Yann Novak: Presence

Spheruleus: Voyage

Talkingmakesnosense: Coruscates
Rural Colours

On its inner sleeve, Yann Novak's Presence displays what might appear to be a rather contradictory note, given the recording's title: “This work is intended to be listened to at a relatively low volume.” Though it might seem that a title like Absence would make more sense, presence in this case has a specific meaning that's tied to the project's contextual origins. It began as a June, 2010 sound performance at the Torrance Art Museum and involved a mixture of perception-altering cell phone recordings that were then digitally enhanced. Presumably, the presence dimension can be accounted for by the contributions multiple artists brought to the piece during its original performance in their interactions within the gallery setting. Exactly what said interactions were or how they influenced or altered the piece isn't clarified, though perhaps one might think of the effect as analogous to the experience one has at LaMonte Young's Dream House where the visitor's position within the space produces an alteration in the character of the room's drone ambiance. No matter: as a meditative ambient work, Presence holds up perfectly well on purely sonic terms and is pretty much the kind of material one has come to expect from Novak, the LA-based sound, video, and installation artist who manages the Dragon's Eye imprint and whose work has appeared on Line, Infrequency, and White Line Editions: a single-track, forty-eight-minute setting of low-level electrical hum that segues seamlessly from one slightly different state to another. In characteristic manner, Novak's minimal material gently ebbs and flows as it makes its way through episodes of subdued shimmer and rumble. Layers of whistling, simmering, and organ-like tones intermingle within the ever-drifting mass, and the listener gradually begins to hear the work as something that could pass for amplified sleep exhalations subtly elaborated upon by Novak.

Why Talkingmakesnosense's Coruscates is on Hibernate's sub-label Rural Colours than Hibernate itself isn't terribly clear, as the fifty-minute album's ambient soundscaping would be equally at home on the parent label as on its spawn. But let's not waste time quibbling over minor details and focus on what matters—the latest collection by Glasgow-based Dominic Dixon, who issued material on the now-defunct Benbecula Records before Rural Colours. A couple of things right away distinguish Coruscates, one of them the simple fact that the collection consists of four long-form pieces ranging in length from eleven to fourteen minutes. The second is that, while the material is very much in the ambient soundscaping style of the kind we've come to associate with Hibernate, Dixon opts for a textural density in his Talkingmakesnosense tracks that goes far beyond the norm. In “Diffuse,” for example, an insistent metronomic rhythm appears throughout along with melodic elements of varying pitches, yet they're both rendered almost inaudible by the near-opaque blanket of gauzy static and crackle with which they're covered. Listening to “Diffuse” is akin to hearing the faintest traces of a musical piece on a radio whose connection to the station has almost entirely collapsed. By contrast, the piano clusters that initiate “Photophobic” are clearly defined though that, as one might expect, doesn't last long. Here, too, a wave of static and hiss gradually submerges the piano playing until it all but vanishes within the thick drone—which is not to suggest that the effect isn't unappealing. Dixon effects such transitions with a subtlety that renders the changes almost unnoticeable, and he brings that same carefully calibrated touch to the slow and steady escalation that follows thereafter. The final piece, “Aura,” which brings the intensity level down for fourteen minutes of wide-screen meditation, also covers its core elements with a thick scrim of gauze but not so much that the becalmed flow of piano figures is rendered invisible. Coruscates would seem to be designed for listeners who prefer their ambient to be more gaseous and vaporous in overall character.

Voyage, the follow-up to 2010's Frozen Quarters (Under The Spire) by Lincolnshire-based Harry Towell under the Spheruleus guise, is ambient music with a twist—a conceptual twist, that is. Fashioned as a “soundtrack to a doomed sea-voyage,” the sixty-eight-minute recording can't help but invite comparison to Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic, and, in fact, Towell acknowledges the work (and Gareth Hardwick's Of the Sea and Shore, too) as a source of inspiration for his own project. At the same time, it should be clarified that Towell's Voyage doesn't refer to a particular ship, historical or imaginary, but is instead designed to document the emotional terrain encompassed by a failed sea voyage and those affected by it. Once having settled on the concept, Towell immersed himself in study for two years as the album developed. Using a 2010 demo as a starting point, Towell then shaped the material into final form by augmenting the demo with guitar, violin, trumpet, bugle, zither, and keyboards. The movement is downward, obviously, with both the musical material and track titles reflecting the trajectory: “Set Sail” sends us out onto the sea and “Losing Transmission” portends imminent tragedy, while the meanings of “She Sinks,” “Submerging,” and “Liquid Rust” hardly need be elaborated upon. One expects that the material will grow progressively murkier and darker in tone as we advance closer to the disastrous event and witness the deep sea burial that ensures thereafter, and one's expectations are largely met: the eight tracks capture the pride that accompanies the ship as the voyage is undertaken, the slow-motion horror of its sinking, and the decomposition that sets in over the course of decades when the ship comes to rest at the bottom of the sea.

In “Set Sail,” the rustic saw of the violin emerges from a dense mass that's both murky and glimmering. An understandable sense of foreboding permeates “Clouds Swarm” when its long plumes build in volume and density, and the dramatic ostinatos of Russian pianist Alex Tiuniaev appear to add to the portent. Tiuniaev reappears on “She Sinks” to elegantly introduce and finally close a piece that otherwise captures the darkness of the world below the water's surface. Fragments of glistening light appear alongside hazy crackle during “Submerging,” as if to suggest the flickers of sunlight that penetrate below the water's durface as the ship makes its descent. In “Liquid Rust,” the violin's scrape suggests the erosion wrought by time in a reverb-heavy setting that finds the distance separating Spheruleus's and Bryar's worlds reduced to almost nothing. In both cases, their projects' respective underworlds grow ever-hazy and out-of-focus as their sonic raw materials collapse into liquidy masses. “Afterlife of a Ship,” not surprisingly, is the most static and meditative of the album's pieces, and thus the one that's most ambient in nature. Time seems to stop altogether as fragments of guitar and keyboards meld into a placid mass that shimmers for more than eighteen minutes. Throughout the project, Towell makes full use of textural detail—crackle, creaks, rattles, and static—to suggest the rhythmic flow of the watery realm, the ambient noises generated by the ship, and the peaceful mystery of the sea's depths.

December 2011