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James Bernard & anthéne ~ Soft Octaves

Написано на 27.11.2023

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent Van Gogh writes of “colors, which are heightened by being juxtaposed,” yet “will destroy one another by being mixed.” When mixed, such colors produce a sad gray, but in the right proportions can produce what he calls a broken tone. And as we know—to paraphrase a bit—broken tones can sing a little. While listening to Soft Octaves, I encountered the above quote in Rainer Hanshe’s Closing Melodies, which juxtaposes letters from Van Gogh and Nietzsche, and this discussion of color theory seemed especially apt to describe not only the relationship between the book’s two protagonists but also this collaboration between James Bernard & anthéne.

Afterall, what is an octave? The same note, but different pitches. It’s a unique type of relationship, one of simultaneous sameness and difference. A good collaboration finds its own balance between individual and collective, often in tension with one another. Past Inside the Present has excelled at facilitating such collaborations between their stable of artists. Each pursues ambien music in their own way, but soft edges allow for overlaps whose results are something wholly new. Softness can be a virtue, suggestive of patience and adaptability. By fostering a space for presenting shifting configurations of familiar musicians, listeners are better able to appreciate different aspects of each musician’s style as they perform in different combinations.

Soft Octaves is the first collaboration between PITP regulars James Bernard and Brad Deschamps (anthéne). Bernard’s work spans decades and crosses many genres of electronic music, but in his more ambient moods we’ve heard him collaborate with the likes of Bvdub, zakè, and as half of the duo awakened souls with Cynthia Field (marine eyes). Deschamps’ anthéne project has been prolific, with many has self-released works on his own Polar Seas Recordings since 2015, as well as more recent outings on Muzan Editions, Home Normal, and other notables, including collaborations with Andrew Tasselmyer on Hibernate and Constellation Tatsu.

Each of these artists brings something distinct and complementary to Soft Octaves. Bernard’s ambiguous tonal washes cross the frequency spectrum, coaxed as they are from a six-string bass, augmented by a volume pedal and many effects. These single-take recordings maintain a sense of vitality that might be dampened by overworking them, but importantly they are given shape by anthéne’s lap steel guitar and other embellishments. Under the name Influx, Bernard has produced music in idioms including trance, techno, and IDM, where “ambient” serves a related but distinct purpose. Grounded by anthéne’s melodic gestures, the pair make use of the hypnotic powers of repetition resulting in a contemplative record that plays just as well in the background.

The album unfolds relatively briskly across 9 tracks at just 40 minutes, an economy of scale that defies the languid expectations we’ve come to associate with so much contemporary ambient music while still maintaining a meditative vibe. Most of the tracks are around five minutes, so while not exactly short neither do they feel self-indulgently long and aimless. On the contrary, there are clear signs of careful editing and creative intent. Each track holds up on its own (or as part of a playlist), rather than as merely a movement in a larger work. That said, Soft Octaves is also a well-sequenced album that pays careful attention to pacing and mood.

Opener “Point of Departure” establishes the album as a bass and guitar duet, if an unconventional one. Think Ron Carter and Jim Hall, but less jazz and more pedals. Sustained bass chords streak across the sky such that arpeggiated guitar melodies can dance in the rain. Yet it’s not all languorous amorphous tonal clouds. “Flow State” begins with a bounce that carries the entire track, announcing that the duo has range and is not content to simply make versions of the same. The monophonic lap steel melody evokes a human voice, searching longingly, circling in on itself as it spirals down into the abyss. At just over two minutes, the third track, “Saudade” keeps the listener yearning for more, evoking the nostalgic longing of the title.  The two musicians’ sounds repeatedly blur together and come apart again, leading into standout track “Trembling House.” The opening minute of that song builds upon the distinct rhythm of plucked strings, which elsewhere on the album have had their action softened so as to melt into each other. Featuring vocals from marine eyes, “Trembling House” builds upon the usual blurred chords shifting gradually in the background from which Field’s voice emerges like vapor, a kettle that never quite boils, quietly simmering before fading to stillness.

The title track is the longest composition on the album at six and half minutes, appropriately both the centerpiece and statement of purpose. anthéne’s lap steel is at its brightest and most triumphant against the brasslike textures of Bernard’s bass, but “Soft Octaves” also displays his subtle use of additional textures. In his solo work, anthéne often draws upon field recordings, which he also deploys to strong effect here. Though not much more than gentle rummaging, even such relatively inconsiderable sounds add an organic and unpredictable character that in juxtaposition to the melodic elements brings out new contrasts and moods. The weaving descent of “Cortège” finds the album at its darkest and most mournful, evoking the slow deliberate procession of the title. The buzzing action of bass strings add to a sense of foreboding, alternating between bouncing and smeared tones, with a slowly decaying ending that nonetheless manages to ramp up the tension as it disintegrates. The more hopeful tone is reborn on “Renascence,”  whose whistling digital wind blows across swift chord changes that  resolve as cleanly as any pop song.

“Summation” caps the album as both a summary and an ending, like an overture in reverse. But unlike a summary, which condenses, a summation is addition upon addition, it fuses and increases. Like all the other titles on Soft Octaves, the title is evocative while allowing for some ambiguity, deeping the significance to the album title as a conceptual key. Like the album as a whole, “Summation” is minimal yet rich, warm even when desolate, and expressive in the face of deep uncertainty. As a duo, James Bernard & anthéne excel at juxtaposing soothing tones with just the right amount of tension, introducing moments of anxiety as if inoculating the listener, with a peacefully resolution never far away. (Joseph Sannicandro)

James Bernard & anthéne Soft Octaves Listening Party
November 29, 2023 at 1:00 PM EST

Both artists along with a handful of other PITP artists will be in the chat. We hope to see you there!


Van Gogh on color, Van Gogh/Nietzsche letters, James Bernard & anthéne’s Soft Octaves, textures, and PittP’s Soft Octaves Listening Party.

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