The mere existence of Zardulu and Breakmaster Cylinder in the world is an unexpected delight. The two are real-life mythical characters — neither artist has publicly revealed their identity — who create strange and provocative art that makes life feel a bit more special whenever you encounter their work.
Both first gained notoriety with the help of the popular podcast “Reply All.” Breakmaster Cylinder composed the theme music for that show and has contributed a series of perplexing-but-wonderful audio snippets since. The artist has gone on to create the theme music for other popular podcasts, including Vox’s “Today, Explained” and CBC’s “Personal Best.”
Performance artist Zardulu is the creator of the pizza rat phenomenon from 2016 along with other staged hoaxes. Reply All centered an episode on her and that feat, which shed light on the fact that many viral news stories aren’t exactly as they seem.
“Though the primary focus of Zardulism is the bending of reality, it’s a poetry often recited by the media,” Zardulu wrote to me through a Twitter DM back in 2016, explaining part of the thinking behind creating fake news before fake news became a thing. “Some journalists may consider me their enemy but, in truth, I’m their greatest advocate. Where journalism once looked into issues of great concern, they are now paid based on clicks and forced to write about trivial topics with sensational headlines.”
For a refresher, this is the now infamous pizza rat video:
Breakmaster Cylinder’s and Zardulu’s identities remain unknown ― even to each other ― despite the duo gaining much media fascination.
It’s also been suggested that the two figures are actually the same person. “Of all the conspiracy theories being currently thrown around, at least this is a nice one,” Breakmaster Cylinder told me in a separate DM conversation.
Now definitely joining forces, Zardulu and Breakmaster Cylinder are exclusively debuting “Ablanathanalba (feat. Katherine the Mighty)” on HuffPost. It’s as wild and unique as you’d hope.
“We wrote the song in an ancient mode called chazzunut used in six-string lyres in the near east,” as Zardulu told me through another more recent Twitter DM when sharing the song.
“It is an invocation,” Zardulu added.
“Ablanathanalba (feat. Katherine the Mighty)” ― Zardulu and Breakmaster Cylinder
Zardulu wrote, played and recorded a lyre part as well as compiled lyrics from a Greek magical papyrus. “Papyri Graecae Magicae from 2nd century B.C.-ish,” as Zardulu explained.
The artist also built the lyre herself “out of a tortoise shell like Hermes,” as she put it. Two goat horns are attached.
This instrument is “actually called a chelys when it’s a tortoise shell,” she later clarified.
“As for playing it, there are no frets and it’s not hollow behind the strings like a modern lyre, so you can’t mute strings,” Zardulu added. “So, you get the six notes you tune for, in one octave.”
Here’s a long quote from Zardulu explaining the inspiration for creating this instrument.
Hermes was the first to make the tortoise sing. While Apollo eventually acquired it, it was the trickster Hermes that created it.
He bewitched the meadow guards and lured Apollo’s cattle into his cave.
But his desire was never to acquire the cattle, he wanted to get caught all along. He wanted to be brought before the gods of Olympus on equal footing as Apollo. Hermes was the last of the Olympians. Without him, without the trickster, the world was incomplete. It is a metaphor for the necessity of disruptive imagination.
Making the lyre was a ritual. I found the shell on a river bank, skinned the goat, dried and stretched the skin, made all the wood parts. I even studied the ancient Lyre of Ur and the primitive tuning system it used and adapted it. You won’t find anyone in the western world who has recreated such tunings. Some Kenyan beganas use something similar but not exactly.
From previous tweets, it appears Zardulu created the instrument back in February.
Breakmaster Cylinder performed the violin and synthesized the beats. “Maybe some of the drums are punching a washing machine,” the artist said. A third figure, Katherine the Mighty, supposedly performed the vocals.
Or as Breakmaster Cylinder put it, “[Zardulu] recorded and sent me lyre riffs, I mashed them up with electronics and sent them back, she responded with recordings of chanting.”
Zardulu would only say that this third mysterious figure, Katherine, “was trained in classical opera” and “has no other recording history.” Breakmaster said they weren’t even sure whether Zardulu and Katherine were two different people. “Most possibilities seem equally reasonable,” Breakmaster Cylinder added.
“We may both just notice a preference in the other to stay behind the curtains, and would be already predisposed to recognize that quality in a person,” Breakmaster Cylinder said. As such, the song parts were created remotely and communication was through online channels.
“He is very secretive,” Zardulu said of BMC, and of Zardulu, Breakmaster Cylinder said: “Zardulu and I talk online, sometimes. Very mysterious.”
“Ablanathanalba is a magical word, a near palindrome like Abracadabra. It is very powerful in summonings,” Zardulu wrote of the song title. “Abracadabra is generally used to affect a person or object. Ablanathanalba is used to summon a spirit or draw its influence.”
Part of Zardulu’s previous work has been blurring the idea of whether “Zardulu” actually created something or not. The art is often an attempt to blur any answer to the question of what “real” even means.
Of course, there is an element of that in this song too.
“I should give a caveat about my part of this,” Zardulu wrote. “Everything created through the inspiration of the trickster is created by the trickster. We do not matter, our names have no significance.”
At one point in our conversation, Breakmaster Cylinder talked about their anonymous identity. “What more is there to know though, really?” the artist said. “I get asked sometimes if I’m bothered not getting credit for things I write but I don’t think that’s the case, actually.”
At another point, he asked me, “Also, are you Zardulu?”