient into something startlingly new. On RA.767, he proves he’s got the same chops when working with other people’s records.
- D. Tiffany – 69.420˚
Chugging trance, shuffle-and-swing UK garage, bubbly hand-drum workouts, and countless shades of contemporary club tools in between: the name may be tongue-in-cheek, but 69.420˚ is serious stuff.
With Sure Thing, a club night and label based in Boston, Aaron J has created an entire world of hypnotic and futuristic dancefloor sounds. On Truancy Volume 275 and Animix Forty Six, he proved he’s just as effective at world-building with slow-motion minimal techno.
- Facta & K-Lone – Azure Ultra
Balearic rhythms imagined through a funhouse mirror: scuffed-up UK funky, ragged house records, and tripped-out breakbeats.
- Minor Science – Bang Face Weekender 2020
Bang Face is something of a mecca for hard, fast, and downright weird hardcore. Minor Science’s turn on the decks is a neat encapsulation of the festival: acidic techno-breaks, game-show send-ups, and a seemingly endless supply of garbled million-BPM scorchers.
- Kampire – B.A.D.Mix 003
A rapturous hour of Afro-house, gqom, and rap, mixed quick and hot; an unending rolodex of emcees alongside drums that just won’t sit still.
On Theory Therapy 19 and Animix Forty One, Gi Gi draws from two essential and wildly different traditions. The former is an exploration of blissed-out ambient records, mixed so subtly as to be one continuous sound; the latter takes the opposite tack, taking long-form records and assembling them in something closer to an aural sketchbook.
- Darryn Jones & Tone B. Nimble – RA.796
A pitch-perfect back-to-back from two dons of Chicago house, mixed with the kind of loose precision that could only come from decades of experience.
- Acre & Szare – Crack Mix 400
A million-limbed exploration of industrial dance music. Acre and Szare spend the session pushing each other ever deeper into their crates: given time, they move from acidic techno to spartan gqom, from storming bérite club to thumping grime.
- TSVI – Dekmantel Podcast 340
On Dekmantel Podcast 340, TSVI shows off the breadth of his collection, which stretches across a million histories of UK club sounds. What starts as a trek through ankle-deep slowly, but certainly, turns disorienting, gnarly, and white-hot.
- Bill Spencer & Izaak – Truancy Volume 274
An opus of ‘80s and ‘90s R&B and soul records; deep grooves, soaring melodies, and an unabashedly celebratory two hours.
- Powder – Passing It Clockwise
Powder has quietly established herself as one of techno’s most exciting DJs thanks, in part, to her willingness to venture out-of-bounds. Her sets are often slippery and playful, packed with left turns and blind alleys; she’s as likely to drop a slinky four-to-the-floor as she is to spin ambient, jazz, or nigh-unclassifiable heaters. Passing It Clockwise typifies this approach: over the course of three hours, she moves from haunted-house minimal techno to mutant club tools and electro-flecked jazz with beguiling ease. It’s her most surreal offering yet, full of lopsided techno and minimal rhythms that lend the set a hypnotic power. The result is both outré and primed for the dancefloor. Like the best Powder sets, Passing It Clockwise blurs the line between familiar and unusual forms until the difference hardly matters.
Of course this is how HNYPOT closes. The long-running mix series pulled off an impressive balancing act, combining globetrotting curation with an intimate and homespun feel: anything goes, as long as it’s close to the heart. Midland’s mix for the series encapsulates this ethos with elegance and joy. He blends like he’s putting together a scrapbook, full of thumbed-over pages and rough edges: a million sounds linked by the selector’s effusive and playful spirit. Whether he’s digging into zonked-out dub-jazz, blazing Jersey club, junglist ragers, carefully cut YouTube rips, bare-bones R&B, or shimmering dream pop, HNYPOT 400 shines with a singular and heartfelt approach to the form. It’s just the kind of thing that made the series so essential.
Jake Muir has fashioned himself as one of Berlin’s greatest cartographers. In his mixes and productions, the field recordist and DJ exhibits a preternatural ability to evoke specific and wildly disparate geographies. On Motion Cast Vol. 67, ITPS066, and Grimoire, he sketched out three beguiling and ever-changing landscapes. The former, recorded for Los Angeles’s always-essential Motion Ward, ventures into sand-encrusted drone and ambient records, drawing a line from Ennio Morricone and the tumbleweeds themselves. On ITPS066, he takes a decidedly different tack, leaning on the echoes of gongs and hissing percussion to conjure a wholly otherworldly atmosphere, gesturing towards the stars with a remarkable stillness. Grimoire is different still: abyssal noise, spooked-out musique concrète, and gurgling electronics suggest a plunge underground, full of barely recognizable forms and flickering silhouettes. Taken as a trio, they show Muir’s capacity for sonic and geographic reassembly: in his hands, a CDJ may as well control the tides.
Djrum opens his London Unlocked set patiently: at first, a bit of slow-motion turntablism and creeping ambient; then, a slide into scattered hard-drum heaters. Once he gets going, though, he blends at a dizzying clip, tossing records onto the decks with abandon and relentless precision. He vaults between a million styles here, bridging tempi and genres with striking fluidity: from post-everything percussion whirlwinds to old-school breakbeats, from riotous footwork to slow-motion techno, from dubstep to dabke. It’s a truly chameleonic offering from one of London’s most vital producers.
- Sally C – RA.784
Sally C knows what she likes: no-nonsense house and techno bombs. On RA.784, the DJ shows off how deep her love for the stuff goes, barreling through ’90s firestarter after ’90s-indebted firestarter. She includes plenty of sounds from her contemporaries—Overmono, D. Tiffany, Regularfantasy, Rebecca B—but spends the bulk of the mix working with more vintage cuts, moving from piano-stomp house to riotous acid, jubilant hip-house, and sun-kissed techno without missing a beat.
- Desyn – Ghostcast 014
Desyn Masiello has been keeping ravers busy, and crate-diggers confounded, for years. He’s got a seemingly bottomless selection of records, but they’re all pitched perfectly for the dancefloor, whether he’s working with well-worn white-labels or new-school club tools. On Ghostcast 014, recorded live in Berlin, he makes hay by looking backwards, cooking up an hour of breakbeat nostalgia. It’s hardly sepia-toned stuff, though. Here, he skips that palette and launches into the reds: carnival-synth house belters, sweltering breaks, high-velocity big-beat stormers, and a million shades in between.
- Irini – Lost in Dreams
For a decade, the German producer known primarily as Trumprinz—”dream prince”—has been working with austere and drawn-out dance music, stretching house and techno idioms into infinity. As Irini, he reoriented slightly, setting his gaze on the blissed-out sounds of trance and ambient: if past records have been calibrated for after-hours dancefloors or early-morning liturgy, Lost in Dreams aims squarely between the two, with thumping kicks offering an undergirding for heartfelt vocal samples and bleary synthesizers. In 2013, he spoke about the idea of “sehnsuchtsorte,” describing it as “a desirable place that only exists in our fantasy.” His output, no matter the form, might be best understood through that lens: dance music as heartfelt escapism, with sunlight blasting from the amplifiers. With Lost in Dreams, he imagines yet another utopia.
- Abby Sundborn – At Home (At Home) #13
At Home (At Home) #13 opens simply. A clarinet meditates upon a few notes, feedback creeps in from the right channel, and a yawning chasm opens beneath. Abby Sundborn revels in slow-motion vertigo for the rest of the mix, using bleak and garbled modern-classical and electroacoustic sounds to make something that’s both skin-crawling and elegiac. Even its most discordant moments contain a kind of haunted beauty: creaking electronics and walls of processed horns giving way to abyssal drones, rattling and alien percussion jostling against meditative choral selections. The set serves as an unsettled and disquieting vision for modern classical music, full of gritted teeth and unnerving silences.
- Bony Fly – Dekmantel Selectors 2021
For the better part of a decade, Bony Fly has been spinning reggaeton, dancehall, and dub records in an effort to push soundsystem culture forward. His mix from Dekmantel’s Selectors festival, recorded live in August, is as good an example of his ethos as any. In just under two hours, he blends countless transatlantic sounds: scorched-earth ragga and bone-crunching reggaeton, veritable dancehall classics and contemporary scorchers. The result lands as a revelation: a pan-genre vision of sun-baked dance music that’s slicked-up and rowdy in equal measure.
- DJ Python – Crack Mix 400
Crack Mix 400 opens with a straight-ahead statement of intent. A cascading radio drop hails “the hottest DJ mixing the beats,” and DJ Python immediately makes good the claim with a pile of screaming and thoroughly alien dembow rhythms. He keeps that approach—one part blisteringly fast, one part bafflingly strange—throughout the rest of the set, catapulting the dancefloor into all sorts of left-field zones: reverb-drenched dembow-house, acidic baile funk, full-tilt percussion workouts, steamrolling almost-techno. DJ Python has long been an essential name for fans of zonked-out club tools; here, he ventures even further afield.
