Auraltone Music am011, 2011, CD album, 54m 15s
$10.99 (available as DD $4.99)
All music has an atmosphere. I’d go so far as to say it’s a central aspect of all musical meaning, although it’s obviously not the only meaningful element in music. Words, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, timbres and so on, all have their particular capacities, but the atmosphere of a piece of music falls somewhere in the cracks between all these things. There’s a sense in which that elusive quantity, musical meaning, is the same thing as mood or atmosphere, in as much as meanings are in the experience of listening, and music that addresses itself directly to atmosphere is cutting straight to the chase in some respect. It’s a commonplace to speak of music taking the listener on a ‘journey’, but it also has the capacity to locate them in a place, to enact the ambience of a physical or metaphorical space. This is what ambient music does, when the word is used as something less superficial than a stand-in for ‘mellow’. That’s what Janne Hanhisuanto does on Circles In 3D.
This music operates in two of the modes commonly labelled as ambient: it creates ambiences, with combinations of gentle harmonic colour washes and aleatory seeming sounds, and, at other times, it pursues its course with such an unimposing subtlety that it becomes environmental, rather than performative. The latter mode is what Brian Eno had in mind when he coined the term: music that would not be listened to directly, but which acts as a sort of aural incense, contributing to the constitution of a space, rather than evoking one. The majority of the sounds on Circles In 3D are smooth synthesiser voices, while its modalities are consonant and reassuring, and the music’s structure is one of ebb and flow rather than sectional progression, or of thematic variation. The whole album is not unalloyed electronic soundscape however: there are beats, and even a reggae groove in Part 3, which also features what sounds like a real violin, also to be heard in Part 5, as well as a guitar in Part 9 and Part 6, which kicks off into quite a groove, giving the album its dynamic peak. There are some extended passages of more abstract sounds as well, although they remain peaceful and quiet.
Spoken words play a (rather ambiguous) part here as well: in Parts 3 and 6 a female voice presents us with some ‘rights’. ‘Right to feel’, ‘right to feel accepted’, ‘right to feel beauty’, ‘right to feel love’. What’s ambiguous is whether that ‘right’ refers to a measure of literal correctness, moral correctness, or to entitlement; and that ambiguity, in relation to those ideas, seems to me to be the metaphorical centre about which these sounds revolve. Feeling, acceptance, beauty, love: it’s easy, once the words have been insinuated into your thoughts, to hear those things as the subject matter of this nuanced, inviting composition. There is an obvious appeal to conventional aesthetics, in the pleasing flow and timbre of the music, and it does indeed create a space that most people would want to inhabit; it seems to offer acceptance, but then… There is a recurring undercurrent of the cold outside, a hint of the ominous. It can be heard in the darkening harmonies of Part 7, the methodical, inevitable progress of Part 9’s groove, and even in the muttering substrate of near inaudible distortion at the beginning of Part 1. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is a real sense of submerged menace: the music is not pessimistic or dark, but it acknowledges complexity, and its ambiguities are important to the way it handles its central themes. When the speaker presents us with our ‘rights’ she does so in a way that mimics the collage effect of a telephone menu system, with stress patterns denatured and made strange; don’t take any of this for granted, she seems to be warning us.
Circles in 3D is a single composition in ten parts. Listening to any of those parts in isolation would offer a sample of its textures, but its meanings are of the kind that unfold themselves gradually, over repeated listening to the entire work. It’s not really an appropriate mode of listening to interrogate the music’s deep structure or detailed signification, expecting it to yield up positions on specific concerns. Instead it opens up a field for our own thoughts and feelings to play in. Timbre, texture, orchestration and tonal content are all manipulated with great care and intelligence throughout; while this does, at times, present us with some pleasing motifs, and some bodily engagement, Hanhisuanto has given us much more than that. This is an ambience that flows deep and broad, and a place that rewards its willing inhabitants with more than simple, uncritical acceptance.