Raphael Rogiński was supposed to be a sculptor, but his guitar got in the way. He practiced more than he slept; blood “was pouring” from his fingers, he told the Polish publication Polityka in 2015. He tore at his instrument “like wild meat, shamelessly and greedily.” These days, there’s not a trace of aggression in the Polish guitarist’s music. His playing is considered, graceful, meditative. Every effortless run is followed by a contemplative pause; his rubato sensibility suggests someone treading on uneven ground, deliberating over their next footstep. If you were him, you might pause too, because there is a numinous power in his instrumental songs—enchanted, uncanny, swarming with ghosts. His music is a dark forest inhabited by shadows and sprites and unseen forces. His playing feels like a spell designed to keep a forager safe while honoring the wild unknown.
Before he ever picked up the guitar, a pre-teen Rogiński, who grew up on the wooded outskirts of Warsaw, played an Uzbek kemenche, a three-stringed lyre, given to him by his grandmother. He played it without the bow, pulling and plucking as though it were a banjo. You can detect traces of that initiation in his playing still; he often sounds like he is manipulating some other, stranger instrument than his Gibson ES-335. Maybe his grandmother’s kemenche unlocked something in him. She was Tatar, a Turkic ethnic group with roots around Lake Baikal that is today found across Central Asia and Eastern Europe, all the way to the Black Sea. Rogiński once recalled of his grandmother: “As we ate raw meat, I timidly looked into her eyes, and saw the Scythian steppes and beyond. It was my first experience of meditation.”
Much of Rogiński’s music has concerned itself with channeling spirits from the past. His group Shofar—named after the ritual horn blown on Rosh Hashanah, and associated with the resurrection of the dead—is dedicated to the excavation of traditional Jewish music, particularly the Hasidic mystical songs called nigunim. His finest album until now, Raphael Rogiński Plays John Coltrane and Langston Hughes. African Mystic Music, distilled its inspirations into an ethereal and otherworldly form, a kind of anti-gravity blues. His new album Talàn picks up the spare, beguiling style of that recording and extends it. The record is dedicated to the Black Sea; many of its songs were written in Odesa, a Ukrainian port city defined by its historical mixture of cultures, and the gateway from Asia to Europe for some of Rogiński’s own ancestors. Across Talàn, that history of exchange plays out in eerie runs, folk melodies that feel like ancient wisdom, textures of dusty pages and worn stone.
These are simple songs, played on unaccompanied guitar with no apparent edits and few effects, save for occasional tremolo or slap-back echo. They transmit a powerful sense of presence, as though you were in the same room as Rogiński. The squeaking of his fingers is audible on the strings; the lengthy spaces between the notes allow for a rudimentary kind of echolocation, mapping the position and thickness of the walls, the height of the ceiling. It is not jazz, but he borrows that genre’s exploratory sense of structure, beginning each track with a simple exposition of the theme, then moving outward in increasingly slanted abstractions. His style of fingerpicking, plucking out basslines with his thumb and answering with skeletal melodies on the upper strings, often resembles two players in conversation; it took me many listens—and a video of him playing—to be convinced there were no overdubs involved.
The opening “Listopad,” Polish for “November,” encapsulates the album’s abiding melancholy in a dejected melodic figure that shifts unpredictably, like dry leaves on pavement. Most of Rogiński’s melodies have the elusive quality of something dancing on the tip of your tongue—they feel intuitive, yet try to sing one back, and you probably can’t. The closer you peer at them, the more they crumble. The guitar’s tone is muted and muffled, but also swollen, heavy on midrange and bass; it gives the impression of a surfeit of signal, slightly more than the circuit can carry. In “Cliffs and the Sea,” delay sloshes back and forth like water in an overflowing glass; in “Flickering Glances,” his dampened taps sound like dented steel pans. Occasionally, he’ll brush the strings beneath the bridge, unleashing bright streaks of dissonance against the midnight blue of his chords. His technique is unusual, but it is never show-offy; his songs always sound like they are trying to communicate, however wordlessly, some piece of wisdom, some essential knowledge handed down over generations.
But these details all come into focus later, after hours spent inside this music. The first thing you hear, the main thing, is its sadness. The melancholy is vast, though never maudlin; his playing is too mercurial, his harmonic choices too unpredictable, ever to lapse into sentimentalism. The word “talàn” can be translated as “maybe”; Rogiński says that it is a “very old” word, dating back to nomadic peoples who lived in Central Asia nearly 3,000 years ago. For the guitarist, that “maybe” implies a choice: “I take something in order to lose something else,” he says. Or, put another way, to carry one thing is to leave behind what doesn’t fit in the saddlebags. To follow one path is to abandon the others. In these repetitive, ruminative songs, I hear different ways of considering time, ways at odds with digital clocks and algorithmic models—cycles and seasons, strange mutations and sudden revelations. Handcrafted, fallible, as mindful as a walk on a mountain path, they sound like tributes to all the things steamrolled by modernity. Slow and reverent, they communicate a sense of incalculable loss.