Robert Scott Thompson: Ghost Words
Aucourant Records

Throughout the hour-long concert suite Ghost Words, Robert Thompson, an electroacoustic and “classical ambient” composer and music professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, couples intuitive exploration with formalized Algorithmic compositional methods and serial techniques in the shaping of myriad elements (acoustic sources that include bamboo, voices, and piano; synthetic materials that include those created by filtered noise-bands and digital synthesis) into a four-part work. Though abstract in character, there's nevertheless an openness and diversity to the music which not only allows the listener a thorough introduction to Thompson's personalized take on the electroacoustic soundscaping genre but to detect traces of other composers; one thinks perhaps of Ligeti, for example, during the cold and barren stretches that surface during “Orgone” and “Shadow of Water on Sky”, and echoes of Stockhausen and Varèse emerge too. The work was premiered at the SOUND Festival of New Music in Aberdeen, Scotland in November, 2008 in a multi-channel surround format, which the studio recording attempts to replicate in its stereo presentation.

“Orgone” (the title comes from “orgone energy,” a term psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich used in speaking of “universal life energy” which he claimed to have discovered during 1930s experiments) startles when it opens with a loud clanking noise and then quickly quietens into a less jarring setting of snake-rattling noises, ghostly winds, and phantom voices. Here and elsewhere, digital processing is used to fuse acoustic and synthetic materials into a shape-shifting mix of choral chanting, synthetic sounds, percussive treatments (rattles, bells, tam-tams, gongs, crotales, cymbals, found objects), and assorted other sources (tuned glass instruments, vocal samples). The work culminates in the twenty-one-minute “Ghost Words After Trees Fall,” which is often as barren in sonic character as its title suggests. As described, Ghost Words might sound like a rather intimating work, but it's actually an eminently approachable listen—easy, even—and one whose constant development and shifts in design render it engaging throughout. It's a sonic journey in the truest sense, with alchemist Thompson demonstrating an arresting command of dynamics and timbre.

May 2009