Elian: Whispers, Then Silence
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Elian's Whispers, Then Silence is one of those recordings that when played at low volume might sound like there's not a whole lot going on. It's a quintessential headphones listen, then, but one that pays rich rewards for those willing to give it their up-close attention. The CD's five settings are a constantly mutating lot, filled with unexpected details and unpredictable directional shifts, and consequently one's engagement with the material never flags. There's an appealingly indeterminate quality to the pieces, with sounds resisting the conventional identification of acoustic, electronic, or otherwise. To his credit, Chesterfield, Virginia-based Michael Duane Ferrell deftly renders such issues irrelevant by enabling the material to register as pure sound. Though the CD includes five separate settings, one could just as easily hear the recording as a single continuous stream of micro-episodes.

In the opening “Whispers, Then Silence,” an enveloping shroud of soft granular noise dominates during the opening minutes before vibraphone tones emerge in multi-layers of echoing cascades. They're gradually subsumed into blurry washes and grinding industrial machine patterns, respectively, until piano-inflected loops bring the piece's fifteen-minute journey to a peaceful close. Cavernous rumbles and ripples of static get “The Happy Cynicism of the Creative Mind” off to an unsettling start but are then tamed by an organ's calming presence. Multiple mini-episodes follow, each one supplanting another in a cumulative sequence that defies logic yet feels natural. Passages variously suggest the clip-clop of horses and the treated squeal of moving trains, with all of them functional elements within a larger collage. A suitable aquatic ambiance pervades “Sea-Sick Sailors” when its myriad sounds—bell tones, distorted thrums, static pops—advance to the forefront and then withdraw, like objects bobbing to the water's surface and then just as quickly disappearing below. The material grows ever more woozy as sounds liquify and mix together, speed up and slow down, before vanishing in wisps of micro-sound activity. Wooziness likewise haunts “Magnification and Minimization” when Ferrell manipulates the material even more liberally by reducing it to an entropic crawl before pulling it back to life. “Lesson in Never Again” shape-shifts as restlessly as its brethren (if a little more peacefully) before exiting with an ethereal flourish. One's attention is thus held until the fifty-four-minute recording takes its final breath and the curtains are drawn on this recording's remarkable universe of sound.

September 2010