It would be hard to imagine a more perfectly realized ambient electronic set than Ovum, the seventh Chronotope Project album from Oregon-based composer Jeffrey Ericson Allen and his third for the esteemed Spotted Peccary imprint. A balance of incredible nuance is struck between acoustic and electronic sounds on the fifty-one-minute recording, and Allen demonstrates incredible sensitivity in his shaping of sound materials and compositional design. Even describing it as an ambient electronic release seems inadequate when its contents are considerably more riveting than the ambient norm.
In keeping with the title, the seven pieces explore concepts associated with beginnings, gestation, development, potentiality, and primordial states of being. Track titles reinforce the association, whether directly (“Ovum,” “Primordial,” “Emanation”) or indirectly (“Mariposa,” which has to do with the transformation and first flight of a butterfly). To realize these respective visions, Allen used a variety of hardware and software synthesizers, including the Haken Continuum Fingerboard, a custom-designed synthesizer with a touch-sensitive playing surface tailor-made for pitch-shifting and tremolo effects; on the acoustic side, instruments such as cello, flute, Irish whistle, and percussion add distinguishing character to the material, and an occasional field recording also finds its way into the mix.
Such a personalized sonic identity enables Allen's Chronotope Project to stand alone, though there is one track where a connection between his work and Steve Roach's might be identified: when tribal percussion elements and subtle rhythm pulsations emerge alongside ethereal synth textures during “Olduvai Dreams,” it's possible to hear echoes of Roach's style in the production. That being said, Allen does ultimately individuate the piece by integrating woodwind and cello flourishes into the entrancing soundscape.
Another element that stamps the music with the Chronotope Project signature is a steel guitar-like sound (Fingerboard-generated, I'm guessing) whose ear-catching swoop first appears on the tranquil title track, a remarkably poised evocation where softly shimmering sounds remain aloft in a state of slow-motion suspension, and surfaces repeatedly thereafter. “Mariposa” combines the pitch-shifting of the Fingerboard, the resonant pluck of an acoustic string instrument, and tablas to disarming, dream-like effect, while “Primordial,” with its blend of humming insect sounds and glimmering synth textures, conjures the vision of a dawning world. Whereas “Emanation” expresses a forlorn quality, “Epiphany” conveys the kind of wide-eyed wonder one associates with personal revelation (interestingly, a faint trace of Ravel's Bolero is suggested by the piece's melodic trajectory and gradual escalation in intensity).That the seven pieces on Ovum were produced with exceptional skill is obvious, but the album is less about technical execution than it is the high level of artistry exemplified by the material. It's Allen's superior command of composition and sound design that truly distinguishes this release.