Robert Scott Thompson: Elemental
Aucourant Records

On this particular project, electroacoustic composer Robert Scott Thompson is quite literally an alchemist, albeit of the sound synthesis kind. That's because Elemental's four long-form pieces are designed to represent the four astrological elements: air, water, earth, and fire. The recording captures Thompson, a multiple award-winning composer who is currently Professor of Music Composition at Georgia State University in Atlanta, in experimental sound designer mode, more focused on sound sculpting and the arranging of heavily transformed source materials than on creating conventional melody-based compositions.

Derived in part on the solo percussion part of a separate work for percussion and electroacoustic sound, “Vivid Air,” “Out of the Vivid Air” explores and dramatically expands upon the sonic possibilities of a set range of sounds, specifically the shimmer of clock chimes, whirr of percussion, and rumble of large drums. Thompson brings the meticulous hand of a craftsperson to the shaping of the myriad elements as they're positioned throughout the meditation. Sounds overlap and bleed fluidly into their respective spaces, all the while doing so unhurriedly so that the track's elements can breathe freely. Though the piece is obviously the “air” element of the four, there's an elemental earthiness to it that suggests it might just as easily have been used to represent “earth.”

“Waters of Cabeus (A),” on the other hand, is undoubtedly a title well-matched to its element, as sounds of flowing water appear throughout the piece, at times prominently and at others more subtly. Inspired in part by the discovery of ice crystals (by implication water) within one of the moon's craters, the piece is based on modifed field recordings Thompson recorded outside his home during a heavy downpour. Even here, however, the character of the material pulls it into the orbit of “air” during its ethereal passages, as if to suggest the movement away from earth-based liquid toward the less concrete version of it discovered on the lunar surface. The compositional material itself reflects the element in question in the way in which it gracefully swirls.

The mysterious “Shinrin-yoku” (Japanese for “forest breathing”) takes its inspiration from a popular Japanese practice of walking through the forest to benefit from the therapeutic effects of breathing air enhanced by the flora's presence. Certainly there's a misty quality to the piece and a clean and hygenic sense too, with the delicate, shimmering sounds buffed and polished to a sheen, their rough edges smoothened off and the grime washed away. The twenty-two-minute “Shinrin-yoku” is at times even more time-suspending than “Out of the Vivid Air,” though admittedly some hint of turbulence surfaces midway through, almost as if to suggest the incoming threat of a virus that will need to be destroyed before it can take root in the forest and spread. A delicate, even ghostly dimension emerges at times too, as if to suggest the setting's processed acoustic sounds are being held together by the thinnest strands of sonic material.

Rounding out the recording is the slightly longer “Embers,” an exploration that's of an entirely different character than the others as most of its sounds were taken from piano and then dramatically transformed via sound processing treatments. The percussive side of the instrument is exploited, such that the instrument's notes are stretched, bent, and elongated into reverberant creaks, with Thompson convincingly conveying a fire slowly dying out until it's nothing but dust.

Elemental's four pieces are mini-universes of natural and treated sounds that unfold with deliberation at their own resolute pace. Though they demand the listener's full attention in order for the richness of the settings to be fully appreciated, the material rewards the effort by virtue of the immersive experience it provides.

January 2011