When it comes to drones, i tend to feel that each listener’s mileage doesn’t merely vary, but is often entirely unique. Nonetheless, from my perspective there are some nice things going on in Spectrum, a new two-track album from Netherlands artist Sietse van Erve, a.k.a. Orphax. The essence of each track is the placement of sustained tones in different degrees of proximity to each other, so as to cause various forms of sympathetic and disruptive resonance (to call them ‘consonance’ and ‘dissonance’ in this context doesn’t really make sense). A key aspect is the dronal nature of these resonances which, as with all music of this kind, raises two interesting listening quandaries, both to do with the perception of change. The first arises from the way pure electronic tones reverberate throughout the space (obviously, this wouldn’t apply if listening through headphones); turning or tilting the head often causes the emphasis (and even the nature) of the tones to change. The second is due to Orphax’s patience with these pitch superpositions, to the extent that – in conjunction with the first quandary, since it’s difficult to listen without moving one’s head at all – it can be difficult to know whether a perceived change is real or imaginary.
i like this kind of messing with the mind and ears, it’s an extra layer of somewhat puzzling stimulation that makes it impossible to switch off at any point. And it’s this that makes Spectrum, as i said at the start, such a unique listening experience, as a lot will depend on the context in which the act of listening takes place. (i haven’t tried headphones, as i prefer the sense of flux that takes place in a physical space.) So i guess that therefore means that anything more specific i might say about Spectrum needs to be taken with a pinch of salt; your mileage, etc. etc.
Nonetheless, in addition to the challenges the pieces provoke in terms of long-term change perception, there are obvious instances where Orphax makes distinct alterations to what’s going on, though in some cases, knowing precisely when these alterations begin can be similarly hard to discern. For example, around four minutes into ‘Spectrum I’, there are faint tones just audible above the judder, and a couple of minutes later there’s some definite pulsating taking place. i’m still not sure at what point they first became audible. It’s not until a little over nine minutes in that an overt change happens, when everything is attenuated, pulled back to a simpler cluster, almost a dyad, that shimmers. Its subsequent transformations bring about a brisk low pulsing, and a levelling out such that the higher tones, hitherto ethereal, come to feel more substantial, almost equal to the lower register sounds.
‘Spectrum II’ contrasts slightly due to a generally simpler mode of behaviour. While it’s opening collection of pitches initially seem ambiguous and without a sense of stasis, the opposite turns out to be true, in both cases, focused on assertive, essentially omnipresent perfect 4ths and 5ths formed by shifting and accumulating Cs and Fs. Around these pitches other tones again jar and impinge, their relative weights causing ripples and distortions to the purity of the underlying drone. The stasis is unassailable, though; eight minutes in a chiming appears, later there’s a glitch and some high shining notes materialise later still, all becoming mere embellishments to the eternal drone at the music’s core. There are some of the same issues in change perception, yet here too Orphax introduces a marked attenuation in the closing minutes, focusing everything into a shimmering beam before abruptly vanishing, leaving only a slowly-turning bass note (and faint intangible wisps) to bring the work to a close.
Drone music can be polarising in terms of listener involvement, but i particularly like the way nothing in Spectrum feels passive, encouraging a constant, active engagement, both enjoying the sounds themselves and the slow transformations they undergo. Orphax says that the title is in part “an acknowledgement of me being on the autism spectrum”. As i have little to no personal or second-hand experience of autism, i wouldn’t want to make any clumsy or simplistic extra-musical associations, though perhaps the emphasis on pitch relationships, and the effects of their proximity and juxtaposition, is a connection to that experience.
Released on 27 May, Spectrum is available as a limited edition, handmade CD and digital download, direct from Orphax.