Ali Sethi / Nicolás Jaar: Intiha

In the spring of 2020, locked down in his New York apartment, Ali Sethi decided to turn his Instagram into a digital rehearsal space. At the same time every day, the Pakistani American singer and composer would sit down with his harmonium and tanpura, hit Instagram’s “Live” button, and spend an hour in freewheeling musical practice. He’d riff on Hindustani classical ragas, perform playful covers of South Asian classics, invite musician friends to log on and jam with him. It was during these sessions that he first began experimenting with spliced loops from Nicolás Jaar’s 2020 album Telas, improvising alaps over the Chilean American producer’s Stygian ambient soundscapes. When a mutual friend shared a recording of one of these experiments with Jaar, the producer reached out to Sethi via email. That kicked off a conversation that continues on their collaborative album Intiha, which features Sethi singing Urdu ghazals over re-worked loops from Telas, as well as new improvised sections courtesy of Jaar.

On paper, the two seem unlikely collaborators. Sethi is best known for his experiments with the ghazal, a poetic-musical form that is the South Asian analog of the blues, with Sufi spiritual renegades singing songs steeped in metaphysical pathos. He may annoy Hindustani classical purists with his innovations—ragas re-imagined for piano accompaniment, Punjabi folk blended with synth-laden indie rock—but his music rarely strays far from mainstream-adjacent sounds. His 2022 breakthrough hit “Pasoori,” a collaboration with Pakistani singer Shae Gill, melds Punjabi folk, Turkish strings, and reggaeton beats into a thrilling romantic banger that would fit seamlessly on any Spotify pop playlist.

Jaar’s music, on the other hand, seems to pull away from anything so obviously conventional or recognizable. Since breaking out with the minimalist techno of 2011’s Space Is Only Noise, he has pushed ever further into ambient abstraction. Even Against All Logic—his most accessible, dancefloor-friendly side project—bristles with harsh noise and gritty industrial textures. His solo work, particularly on Telas, resembles a primordial universe, swirling clouds of nebulous sound coming together and drifting apart in accordance with arcane physical laws.

Yet somehow, maybe because both their practices are so deeply rooted in improvisation and recontextualisation, the meeting of these vastly divergent musical worlds isn’t as jarring as you might expect. When Sethi first sent Jaar voice notes with his vocal improvisations, Jaar realized that “it was what Telas had been missing.” Perhaps that’s why the record is called Intiha. The word translates as “limit” but can also refer to the point of “termination.” Having already released Telas in both “solid” (the four-track album) and “liquid” (an interactive website that allowed users to recombine the record’s sounds) configurations, Jaar may be signaling that this is the piece’s final, definitive form.

Sethi’s intervention—with his raw, intimate vocals and Urdu couplets about yearning for a beloved other—transforms Telas’ impersonal cosmological study, imbuing it with the very human emotions of melancholy, longing, and licentious ecstasy. He takes a record with no discernable message—the only lyrics on Telas translate as “Nothing what I see/Nothing what I am/ Nothing in what it is to be nothing (nothing in nothingness)/In nothingness what I give”—and wraps it in up multiple layers of subjective meaning, mediated through the presence of an intelligent consciousness. It’s the musical version of quantum mechanics’ observer effect, or a less terrifying version of Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex.

The eponymous opener paints an inky, sub-aquatic scene with warbling bass and reverb-drenched synths before Sethi’s powerful but restrained vocals cut through the murk like a high-wattage fog lamp. On the tear-stained “Nazar Se,” the percussion plinks like water dripping onto a tin roof as he sings of locking eyes with his beloved in a soft, mildly lustful croon. “Dard”—which takes its lyrics from a Mirza Ghalib poem—is a seven-minute long paean to pathos, Sethi’s rich tenor swirling in mantra-like counterpoint to Jaar’s droning synths and nautical burbles. The chromatic blips and quasi-organic bleeps of “Lagta Nahi” and closer “Dono Jahan” invoke an empty, cavernous space station adrift among the stars. Sethi’s voice sounds lost and melancholic in this vastness, like a lonely human explorer stumbling on the ruins of an alien civilization, confronted with the artifacts of a history they cannot access or understand.

The poets that Sethi quotes here are instructive, highlighting the social, political, and personal undercurrents of songs ostensibly about romantic love and a search for the divine. There’s poet-emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal sovereign, who died in exile, and his contemporary Mirza Ghalib, whose poetry captures the sense of loss and despair that accompanied the onset of British colonialism. He also borrows from 20th-century revolutionary poets like Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose verses were forged in the nationalistic cauldron of anti-colonial struggle and the eventual tragedy of Partition. Within these cataclysmic historical threads—the death throes of the old world and the betrayals of the new—Sethi weaves in more intricate personal filaments, employing what he calls the “beautiful, deliberate ambiguities” of Sufi poetry to fully express his multiple overlapping identities: a queer Muslim immigrant to the U.S., a Hindustani classical musician who loves dance music and reggaeton, a globe-trotting progressive who finds inspiration in the syncretic traditions of pre-modern South Asia.

You can hear all these different influences on lead single “Muddat,” the one song on the album with a familiar structure and recognizable melody. Jaar layers bouncy syncopated bass over traditional Indian rhythms, while Sethi sings a 19th-century verse by Ghalib about missing his lover—and nights of drunken revelry at the Mughal court—in the slightly nasal twang common to North Indian folk music. Halfway through, the song transforms from desert folk to techno workout, before fading away to ambient sonics and a melancholy whisper. It brings to mind late-night raves I’ve attended on the rooftops of one of Rajasthan’s many palatial forts, old-world decadence meeting 21st-century hedonism, the past colliding with the future at 140 BPM under the starry desert sky.