- Objekt – All Night @ Nowadays NYC
Objekt has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the most exploratory diggers working today. His sets are wide-ranging, but Objekt avoids peacocking. Instead, he looks to the chameleon, twisting styles into new forms until round pegs fit into square holes. It’s a treat, then, to hear him go long. On All Night @ Nowadays NYC, he worms his way into increasingly outré corners over the course of nearly nine hours: heads-down industrial-techno and corrugated gqom, livewire acid records and steamrolling dubstep, beguiling ambience and storming vocal house, white-hot donk and skittering grime. Throughout, he mixes with acuity and an eye towards seamlessness. Once he picks up steam and starts reaching towards faster, hotter, and more unusual club sounds, he’s moving with such fluidity that he sounds invincible.
- Giulia – Manifestation
Giulia is a student of sculpture: they chisel away at existing forms, reworking them into alien shapes. On Manifestation, they do something similar with black-hole ambient and corroded electronics, creating a mass of sound that shifts with the patience and heft of tectonic plates. The whole thing is bound together by Giulia’s steadfast commitment towards bone-chilling sound design: lights-out drum-and-bass, off-kilter musique concrète, scorched-earth techno, gauzy and unsettling minimalism. It feels simultaneously ancient and startlingly new: blazing dancefloor tools and screaming noise tossed alongside horror-flick ambiance. Throughout Manifestation, each strike of the chisel reveals a primordial shard along the way.
- Ripatti – RA.785
Sasu Ripatti has become one of electronic music’s most vital figures by repeatedly breaking his own molds: he has worked in deep house, R&B, dub, glitch, tech-house, and industrial with little apparent regard for genre conventions along the way. Under his birth name, he tears up forms in yet another way, cooking up impossibly maximal footwork that dares any potential raver to keep up. RA.785 is his most potent statement of that intent yet. Across eighty minutes and twenty-eight untitled tracks, he clutters the drums until it sounds like several Ableton sessions at once, turning vocals into monstrous and stuttering things atop locust-swarm percussion. It’s claustrophobic, exhausting, and utterly magnetic.
- Fabio & Grooverider – Bang Face Weekender 2020
Fabio and Grooverider are hardcore royalty, and with good reason. They’ve been working together since the ‘80s, and along the way, they helped push drum-and-bass into the mainstream in the UK; their CV contains an entire history of British dance music. Their mix for 2020’s Bang Face weekender shows that their style has only sharpened with time: this is ninety minutes of no-nonsense and tough-as-nails drum-and-bass. It’s chock full of rip-roaring drums, snarling basslines, and an unerring momentum. Egged on by a magnetic MC, the pair mix hot and fast, bridging entire histories without so much as a blink.
- Hoshina Anniversary – Truancy Volume 283
Plenty of dance music has imagined a world of machinery: the crunch of industrial techno, the dancefloor futurism of electro, the friendly hiss of lo-fi house. Truancy Volume 283 slots comfortably into that tradition, but Hoshina Anniversary’s soundtrack seems more fit for a world left for dead and covered in rust. This is disorientingly empty stuff, full of greyscale genre play and half-corroded electronics fit for a world of broken-down architectures. The result is equal parts morose, mournful, and menacing; it sounds like the embers of dance music dying out.
- SHERELLE – fabric presents
SHERELLE hardly needs an introduction at this point. Her blend of old-school hardcore sounds and new-school footwork-etc. is well documented, but that’s for good reason: when the London native gets behind the decks, she sets the world on fire. Her mix for fabric Records is no different. She starts hot and only ups the intensity as she progresses, piling white-hot hi-hats atop towers of scorched-earth snares and galloping kicks. Her dexterity behind the decks keeps things exhilarating rather than exhausting; the sheer white-knuckle power of her selections doesn’t hurt, either. SHERELLE hardly needs a coronation in the world of modern hardcore, but fabric presents acts as one anyway.
