Camerata CO3 2013, DD & CD album, 47m 39s
Ambient music is usually associated with a certain set of characteristics; although dance music producers became interested in ambient as a source of inspiration, and whole stylistic zones have arisen around the combination of different dance genres with ‘ambient-type’ sounds, even to the extent that the term is frequently used unadorned to refer to such music by those unaware of its provenance, one thing it often lacks is an overt beat. When Tim Risher suggests we might hear his music as a ‘mix between ambient and techno’, I guess we should take his use of the latter term as a catch-all for music with an electronically generated beat, because I very much doubt deejays will be spinning any of these cuts at sweaty club nights! Yes, there is a lot of rhythm in parts of this album, and as such it might exceed some purists’ sense of what constitutes ambient music; but in terms of a focus on atmospheric texture rather than narrative discourse, The Cracked Chimes is very much in that camp. It would, I suppose, be possible to parse these pieces according to the grammar of conventionally rhythmic and tonal music, but other than the last track, the results would be worse than meaningless! All I can say is that Risher continues his established practice of approaching his work with a creatively progressive mindset. All of the music on this album is made by bells; by the time the composer has finished with the sounds their sources may well be entirely obscure (we often hear sustained, processed harmonics divorced from their attack and fundamental), but bells they are, and something of the internal reverberations thereof is always recognisable in the music. Taking a specific palette of sound sources in that way, quite apart from any enthusiasm for the sound of bells, can be a useful framing device; it provides a readymade coherence and consistency to the work that proceeds from it. Essentially arbitrary decisions about the parameters within which the work will be made are at the inception of every artistic endeavour; Risher’s decision to see what he can get out of some bells sets the stage (and I have no clue whether these are bells in his possession, bells that he has travelled the world sampling, or any of the other myriad possibilities), but the end result is, of course, all him.
‘The Cracked Chimes’ is the title of one of these compositions, which pretty much encapsulates the worlds that this album straddles: it begins with a pulsing, glittering soundscape of long, consonant upper-register tones, creating an affirmative atmosphere without any dissonance or tension. A colder, glassy voice enters after some minutes, introducing some astringency, with percussion close on its heels, these bells so muffled or processed as to sound un-pitched. It’s hard to describe exactly what this evokes; not movement as such, because the tonal-harmonic background is so static, but certainly activity. It still evokes a place or a continuous state rather than a sequence of events, but it feels like a place with people or machines in it, hammering away industriously. While the two poles of the title track, and the period of tension that connects them, can be taken as a schematic description of the album as a whole, there is much more to it than that. There are many intermediate positions on the continuum between the wholly percussive and the purely tonal, many fine timbral and affective gradations within each broad category of sounds, and many creative uses to which these materials are put. For example, while my account of ‘The Cracked Chimes’ may strike some as excessively, speculatively descriptive, as though I were attempting to substitute some narrative allusion for the abstract experiential meanings of the sound, there can be no such objections to a similar account of the programmatic ‘Distant Forest’. This is as literally representational a piece of music as any I’ve heard; Risher manipulates his bells, and clusters their attack points into para-stochastic clumps that illustrate bird and insect sounds, while trees creak and unseen masses move through the undergrowth. If field recordings can be said to resemble landscape photography, then this is aural landscape painting. There is no other piece on The Cracked Chimes that resembles ‘Distant Forest’, the rain and thunder of ‘The Good Soul’ notwithstanding, yet it does not sound out of place; I think it would be fair to say that there is an element of the descriptive in much of this music, even at its most ostensibly abstract.
Most of the atmospheres Risher creates are ethereal rather than concrete; he describes ambiences that are enclosed by reverberant surfaces, but they are large spaces, and they often have an affective quality akin to light shining through water, with confusing foreshortenings and rippling distortions. These sounds may all come from bells, but they span the audible frequency range, and they show remarkable timbral variety; for the most part, if they are tonal they have a pleasing, luminous quality, with an emphasis on long tones and gradual transformations. A variety of spaces are created for the listener to experience, and that is clearly where the central meanings of the work are located, but Risher is also on a voyage of intellectual exploration, digging away at issues of representation and abstraction that are usually nearer the surface of creative practice in visual media. There is a kind of cruciform dance going on, between the pitched and the percussive on one axis, and the ‘musical’ and the illustrative on the other; each piece occupies various points and regions on the graph that these axes define, illustrating their varying relationships to questions of representation and musical meaning. The lesson to be learned, usually, is that there are no obvious, direct correlations: the illustrative is not necessarily any more or less representational or abstract than the musical, and neither is the sharply percussive necessarily any less ‘ambient’ than a colourful wash of extended tones. As if to reinforce these ambiguities, ‘Fissure’, with which the album closes, combines a set of stuttering chords akin to a house piano sound with a funky, bubbling bassline, and a structure that incorporates a spacey breakdown before the groove returns; we are reminded that the most representational pieces of music, like ‘Distant Forest’, are far and away the most abstract in terms of conventional notions of musical meaning. Yet in what way is dance music’s erotic hail to the listening body more or less abstract or ambient than a wash of tone colour appealing to another set of affective faculties? Clearly neither ambient music nor dance music is intended primarily to provoke thought rather than feeling, and doesn’t dance music equally evoke an ambience, equally represent a space, one of whose constituents may be an activity that it encloses? While The Cracked Chimes raises these and other questions, Tim Risher has better sense than to offer glib answers to them; instead he lets them hang in the reverberant volumes his music circumscribes. The principal point of this beautifully constructed music is the experience of hearing it, and that is far simpler than the impression I may have given. These eleven compositions represent eleven spaces, and they are all very rewarding places to visit.