Robert Scott Thompson: Solace
Aucourant Records

Robert Scott Thompson: Visitation (Out of the Vivid Air)
Aucourant Records

Electro-acoustic composer Robert Scott Thompson has been building up an impressive body of work over the past number of years, as a visit to his Aucourant Records website reveals. Two strong new additions to that discography find Thompson dramatically manipulating source material produced by a saxophonist and percussionist, respectively. In that regard, two things about Solace immediately stand out, the first a technical detail and the other sonic. The first is that the ambient setting, in its originating form, lasts over five hours, while the second is that, though the source material is a nearly hour-long alto saxophone performance by Dr. Jan Berry Baker, the result retains little of the instrument's natural, identifiable sound. Instead, the saxophone material, having been radically transformed by Thompson using re-synthesis techniques, is heard as glassy, crystalline tones that play like fragile sounds softly resonating within a cavernous empty space. Don't let the five hours detail scare you, either, as the recording presents a time-scaled and thus easily digestible forty-two-minute version of the work.

In the project's multi-hour form, no repetition occurs as the music continually renews itself, and a similar quality characterizes the shorter version, too. Despite that, the piece retains a clear uniformity and coherence throughout its gentle flow, especially when it unfolds as a single uninterrupted piece (despite the fact that it's presented as six indexed parts). The experience for the listener is immersive and calming, with Solace allowing the receptive listener to enter into an almost trance-like state during playback. Thompson's own description of the work as a kind of “sonic tinting” ideal for colouring the sound spaces of multiple architectural spaces is apt. Anyone interested in acquiring a copy should note that the release comes in CD-ROM format, which means it's not playable in a normal CD player but must instead be played on a personal computer system.

Like Solace, Visitation (Out of the Vivid Air) is rooted in the playing of a single musician, in this case Dr. Stuart Gerber, whose percussion arsenal includes clock chimes, flower pots, metal pipes and plates, can lids, chains, coins, wood, bamboo wind chimes, drums, and gongs. The seventy-eight-minute recording grew out of the core work, “Vivid Air,” a five-part, thirty-two-minute suite scored for solo percussionist, real-time sound processing, and electroacoustic sounds. Gerber provides nearly all of the sounds heard in the composition, which Thompson then dramatically alters. Its five movements—“Vapors,” “Vortices,” “Volutions,” “Vacuums,” and “Velivolant”—appear without interruption, as Gerber's live playing melds seamlessly with Thompson's electroacoustic treatments. A rather haunted soundworld results from the interactions when Gerber's playing acts as ongoing, colourful accompaniment to the ghostly washes fashioned by the composer; tension also emerges when the natural sounds of percussion instruments are heard in tandem with the ethereal abstractions conjured by Thompson. The piece features no shortage of sonically arresting moments—creaks amplified into monstrous groans, rattling noises that become slithering swarms—that Thompson often elaborates upon using reverb and echo. The generally slow pace at which it develops also isn't unappealing, as the listener is able to easily monitor the music's changes and attune him/herself to its meditative flow.

The final four of the recording's six pieces—about thirty-two minutes in total—are pure electroacoustic works that, sans Gerber's presence, evoke deep space when wave upon wave of shimmering masses crest during “Elegies and Epiphanies,” and, though Gerber isn't physically present, a percussive dimension nevertheless declares itself in the brief “Bell Cavern.” At disc's end, “Out of the Vivid Air” re-presents the opening setting, “Visitation (Out of the Vivid Air),” this time minus Gerber's involvement. On paper, a long-form recording featuring only percussion and electroacoustics might might not sound like the most interesting of combinations, but, in fact, Visitation (Out of the Vivid Air) proves to be consistently absorbing, in large part because its contents unfold unpredictably and in constantly mutating fashion.

December 2012