- Total Freedom – Crack Mix 400
Ten minutes into Crack Mix 400, Total Freedom pulls off something remarkable. After a brracing sequence of off-kilter club-music stompers, he pulls the plug. Blood-curdling screams cut through the air, piled atop each other until they curdle into something inhuman, and a synthesizer plunges the whole thing into the dark. Then, he cues up a horror-flick edit of Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” replete with gunshots and reverb-soaked vocals. It’s tough to encapsulate Total Freedom’s approach to DJing, but this sequence comes close. His best sets find the space between spine-tingling horror and radio-ready hooks, twisting club tools and top-40 idioms along the way. Crack Mix 400 demonstrates the power of that approach. It is both exploratory and immediate, stretching from Rihanna and firestarting trap to dancefloor apocalypticism with disorienting ease. There are few DJs operating in the same space as Total Freedom, and this shows him in top form.
- Pontiac Streator – DnB Explosion
Pontiac Streator is part of a loose collective of artists pushing ambient music into ever stranger territories: something between dub and musique concrète, a kind of music that is neither gaseous nor solid. But they’ve been doing plenty of other stuff, too: hard-trance love letters, nu-metal trip-hop, scorching-hot illbient. So it should come as little shock that Pontiac Streator’s set for 3XL—one of the hubs for this stuff—is yet another surprise. Where plenty of Pontiac Streator’s own material makes hay out of ambiguity, DnB Explosion delivers on precisely what it says on the tin. DnB Explosion is a blisteringly heavy survey of modern drum-and-bass, stretching from bass-heavy blasters to screaming pile-ups of percussion. Sometimes the most effective left hook is a punch to the gut.
Myles Mac is a connoisseur of the ephemeral. During lockdown in Melbourne, he had plenty of time to dig for nigh-forgotten Ibiza gems, falling down what he called “YouTube wormholes” and surfacing plenty of chillout CDs. For Juanita’s NYC, he was kind enough to put together two hours of the stuff: house music with sun-kissed synth leads and blissed-out downtempo suited for a long day with clear skies and nowhere to go. He hooked up with DJ Possum for further exploration, and they went a bit wider without complicating the mood. On MDC.265, they stretch their legs, moving from uplifting and anthemic ‘90s hip-hop to velvety soul and ebullient tropical house. Each session is playful and titanic at once; each DJ erects a monument to golden-age chillout music out of saltwater, ocean breeze, and club-music escapism.
- Simo Cell – Dekmantel Selectors 2021
Million-genre mixing can be a risky thing. Rope in too many styles and a set risks coming off as self-indulgent or, worse, unfocused. But when a DJ gets it right, connecting the dots between oceans and decades and histories, there’s nothing quite like it. Simo Cell’s set for Dekmantel Selectors is a prime example of the stuff: pan-stylistic mixing pulled off with panache, just enough brashness, and an eye towards the dancefloor. Over the course of two and a half hours, he moves from a slow-burn simmer to a veritable boil. In between, he slips between countless styles, creating plenty of rubbernecking blends along the way: minimalistic club-rap gives way to bass-blasted mangharat, storming hard-drum flips inside out to reveal a core of bugged-out dancehall, slippery electro flips into jubilant acid house, and a turgid bit of techno parts to reveal circa-2015 SoundCloud rap. By the time he pulls the plug, Simo Cell has nearly doubled the tempo, and it sounds like he’s just getting started.
- Ghost Phone – AMX001
On paper, Ghost Phone is a straight-ahead proposition. The label’s output is focused on the intersection between R&B and contemporary club-night sounds; on each of their releases, a roster of anonymous producers flip a rolodex of radio smashes into beguiling and dancefloor-ready shapes. In practice, though, it’s a bit more complicated. A typical Ghost Phone release lives in a sort of limbo: a bit too hazy for daytime programming but a bit too lucid for less adventurous clubs. AMX001 shows the power of this aesthetic specificity. It serves as both a sludged-up tour through lovesick R&B and a history of the UK’s club-music motifs, flipping a capellas inside out and scattering them atop glistening and creaking and firestarting percussion. It’s mixed with tremendous patience—it’s hard to rush a fog, after all—but the tones can flip on a moment’s notice, and the whole thing turns a bit darker and a whole lot more brazen as it runs on, running from gauzy spoken-word ambient to abyssal dubstep-dancehall, chop-and-stutter UKG-R&B, and white-knuckle breakbeats. On AMX001, Ghost Phone continues to dial in from a groggy and deeply uncanny universe.
