Deborah Martin: Under The Moon
Numina + Zero Ohms: Broken Stars Through Brilliant Clouds
Time Being: A Place To Belong
Three recent releases—two new and one a twentieth anniversary re-issue—reveal why the California-based Spotted Peccary imprint has come to be regarded as one of the central resources for ambient music production.
Time Being immerses the listener within the natural world from the first moment of A Place To Belong when rustling winds and faint moans by some unknown creature arise during the opening seconds of “The Wind Has Called.” With such sounds positioned prominently in the mix, it feels as if night is falling and that details rendered clear during the day are becoming indistinct. That Jourdan Laik and Phillip Wilkerson are able to evoke such vivid impressions speaks highly of their soundsculpting abilities; as impressive is the fact that they created everything on the hour-long album using synthesizers and programming.
Following upon their earlier A Dimension Reflected, this second full-length collaboration is deep ambient at its most potent. Though A Place To Belong is indexed as eight pieces, it, like many a recording of its kind, registers more as a singular entity of intermittently changing design. Swirling, electronically produced atmospheres dominate, but the recording isn't totally bereft of non-electronic sounds. Piano melodies tinkle softly throughout “From Where We Are,” and insect chirps, gull cries, water burble, and whistles emerge elsewhere to pull the material away from the stars and ground it solidly on earth.
That oscillation between the natural world and the abstract realm is something that happens throughout the album, and the listener comes away from the project sensitive to the duo's desire to encompass multiple dimensions. Nowhere is that more strongly felt than during the closing “An Infinite Home,” a twelve-minute epic whose blend of real-world and synthetic elements could pass for a single-statement Time Being manifesto. There are oscillations in mood, too, such that episodes of soothing calm (“Farther Worlds”) are countered by unsettling threats of physical rupture (“The Elements Melt”). Not surprisingly, the word oceanic springs to mind as the pair assemble multiple layers of glistening synth washes and whooshes into their dramatic sound paintings.
A complementary release to Time Being's is Broken Stars Through Brilliant Clouds, the first collaborative effort by Numina (Denver-based synthesist Jesse Sola) and Zero Ohms (Richard Roberts). Once again the material sends the listener on a voyage into deep space, and the hour-long ambient recording is likewise epic in scope; in addition, field recordings of the natural world figure prominently in the eighteen-minute closer, “Of an Uncertain Mythos,” to locate the recording firmly on earth. But there are differences, too, foremost among them the instrumentation involved. While both artists are credited with synthesizers (wind-controlled in Roberts' case), Zero Ohms also plays flutes and bass flutes on the recording, and it's these woodwind textures that help distance the material from Time Being's. With the gentle lull of Roberts' flute playing audible alongside delicate, synthetically generated exhalations, “A Day Without Time” stands out as an especially tranquil meditation.
One's ears perk up six minutes into the opening “Secrets of the Treasure House of Stars” when high-pitched whistlings rise above the immense, string-like washes that unfurl in seeming slow motion. Yet as serene as Broken Stars Through Brilliant Clouds often is, there are also moments of a more unsettled nature. A sense of foreboding creeps into “Night of the Falling Planets” when low-pitched tones rise and fall like the breathing of some physical colossus and prismatic accents play off the music's surfaces like sunlight reflections. Another thing that differentiates Broken Stars Through Brilliant Clouds from A Place To Belong has to do with tone. For an album that thematically deals with the vastness of space, the understated character of Sola and Roberts' music comes as a bit of a surprise. There's a serenity and calm to the music, as if the two were more interested in evoking the quiet grandeur of the spheres than overwhelming the listener with extreme volume and dynamics.
Still, with all due respect to Laik, Wilkerson, Sola, and Roberts, it's Deborah Martin's Under The Moon that is the shiniest jewel in this particular crown of releases. To honour this twentieth-anniversary edition, Spotted Peccary has meticulously restored and re-mastered Martin's original tapes, resulting in a recording marked by even greater lustre than the original. It's really the odd man out in the trio, as Under The Moon doesn't feature long-form ambient settings so much as enchanting, electroacoustic reveries that have more in common with New Age than ambient, formally speaking. A parallel could be drawn between it and similarly luscious-sounding albums issued years ago on Private Music and Windham Hill, and there are moments, too, that call to mind the kind of music Mark Isham released on Tibet and Castalia in the late ‘80s.
Adding to its appeal, the stylistic range of Under The Moon is broad and the instrumentation rich, with Martin (credited with acoustic guitars, synths, percussion, and vocals) joined by many guests, among them bassist Tony Levin on two tracks and Edgar Perry of the White Mountain Apache Eagle Clan on one. Martin's self-described theme for the project concerns that magical time between twilight and dawn “where all precious imaginings exist, suspended in the elegant dream-space we all crave.” In keeping with such a theme, her oft-ethereal music abounds with nocturnal and archetypal associations.
It's the kind of album where each piece stands out for one reason or another. Analog synths softly whisper throughout the symphonic overture “Twilight” to begin the project on a strong note. “Aurora” is elevated by Jeff Moore's ambient and acoustic guitars and Levin's distinctive bass playing, as well as Martin's omnipresent synth textures, and his bass along with acoustic and electric guitars give “Rainbow Man” an earthy naturalness. The prettier side of Martin's music-making comes to the fore during “Nymphea (Water Lilies),” while her classical side is showcased in the piano playing of the graceful title track. With Perry reciting a poem in his native Apache tongue (plus Martin singing in English), the meditative “Gray Sky” exudes an ancient quality that's reinforced by the inclusion of haunting flute-like expressions and hand percussion accents.
Martin has remained productive in the years since the album's original release, with Tibet, a project undertaken with Cheryl Gallagher, and Anno Domini, a collaboration with J. Arif Verner, two of the better-known projects. But twenty years on from its original release, Under The Moon no doubt stands out as a high point in her career.