Acousma

Robert Scott Thompson writes a lot of ambient music. He also writes a lot of electroacoustic music, like you would have heard in Bourges back in the day, and indeed some of it was done in the studios in Bourges. Acousma is a blend of both, not as in alternating from piece to piece but as within several of the pieces, which is as much to say as that the dozen pieces on this two CD set draw on all of Thompson’s experience and expertise. It makes for a pretty satisfying listening experience, for sure.

Each CD has six pieces, ranging from the brief 6:15 of Tagmene to the majestic 20:30 of Fog Index. And while there are many of the same sounds from piece to piece–the inside of a piano or a hard-edged harpsichord sound (both of which I associate, for better or worse, with Buchla) as well as variously altered voices and other acoustic instruments–Thompson has no trouble building a distinct personality for each of the dozen pieces here.

And speaking of familiar sounds, The Widening Gyre is an example of a piece that uses old school electronic noises–a tricky thing to pull off, but quite refreshing when done well, as it is here. Old sounds, new contexts. A very resonant and front-stage kind of work, The Widening Gyre is over way too soon.

I thought that about The Gramophone, too, that it was over long before I was ready for it to be. This piece uses voice sounds a lot, and I was intrigued by the difference in quality between the voices at the end from those at the beginning, as if the orginal, acoustic voices used were from two very different groups of people. (I’m just trying to give an impression here, not a description. There was apparently only one person’s voice used for all the various vocal sounds, whether individual or choral.) Also intriguing was how at one point a gesture is repeated, then grows into a phrase, and eventually simply becomes the next section, as it were, of the piece.

Fog Index has an even more intriguing structural logic. The first half of the piece is all piano sounds–plucks, strums, chords–and very resonant voices until one very large piano chord that fades very slowly. After an insect chorus of voices grows out of that, and fades, there is no obvious voice or piano sound for the rest of the piece until the very end, when the voices and the jangly piano harp sounds briefly return. I had the impression, however, that the materials for the second half were all the same as for the first half, just less recognizable.

Piano is not the only acoustic instrument to figure in Thompson’s pieces. There are also violin, cello, flutes, clarinet, and guitar, all duly acknowledged in the booklet. My favorite of these (of the instrument sounds not the acknowledgements) is The Ninth Wave, which is full of all sorts of rich and various sounds, from the hum of a distant prop plane to some giant thuds from equally gigantic drums. And string sounds: a violin gesture, some lovely slapping and scraping of a cello, and a section that sounds like a string quartet has been invited to an electroacoustic party (and electrified so that they’ll fit right in, of course). The electrocello flurries around eight minutes in are almost worth the price of admission all on their own.

And I almost want to say the same for the opening of Elemental Folklore, too. It opens with a brief crescendo, then the merest hint of a decrescendo–enough to seduce you into thinking everything is calming down generallly, and then there’s a sudden loud clang. Very cool bit of aural misdirection, there.

All in all, quite an enjoyable sampling of this fairly prolific composer’s electroacoustic oeuvre.

[One of the pieces on this album, Acouasm, may be heard in its entirety on the Art of the States site.]

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