Robert Scott Thompson: Gold Flowers Bloom Mercury Petals
Aucourant Records

Robert Scott Thompson: Mantra
Aucourant Records

Though Robert Scott Thompson is almost ridiculously prolific (his Motets for Michelangelo was reviewed at textura a month ago and Ghost Words two months before that), his music hardly suffers as a result. His two latest releases are both exceptional ambient recordings, with the most obvious difference between them one of structural form: Gold Flowers Bloom Mercury Petals features a dozen compositions of varying length; Mantra is a single-movement, long-form work.

That Gold Flowers Bloom Mercury Petals is split into twelve parts is, however, a tad misleading since the pieces bleed into one another and form a cohesive stylistic whole. One might instead think of the album as splendorous variations on a common theme. “Classical ambient” is the term that best describes the music, with synthetically-generated woodwinds and strings sharing sonic space with electronic whooshes, synth tones, and piano (acoustic and electric). A gauzy blanket of reverb coats the material, bolstering its epic and ethereal character. In celestial and serene tracks like “Cloud Pale and Dream Dimmed” and “Hypersigil,” synthetic strings and electronic tones join together in a slow-motion dance that moves through subtly contrasting shifts in mood during the album's fifty-five minutes. The electrical simmer of hydro wires flows through the mysterious “Arc Lamp” and softly percussive “Chaos Magic” before the album's most entrancing piece, “Round in Circles,” weaves drifting cascades of piano, strings, and vibes into a minimal meditation that wouldn't sound out of place on one of Eno's ambient recordings.

In contrast to the twelve compositions of Gold Flowers Bloom Mercury Petals, Mantra presents a single, fifty-three-minute composition. Some explanatory detail is provided that clarifies how the material was generated. Apparently the work was produced using a specialized computer program that analyzes live vocal input and generates real-time accompaniment to it based on the pitch and amplitude of the vocal sounds; the resultant composition is therefore, at least in part, the mixed result—not that the typical listener would be any the wiser in the absence of such detail. Instead, he/she would simply surrender to the album's placid meander of delicate electronic tones, and in turn enter into a state of introspective calm that occurs far too seldom in our lives. Listening to it is equivalent to resting for an hour by an isolated country pond where only natural sounds break the stillness. Gentle winds whistle through the trees and cowbells faintly tinkle from some far-off field as insects flitter across the water's surface and voices softly exhale. Though it's undeniably pretty, the music is also permeated with a melancholy, even resigned, spirit that makes the recording all the more affecting. If anything, Mantra seems to grow progressively more quiet and thus more retiring as the minutes tick by, the crickets chant their collective song, and the sun slowly disappears below the horizon.

The two albums are beautiful exemplars of ambient music-making, and in both cases Thompson's time-suspending and alchemical “sonic tinting” reaps multiple rewards.

September 2009