Ethan Rose: Oaks
Holocene / Baskaru

Though a relatively unassuming recording, Ethan Rose's Oaks sneaks up on you and turns out to be a rather satisfying release after all. The Portland, Oregon-based composer's second full-length, following upon 2006's Ceiling Songs, is a succinct, thirty-eight-minute collection of eight ambient electronic settings. Calling it electronic is a bit misleading, however, as the album's sole instrument is acoustic in nature: Rose sourced all of the recording's sounds from a 1926 Wurlitzer Theatre Organ (installed at the Oaks Park Roller Rink) which he then altered using computers and electronics. On the inner sleeve, he lists all of the organ's pipes, instruments, and sound effects, and the list is considerable—everything from sleigh bells and clarinet to saxophone and glockenspiel—so one shouldn't presume, in other words, that Oaks' range of sounds is limited simply because they're products of a single instrument. Despite its “electronic” dimension and the occasionally glitchy character that pervades some songs, the album's melodious vignettes exude a natural and organic quality too.

Complementing Oaks' rich sonic palette and mellow ambiance is the yearning character the material exudes. Most of the pieces are of a lulling and peaceful kind, and the album quickly turns into a relaxant in the best sense of the word. Nature sounds (water, bird chirps, boat whistle) make “Rising Waters” feel like the most tranquil day ever spent drifting down the river while the chiming “Mighty Mighty” glistens as brightly as a glass orchestra. In addition, “Scenes From When” focuses on the wheeze of accordion-like tones, with the music exhaling in a manner suggestive of someone sleeping, and “Bottom” builds shimmering layers of tinkles into music box-like formations. Oaks is a true “headphones listen” as the music's layers of tiny details—glistening meander, percussive flourishes, and melodies that ebb and flow—declare themselves most vividly when experienced as intimately as possible.

January 2009