In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty Adkins‘ Fragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, and the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.
The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, and connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy and imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she and Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon and exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:
the smudging and blushing of colours and motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another and allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect and are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.
Interestingly, a visual parallel in Adkins’ music is felt even before material has been created; limits are established at the outset—what Adkins fittingly calls a “frame”—that begin to define the balance and shape of a composition at its inception. Duration is similarly predetermined; Adkins divides the seven characteristics mentioned above into two groups of four and three, and the 3:4 ratio—or, rather, its lowest whole number ratio, 9:12—is used to derive the length of the four works, two pairs of roughly 9 and 12 minutes’ duration respectively.
The first piece, ‘Sendai Threnody’, takes its point of inspiration from an “interweaving ribbon-like motif” featured in Pip Dickens’ work (see left). Adkins mirrors this in an elaborate network of superimposed clarinet lines, lines that are improvised and entirely independent of each other. The intervals of a third and fourth (and their inversions) supposedly govern these lines, yet this projects much less strongly than the overall harmonic sense, which is unified around a pronounced tonic (G). The wistful spontaneity of the melodic lines over this static, drone-like harmony is a stimulating combination, mobile and at rest simultaneously, and just occasionally garnished with electronic touches that colour the texture and gently expand its scope. The 3:4 relationship manifests itself throughout ‘Entangled Symmetries’, primarily heard as the interval of a perfect fourth (4:3), but also as a means for subdividing the piece internally and influencing its density. While that sounds as though the compositional thought is straying dangerously far from the characteristics of shibusa, the resultant music displays no overt complexity at all. If anything, it’s more static than its predecessor, heard as a telling essay in slow, drifting ambience, the clarinet a miniature roaming entity caught in its softly shimmering field.
The third shibusa, ‘Kyoto Roughcut’, is the longest, divided into two broad sections (in the ratio 4:3). The first, which Adkins describes as “characterised by interruptions of linear trajectories and the continual ‘smudging’ or ‘blushing’ of one gesture into another”, is profoundly spare, the clarinet barely moving within a claustrophobic space occupied by drawn-out, bell-like resonances. The electronics tickle the edges of this austerity, but it’s not until the second section that they develop; when they do, the music erupts in a rich, swirling miasma of transfixed noise and colour. It’s a glorious episode, and one can see why the clarinet can only fall silent in response. The final piece is aptly summarised by its title, ‘Permutations’. Here, with the ribbon idea again in mind, Adkins draws on the principles of change ringing to rework a six-note motif. While the clarinet solemnly moves through its melodic changes (using the basic ‘plain hunt’ pattern), Adkins cushions it in reverb that evolves into a shining corona; in this sense, it’s by far the simplest piece of the four, yet matched by a complexity of its inner workings that aligns closely with the connotations and models of shibusa previously outlined, even more so as Adkins deliberately renders part of the permutations imperfectly; the piece thereby reflects “both the idea of ‘imperfection’ in shibui objects and also the notion of complexity in simplicity”.
The Four Shibusa are magical, jewel-like creations, sounding new and different on each listening. As one would expect from Adkins, they’re all utterly gorgeous (and no little credit must go to clarinettists Heather Roche and Jonathan Sage), but quite apart from that, they draw one in in a fascinating and curious way, one that seems to invite active reflection in the midst of repose. It blurs the distinction between the conventions of both electroacoustic and ambient music, and in so doing, transcends them both.