Ernesto Diaz-Infante made his first recordings in his early teens. When he was 14, feeling bored, trapped, and in need of transformation and escape, he adopted the moniker Nicte-Ha, based on the Mayan legend of the princess who is transformed into a water-lily. Over the next two years he made a series of recordings as a ‘one man band’, using guitar, keyboards, synthesizer and drum machine. He curated and released them years later, in 2020. These hauntingly effective lo-fi recordings have an outsider sensibility about them that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with WFMU’s 365-Day Project and, especially seen in the context of his later work, they’re definitely worth listening to.
In the 1990s, he produced some of his most approachable music, including the albums It’zat (1997) and Tepeu (1998). He plays the piano on both. In 2001, he and the guitarist Chris Forsyth released the album Wire and Wooden Boxes, an intriguing half-way house between the often sparse simplicity of his earlier piano work and more ‘hard-core’ noise-based free improvisation. The album Untitled (2002) is guitar-based and explores a completely different sound-world to the earlier piano music, incorporating two quarter-hour long sound-collages assembled from field recordings.
In 2005, he released the album Mirrors on the Crisis of the Moment, an explicitly political album, one of several collaborations he’s undertaken with his partner, the film-maker Marjorie Sturm. The tracks bear titles such as ‘Work-Wage System’ and ‘Repression of the Unseen Psychic Fields’. He has cited the American Beat poets as an influence and, as with them, both politics and mysticism find a way into his work. The album wistful entrance, wistful exit (2014), was made during what he described as a difficult time in his life and it’s perhaps the most austere minimalist music he’s ever made. Tunnels (2016) was made in response to the discovery of tunnels built by Palestinians during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Diaz-Infante described it as ‘a mantra for peace’. The music is, again, uncompromisingly minimal and to listen to it demands an attentiveness which can only be maintained by the achievement of a level of inner peace on the part of the listener. And as you travel down the tunnels of sound, you become aware of subtle changes, although it’s sometimes hard to be sure if the change is real or if one’s centre of attention has simply shifted to a different part of the sound.
Diaz-Infante describes the album Manitas (2017) as a response to the Trumpian political climate. He says of it: ‘It was inspired by listening to Cecil Taylor’s ‘Air Above Mountains’. It’s a spectral way of playing I have been developing, of avoiding melodies or harmonies, and using extended techniques, strumming, free-form fingering and picking, that verges on noise. I’m interested in automatism, letting the unconscious mind take control.’ Interestingly, elsewhere he describes his creative process as ‘bringing order out of chaos.’ I would say the emphasis here is on ‘bringing’: in Diaz-Infante’s music, passages of chaotic, asymmetrical figures will often distil into repeated patterns or drones in a way that reminds one of the way a meditating mind clears away distractions to gain equilibrium.
The workings of the mind are certainly one of his preoccupations (you can see it in his choice of track titles, such as ‘Fear of Love’, ‘Fear of Going Crazy’ and ‘Moving Away from My Mind’). ‘I suffer from seasonal depression,’ he explains, in the notes that go with his latest album. ‘The holidays are often hard for me.’ Over the Christmas holidays in 2022, he planned and recorded a series of guitar improvisations based on words that reflected the way he was feeling at the time. The result was Diciembre (2023).
There are six tracks. In each (with the exception, perhaps, of the fourth), the music seems to depict a state of mind. This is intriguing, as it goes against the way free improvised music is so often seen, talked about and packaged as a doggedly abstract form of music-making. For example, in the first track, ‘mania’, waves of sound rise up and down in a noisy, distorted sound-world in which notes, when they emerge, are simply sounds, stripped of any harmonic or melodic context. The second – ‘anxiety’ – is slower, but no more comfortable with its sharp, insectoid attacks. If this were music for a film in which people were experiencing these states, one could imagine it fitting perfectly. The surprise is the fourth track, ‘circadian’. It begins with a fast-moving, diatonic texture that would appeal to fans of Steve Reich. Throughout it, there’s a sense of cyclic movement.
This isn’t Diaz-Infante’s first explicit musical exploration of mental health. In 2011, he made Emilio, an album which he described as a ‘yoik’ to his uncle Emilio. A ‘yoik’, according to Morton Feldman ‘is meant to reflect a person or place. This does not mean that it is a song about the person or place, but that the yoiker is attempting to transfer the essence of that person or place into song – one yoiks their friend, not about their friend.’ Diaz-Infante’s uncle Emilio was confined to a mental institution for most of his life. As a child, Diaz-Infante visited him from time to time, with his parents. His presence, he said, ‘was mostly experienced in a foreboding and ghost-like way.’ The album was created with various guitars, bajo sexto (a Mexican instrument not unlike the 12-string guitar), singing bowl, electronic tampora and field recordings.
When looking for ways to describe his music (and what I’ve touched on in this article, by the way, is only the tip of the iceberg) I always find myself going back to the twentieth century. There are echoes of the Beats, John Cage, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Derek Bailey. There is so much to be found in it which was important back then and is still important now. His preoccupations with the mind, mysticism and politics represent – how can one put it? – a search for psychic equilibrium. As someone once said, music is so powerful that the kind you listen to can actually shape the person you are.
Ernesto Diaz-Infante’s Bandcamp page:
Ernesto Diaz-Infante at Pax Recordings:
Ernesto Diaz-Infante at Spotify: