Robert Scott Thompson – Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees, William Price – Rush Hour

by 5:4

A couple of noteworthy albums of electronic music by US composers have found their way to me recently. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees by Robert Scott Thompson was released last year and pretty much tells you everything you need to know in that title. Aesthetically, the five pieces contained on this album are a melding of acousmatic and ambient, with some implied whiffs of new age, quasi-spiritual incense thrown in. On the one hand, there’s something rather dated about the timbral palette of these works – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to learn they were composed in the mid-1990s – but this isn’t necessarily an issue (indeed, of itself this could be regarded as appealing) and in any case the way the ambient outlook – which dominates overall – is fleshed out with acousmatic details makes this a negligible concern.

This ambient outlook manifests primarily at a structural level. Put simply, there’s a looseness to the structure of these pieces such that their moment-by-moment activity is more significant – or, at least, attracts more focus – than their long-term direction. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to say that many of them don’t have a clear overall sense of direction, and the extent to which this feels problematic varies from piece to piece. In the case of the title work, it is a problem; there’s a lot to enjoy – the mix of cimbalom- and bell-like pitches interspersed with soft bursts of turbulence, and particularly the way Thompson creates ‘melodies’ apparently from the noise of metallic friction – but due to its half-hour duration it ultimately comes to feel meandering and inconsequential, which for a work evidently seeking to tap into a certain meditative quality is pretty fatal. By contrast the 10-minute Magiae Naturalis really works; bringing to mind the earlier music of Adrian Moore, its ambient mindset is more potent playing out within a much shorter time-span.

One of the most engaging aspects of these pieces is their juxtaposition of slower-moving, cloud-like elements and faster, sometimes pulsed, materials, typically arranged in the middle- and foreground respectively. This typifies the best work on the disc, Sattva, resulting in a genuine fusion of ambient and acousmatic aesthetics, in the process creating a highly engaging relationship with the listener, with a strong sense of perspective in which the music often comes across like a multi-faceted object floating between the speakers. This is also true of the other two works on the disc, Every Something is an Echo of Nothing (though this piece feels more like a sketch than a fully-completed work) and Mettā, a rather lovely study in unimposing drift, coloured throughout by an assortment of bells and chimes. Here more than anywhere else, Thompson creates a focused meditative soundworld, and it’s a beautiful place to be.

Taken as a whole this is strange but attractive music that creates an interesting and sympathetic synthesis of potentially very different aesthetic attitudes. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees is available from the composer’s Bandcamp site in physical and digital editions.

Altogether more assertive is Rush Hour, a compilation of electronic music by William Price. One of the things i like most about this disc is Price’s interest in composing miniatures: of the 11 featured pieces, seven are under five minutes’ duration and four of them are barely a minute long. These four really testify to what’s possible in 60 seconds, from the intense friction of Trope No. 3 – Brushstroke: A Gradient Collapse, in which sounds move and surge as if caught within their own reverb, to the stings, twangs and climactic power of A Crime of Passion (heavily redolent of the surreal music of Matt Waldron’s irr. app. (ext.)) to the highly engaging shifting granularity of Trope No. 1 – Surface Tension, where a sense of whether the sounds are real or synthetic is blurred. While they leave you wanting more, none of these miniatures sound incomplete or provisional, they’re superbly-judged self-contained musical morsels that satisfy while whetting the appetite.

There’s a continual sense of play with regard to the identifiability of sounds. Triptych: Three Studies in Gesture and Noise uses “sounds usually associated with the pre-concert ritual (warming up, tuning, moving stands, and the scrape of a piano bench sliding across a stage floor)”. At first only just graspable, these are used to create a complex fabric built upon a firmament of piano notes heard through the filter of heavily juddering reverb. From a crash-bang-wallop opening section, Price also plays around with density and timbre, moving between periods of almost silence and up-close torrents of noise, appearing as percussive thwacks and tickles alongside fantastical cascades of pitch. One of the longest pieces on the disc, Tantric Dreams of a Lotus Blossom, could hardly be more different, almost ambient-like in its slowly-evolving progression from a kind of static, floating perfect fifth through a collection of soft metallic collisions and dronal episodes with just-audible voices recurring at various points. Beguiling stuff.

The wonderfully-named WOOSH isn’t quite as onomatopoeic as that title suggests, exploring a delicate soundworld (not dissimilar to that of Robert Scott Thompson) in which softly pulsing materials are heard above a drifting harmonic cloud. At just three-and-a-half minutes i could have done with more of this, but that’s simply due to how mouth-watering it is. The title piece, a work for tenor saxophone and mixed media, ends the disc and is something of a synthesis of everything that preceded it. The work has a pronounced noir quality, the sax noodling away in echo in the midst of various ambient sounds that together evoke a smoky nocturnal world. Price breaks things up with rapid basslines and pulsed rhythmic noise, and while there are times when the sax and electronics feel disconnected in the second of its three parts, the opposite is true in the spectacular final section that makes the two elements emphatically interconnect.

This is my first encounter with Price’s music and it’s definitely left me wanting to hear more. The sense of fun running through many of these pieces is infectious, and Price’s interest in highly different, even polarised, modes of expression makes for a compelling listening experience. It’s a disc i’ve found i keep wanting to return to, and the music continually delivers new things. Rush Hour is available on CD from Ablaze Records as well as digital formats.

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