Nicolas Lutz has earned a reputation as something of a DJ’s DJ. For more than twenty years, he’s been digging into his ever-expanding crates, pulling up bomb after unnamed bomb. He’s nominally a techno DJ, but his repertoire bristles against such strict classifications. He tends to favor lithe and minimal grooves, but his selections push into all sorts of other spaces: the bump-and-jostle of great UK garage, the slam-and-crunch of killer hardcore, the sun-soaked joy of deep house. All Night at Phonotheque shows Lutz in prime form, blending loopy and hypnotic rhythms into all sorts of playful forms. It’s a masterclass in patient and deliberate mixing: the first drums don’t hit until the forty-minute mark, and even then, they’re little more than a distant patter; he plays at a low-BPM simmer for another hour, stretching minimal-techno idioms into infinity; and even once things pick up steam, he’s strikes a careful balance between rave-ready numbers and heads-down rhythms. At an imperceptibly slow pace, Lutz gradually cranks up the heat: he deepens the grooves and reaches for ever stranger and louder corners of his collection, whether that’s storming hard-trance, spooked-out electro, reverb-soaked breakbeat, or low-bit techno belters. By the end, he’s flipped the dancefloor on its side. It’s a trippy and vertiginous set by a master of the form.
One of the joys of a great back-to-back is hearing DJs push each other into unexpected territories. Another pair of hands on the decks can toss a spanner into the works or tighten things up; grooves can grow ever deeper, or they could turn on a dime. Livwutang and Wonja toe the line between those extremes throughout their closing set at Honcho’s Campout festival, twisting each other’s rhythms into delightfully odd shapes. This affinity should come as little surprise: Livwutang and Wonja share an interest in both left-field futurism and hyper-specific visions of dance music, and each DJ pulls off rubbernecking blends with surgical precision. On Campout Series, the pair make good on the promise of their tag-team session. It starts slow and a bit sludgy, with murky dub, laid-back dream-pop, and hazy hip-hop; gradually, they get a bit fleet-footed, finding their way to storming techno, ebullient dancehall flips, and slippery R&B without missing a beat. The set gets more tripped-out and devil-may-care from there on out. Bleary dubstep-techno melts into stomping hip-hop; synth-smashed hip-house crashes into ‘00s pop radio; funked-up call-and-response house records crack open to reveal stuttering electro-hard drum rhythms. It’s a delightfully kaleidoscopic approach to mixing: as Livwutang and Wonja toss record after record onto their turntables, they help each other down countless blind alleys, finding a million shades of dancefloor deliria along the way.
SorryClubTV, if Sorry Records is to be believed, was both beloved and short-lived. In the liner notes for Sorry 2 Go, the club is painted as a fantastical glimmer snuffed altogether too quickly: in an effort to upstage a rival club, the owners purchased a 33.3’ television and a projector that cost “less than $200k, more than The Ritz’s.” The club went underwater not long after; its owners wouldn’t be able to recover their investment for over a decade. SorryClubTV shut down in 1992, just five years after it opened, its dancefloor turned over to cubicles. The story is both too perfect to be true and too bizarre to be a fabrication. The truth isn’t the point, either way: a good story is often more than enough.
The night before SorryClubTV allegedly disappeared, Johnathan Lyon, a.k.a. Durham-based DJ boxofbox, went behind the decks. What happened next—documented in full in Sorry 2 Go—is full of the magic realism coursing through Sorry Records’s retelling. Across the course of six hours, Lyon digs deep into turn-of-the-decade club-music stormers: souped-up new jack swing, bubbly disco, ebullient hip-hop, and piles of breathless house records. An unending rolodex of vocalists beckons any would-be ravers towards the amplifiers, thanks to a canny blend of lovesick belters and sun-kissed rollers. Sorry 2 Go hardly feels its length—boxofbox works long here, blending over a hundred tracks into a six-hour stew—thanks to fleet-footed mixing that jumps between genre classics and dollar-bin gems at a rapid clip. Never mind SorryClubTV: whether or not it ever stood, Sorry 2 Go is an expertly calibrated time capsule, stuffed with timeless music that shows its age in all the right ways.
In 1962, Patience Gray left the United Kingdom in search of a new place to live. Alongside the Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens, she traced a vein of marble from the southeastern corner of France along the Mediterranean, ultimately settling in Apulia, deep in the heel of Italy’s boot. Their new home was badly in need of work: it once housed five families, but had since been turned over to cattle and sheep, and it no longer bore any windows or doors. In their travels, Gray and Mommens had befriended peasants and farmers from Catalonia and Carrara alike, but Apulia had long since drained of people. In a letter to her mother in 1968, Gray described the region as the fin du monde: the end of the world.
