Birds of Tin: Rinpoche
Hypnos Secret Sounds

Ben Fleury-Steiner: Drifts
Hypnos Secret Sounds

VA: Echoes of Polyhymnia

With these three wide-ranging releases, Hypnos again demonstrates that the “ambient” genre has the potential to extend far beyond one-dimensionality when the right people are at the helm.

Hypnos manager and composer Lena Griffin curated this superb specially-themed compilation which features ambient sound works composed and recorded exclusively by women (in Greek mythology, Polyhymnia was the Muse of sacred hymn, hence the choice of recording title). Though the “female composers” angle provides an imaginative hook, it's ultimately of secondary import (if not altogether irrelevant) once the music starts. What's more notable is the recording's stylistic diversity, with the artists exploring multiple genres (ambient naturally but also drone and electroacoustic) and moods (everything from pretty to portentous) in the seventy-minute set's ten compositions.

The collection begins promisingly with “Nufon,” a reverie-inducing overture by Margaret Noble wherein glimmering and chiming tones dance lightly, but the skies darken immediately thereafter when Stellaria Fennica's (real name Mari Aho) “ Hibernia ” arrives with dramatic, piano-based tribal atmospheres and Niklas Adrian's hypnotic vocal chants. Kristin Miltner follows with the release's longest piece, “Slew Wave,” a thirteen-minute celestial setting created using computers, bells, birds, and wordless angelic voice that resembles a flower blossoming in slow motion. Elsewhere, Torontonian Rose Bolton contributes “An Unheard Message,” a pensive meditation for piano, cello, and percussive textures that is as much an exploration of silence and reverberation, while Clarissa Borba layers vibes and chimes over a medium-pitched string drone in the melancholy rumination “Floating Tones.” Also present are Sara Ayers' gently flowing streams of choir-like tones (“There Was No More Time”), Gydja's humid oasis of awakening organisms (“Wave-Particle Duality”), and The Floating World's softly piercing flute tones and phantom whooshes (“Kanam”). In Griffin 's own haunting closer “She Forgot, She Dreamed,” choir-like moans well up from deep, echo-laden caverns and ethereal viola tones stretch across vast spaces. Echoes of Polyhymnia ultimately proves to be a fine addition to the Hypnos catalogue, regardless of whatever gender-related conceptualizing entered into its creation.

Hypnos has made something of a habit of resurrecting out-of-print releases, with the latest an engrossing hour-long set by Ben Fleury-Steiner previously issued in 2005 on his own Gears of Sand label. Mastered by Robert Rich, the oft-mercurial material evidences a greater-than-normal level of activity and tension than the ambient listener might be accustomed to but there's no shortage of becalmed moments too. The album's stylistic character is immediately established in the opening piece “Sundial” when tones gracefully arc against a contrastingly bold backdrop of carousel-like organ percolations. In many of the subsequent ten pieces, a similar tension between hyperactivity and restfulness appears, with a few well-placed meditative excursions offering occasional bouts of relief: for every “Descriptives” and its Eno-like percussive flurries, in other words, there's a beatific setting of ambient calm such as “Heal.” Sometimes the two tendencies fuse into one, as happens during “Flicker” when shimmering floodlights rapidly cross paths until the pace slows to a state of frozen stillness, allowing the synthetic tones and washes to gently illuminate one another. “Cicada” similarly perpetuates the album's predilection for merging gently flowing melodies with nimble percussive patterning which, naturally, calls to mind the whirring chirp of the titular insects. There's even a four-part suite titled “Dreams” but don't be put off by the New Age taint of the title as the music proves amply rewarding. In the opening section (“Somnium Scipionis”), the restless churn of a machine rhythm underpins the constant flutter of congealing synth tones, and in the third (“The Dust That Lies Between”), frog-like croaks burble below the track's shimmering surfaces. In one of the album's most beautiful settings, the suite's second part, “Veritatis Splendor,” entrances with a yearning and unabashedly emotive character that emerges as fragile crystalline tones swell while the long-form fourth, “Absense In Remota,” impresses just as much when its soft, tranquil exhalations lend it an uplifting, even celestial quality.

An animal of altogether different character is Birds of Tin, the pseudonym under which experimental sound artist Brooke Oates records. His Hypnos Secret Sounds debut Rinpoche features two long untitled improvisations, the first forty minutes and the second thirty-five, recorded in 2002 and with no post-recording editing performed. On the evidence of Rinpoche, the Birds of Tin style might be characterized as “aquatic” as episodes swim through the dense mix, each one slowly supplanting the other; “phantasmagoric” might be an even better descriptor, given the heady manner with which sounds and samples continually intermingle and change shape in these ultra-dense collages. Oates seems to have an encyclopedic library at his fingertips: the opening piece includes episodes of soft chanting, faint industrial rhythms grinding in the distance while bright synth glissandi flit rapidly about in the foreground, the deep moan of a choir, percussive rattles, child-like whispers, the elegant playing of a string orchestra, the bright waver of an alto saxophone, techno-styled thrums of lapping clicks, and so on. The “heavier” track two opens with an extended drone passage of intense flurries that evokes the relentless churn at a cyclone's center but the track eventually settles into a more even-tempered, neo-psychedelic state with vinyl crackle, electrical resonance, percussive noise, and aggressive swirls taking turns in the spotlight. If anything, the second piece moves Oates' music away from ambient territory completely and pushes it in the direction of Philip Jeck's woozy vinyl-based constructions (a few inexplicable seconds of singing even surfaces at the half-hour mark).

January 2009