Marvin Ayres: Cellosphere
Burning Shed

Marvin Ayres: Neptune
Burning Shed

During Mille Plateaux's heyday, I dutifully collected a number of its Ritornell releases—Stephan Mathieu's FrequencyLib, Akira Rabelais's Eisoptrophobia, Dean Roberts' And The Black Moths Play The Grand Cinema, and Autopoieses' Live A Noir among them—yet somehow Marvin Ayres' Cellosphere escaped my notice when it appeared on the label in 1999. I recently had a chance to right that wrong by immersing myself in Burning Shed's 2004 re-issue which sweetens the deal by supplementing the original release with a ten-minute bonus track. Cellosphere and Neptune may predate Eccentric Deliquescence (Ayres' latest release and the subject of a recent textura review) by a number of years but they hardly sound stale; if anything, they serve as superb complements to the new release and flesh out the Ayres portrait considerably.

The composer's own “ambient orchestral minimalism” label applies just as easily to the earlier works as it does the latest with Ayres playing cello, violin, and viola on the two recordings. The obvious immediate difference between them is the presence of three long pieces on Cellosphere; Neptune, by comparison, opts—with one exception—for more concise statements. They're also fundamentally different in how they sound: with Ayres' instruments sounding more like electronic glissandi than strings, Cellosphere leans towards an ethereal ambient direction; despite the fact that Neptune 's strings are the electric counterparts (electric violin, electric viola, electric cello) of their acoustic brethren, Neptune's more identifiably string-like sound nudges it closer to the orchestral side of the equation.

Cellosphere's opening title piece is almost aquatic in the manner by which its components swim so fluidly throughout the piece's dozen minutes. Liquid pulsations ripple and fade as they roll across one another, the cello itself radically altered so that its sound at times resembles the synthetic cry of a dolphin. The twenty-two-minute “Jeannie” pushes the style to an even deeper level with layers of quivering tones assembled into entrancing formations; long, flowing tendrils weave into shimmering loops in a style that's vaguely reminiscent of Tangerine Dream's Phaedra / Rubicon period in style. The ten-minute bonus track, “Sensory,” sounds noticeably different from the album's first three pieces, which can't help but seem like a three-part suite when heard alongside the closer. Though the style remains rooted in long-form entrancement, the strings on “Sensory” separate themselves from the mass more distinctly and exude a more natural character too. Nevertheless, the piece is as serene and as lovely—perhaps even more so—as the three others, and provides a convenient bridge to Neptune.

Recorded during April-July 2000 and released in 2004, Neptune, an expanded CD that includes ten audio tracks and two short films, makes for a truly ravishing listening experience, especially when heard via headphones. In contrast to the planetary title, track titles such as “Tug,” “Drift,” and “Chanty” suggest a nautical theme—hardly inappropriate given the music's oft-sinuous and fluid character. The album rolls out one beautiful moment after another, whether it's the rapturous swells of layered electric violins in “Wave,” the haunting serenity of “Breath,” or the cello's mournful cry in “Under Blue.” Just as “Jeannie” acts as Cellosphere's centerpiece, so too does Neptune's seventeen-and-a-half minute “Drift,” a elegiac and hypnotic setting of oceanic ebb and flow. It's tempting to read programmatic character into the material—in “Tug,” for instance, a dense mass of slowly shifting sound suggests the strained movement of a boat pulling an immense weight, and in “Chanty,” electric violas convincingly simulate the cry of seagulls—but doing so is hardly necessary when one can bask in Neptune's mesmerizing sound on purely sonic terms. (The two short films by Pete Gomes show Ayres playing violin and cello onstage at the 2001 Camden Festival—a shame the dim lighting makes it hard to see him very clearly—and in a brief promotional film for “Under Blue,” which is as visually layered as his music.)

April 2009