Gray was a culinary author by trade, but her work was fueled by the same fire as her husband’s sculpting, intimately connected with land and its scars. In a best-selling cookbook she co-authored in 1957, she included a chapter dedicated to foraging for mushrooms, which was at the time reserved for the impoverished. Gray’s kitchen was transformed into a space for nigh-mystic communals, each flavor imbued with centuries of tradition and sweat. She and Mommens lived in Apulia for over thirty years; they never found a need for running water, electricity, or glass in their windows. An open flame, the occasional soirée with guests, and their field of chickpeas were enough.
It was there that Gray set to work on her next manuscript. It was initially called Fasting and Feasting, its title nodding towards the way of life—cucina povera—that Gray held close to her heart. The book swelled with writings inspired by the people they met on her travels through Europe. Each tradition was fastidiously documented, each olive traced back to its tree, each history honored. The book was about cooking, but in a wider sense than her previous texts: it wrapped memoir, and ethnography around each set of ingredients, complicating even the simplest offering with overlapping stories and traditions. This alchemy proved intoxicating. When the book was published in 1986, since retitled to Honey From a Weed, it was hailed as a singular work. Once spotted, its influence is challenging to ignore: she predated “Slow Food” by decades, hunting for herbs and mushrooms long before it became standard for haute cuisine restaurants to grow their own food.
Though they focus upon different media, Jack Rollo and Elaine Tierney’s work is not far removed from Gray’s writing. As Time Is Away, they have spent years resurfacing and tangling the countless definitions of folk music, holding old sounds up to new lights with an understated grace. Their work is reverential of traditions, but hardly limited by them. In early 2021, they released Ballads, a survey of the form that stretched across genres and continents to focus upon the joys and sorrows of intimacy. Two months later, they cast their gaze further afield, looking towards the “mind melting possibilities inherent in early religious music.” It should come as little surprise, then, that they eventually found their way to Apulia.
The first part of Honey From a Weed begins quietly: the crackle of a fire, the rustle of nearby insects, and a single voice in the distance, tracing a melody in slow motion. Rollo and Tierney spend the rest of the hour deftly threading together centuries of folk music, stretching across borders that have been redrawn countless times since. Gradually unspooling melodies poured out of fingerpicked guitars give way to liturgical ambience and the thrum of passersby; droning and rattling and shimmering jazz, given time, transforms into bone-chilling and atonal choral music. Now and again, a narrator recites passages of Gray’s writing: a comment upon the virtues of the finocchio plant, or tales borrowed from Greek mythology. Throughout the hour, Rollo and Tierney seem to trace the contours of the land itself, each selection tracing a new mark in the coastline.
The second part of the broadcast starts in a similar fashion: a crackle, a rustle, a voice. But it moves further inland, from the sea towards the hearth. A clattering of bells announces the narrator once again, speaking, this time at length, about the intimacies and stories Gray gathered on travels. The writing is both spare and full-bodied, conjuring every crease of a calloused hand and each shade held in the setting sun. Here, she outlines the aromas brought about by burning oak or birch or rosemary; there, a brief and silent encounter with a cassocked priest in the woods. Elsewhere still, a days-long stretch of olive picking peppered with conversations and the chattering of wildlife. A nostalgia for days of empty stomachs and full lives emerges, and with it, a yearning for—and subsequent revival of—a shared community.
The second part of Honey From a Weed explores how one exists in concert with the land, and its residents, rather than simply alongside them. Rollo and Tierney reflect the communal nature of this joy by lifting the wintry chill of the first hour, letting cracks of sunlight pierce the canopy. This time around, the guitars tumble with a bit more vigor. Any icy minimalism has been melted away, replaced with birdsong and wind chimes. Even the most lonesome pieces harbor a newfound warmth. After each drought, after all, comes a bounty.
In the pages of Honey From a Weed, Gray admits defeat. The recipes contained therein, she writes, “belong to an era of food grown for its own sake, not for profit”—an era that she admits has vanished. But she holds onto that bygone period anyway, because it was always about more than food: it was about social fabric woven slowly, over generations and millenia, with the brine of the ocean and topography of the land informing each stitch. Rollo and Tierney clearly understand the import of such a project, because theirs is a project about celebrating traditions: in resurfacings, in reframings, in revivals. The music they select for Honey From a Weed, like the text itself, is at once haunted and celebratory, collapsing countless histories into something entirely new. In Patience Gray, the legendary sorceress of Apulia, Time Is Away have found their muse.