The penultimate work i’m featuring in this year’s Lent Series is both the longest and, possibly (depending on your perspective), the simplest. Collin Thomas‘ April Triptych was released nine years ago on the long-defunct, Berlin-based netlabel Resting Bell. There are a number of reasons why the piece is interesting, but it’s gained a new quality most recently as society has entered its current, ongoing climate of lockdown and isolation. The piece is rooted in field recordings, and at a time when it’s not possible to roam and explore the landscape as we might wish to, field recordings are a precious reminder of the massive and miniature multifaceted natural wonders out there that, for the time being, have become out of bounds.
The field recording in April Triptych is a neutral one, inasmuch as it doesn’t sound obviously manipulated or edited (actually, it comprises three recordings made in the morning, afternoon and evening), and is less about presenting specific sound objects than providing a broad ‘open’ atmosphere for the piece to inhabit. We hear generalised ambiance, leaves and trees rustling, birds calling and singing, the gentle hubbub of traffic, the purring of a nearby engine, all of which forms a passive sonic backdrop. Two additional layers are added to this. The first begins a little under two minutes in: slow-moving harmonies articulated by soft-edged sine tones, their timbre akin to an organ. According to Thomas’ notes on the piece, these drawn out chords are “an extremely elongated renaissance madrigal”, but they are sufficiently extended that they instead take on a nebulous kind of connectivity: sometimes the chords seem to be drones, inviting no sense of a harmonic past or future of which they form a part; yet at other times such a sense is distantly projected, though rarely to the extent that we would exactly think of them as “chord progressions” (there is, if you deliberately listen for it, a cadential finality at the very end). The second additional layer, which first appears around 12 minutes in, is its behavioural polar opposite: brief, sporadic piano gestures, sprinklings of notes like small splashes on the surface of a millpond, their droplets and ripples instantly gone.
i mentioned nebulous connectivity, and the same can be said of the way these three layers interact with each other. Or don’t interact with each other at all. Do the field recording and piano connect strongest because they’re less overtly ‘active’? Do the field recording and the slow chords connect strongest because they’re part of an ongoing sonic entity? Or do none of them connect, and we instead focus on one layer in particular at any one point? Certainly, though i describe them as layers there’s no obvious hierarchy among them, acting as three discrete elements each of which sounds equally prominent and significant (or insignificant). Furthermore, as i’ve indicated these elements of April Triptych have a neutrality in and of themselves, and whether or not that neutrality extends to their superimposition depends entirely on the ear of the beholder. It’s one of the reasons why the work’s length – just over two hours’ duration – is justified; it allows us to become familiarised with each layer and then consider how they might or might not be behaving or impinging on each other. This impacts very directly on our perception of the passage of time. Personally speaking, there are occasions when the piece has proven frustrating, seemed arbitrary, at which point time slows to a treacly crawl; more often, though, it takes on a transparency, and it’s as if i were listening ‘through’ it in a more relaxed headspace where the relevance, even the entire existence or otherwise, of these hypothetical interactions is rendered moot, and i accept the simultaneous presence of the three elements as if they were all part of the same naturally-occurring phenomenon.
This back-and-forth in terms of engagement says something about me personally, of course, about my mood when listening, my level of concentration, my focus (or lack of it) and so on. But equally it’s an intrinsic part of the way April Triptych operates, tapping into both a sensibility and a behavioural paradigm that are unequivocally ambient. It invites us to take interest and to ignore in equal measure; to appreciate it in moment-by-moment details that can seem random and unplanned, and as a longer-term combination of strategy and serendipity. The piece sets up and maintains an equilibrium of simultaneous tension and relaxation that i appreciate every time i come to it. And at present, when life feels so very strange and unsettling, i appreciate it even more than usual.
April Triptych is available as a free digital download from the Resting Bell website.