“(Hiraeth) is in the mountains where the wind speaks in many tongues and the buzzards fly on silent wings. It’s the call of my spiritual home, it’s where ancient peoples made their home. We’re high on a hill, where saints bathed sore feet in a healing spring and had a cure.”
– Val Bethell
Hiraeth is a Welsh expression that doesn’t really translate effectively into English, but it’s generally acknowledged as a homesickness or grief related to ancestry and more immediate family. Listening to Hiraeth, one can hear how Olan Mill (Alex Smalley) may have had to deal with criticism regarding the melancholic gestures displayed in his work. The influence and continuum of “classical” and orchestral music are immediate in Olan Mill’s collected work, even more so perhaps in Hiraeth, but despite portrayals of his music as “unashamedly romantic” — as if ambient music is a clichéd form that needs explaining outside of context and/or listening — it’s certainly not “Romantic” in the sense of Wagner’s grand operatic statements or Chopin’s sickly-sweet piano works.
No, these works are contemporary in their nature, showing the signs of late-20th century music and its forays into popular aesthetics — the world that Bernard Hermann and Steve Reich’s small-ensemble writings paved the way for film, advertising, and TV music to transcend the norm of the concert hall.
Perhaps what informs the “romantic” connotations is the apparent beauty of Smalley’s compositions and the ethereal vocals. “Neutrino” begins with stretched strings and vocals that weave in and out of seas of reverb, gradually opening up and enveloping a piano solo that moves between vaguely modal chords. The effect is invigorating and hopeful, tinged with a degree of the melancholy.
There’s a similar sentiment on the second track “Echo of Tomorrow,” which was first released on the compilation …and darkness came, alongside a gargantuan assembly of other ambient and orchestral compositions. Smalley sets up a blend comprising strings, vocals, and reverb-soaked field recordings, before withdrawing to another slow, mostly chordal piano figure.
It’s these slow, deliberate, and precise moments that reveal themselves from underneath more dense textures that show Olan Mill’s tendencies toward resigned and colder moods, like the wavering vocal- and string-pitching and cyclical piano arpeggios of “Cultivator” or the slow but detailed vocal interplay of “Soft Furnishings.”
It’s wistful, but Hiraeth never feels excessive — there’s no need to cover up the romanticism apparent in Olan Mill’s work, as it’s displayed carefully and tastefully. I’m not privy to a Welsh heritage that allows an instinctual, deeper understanding of how one would feel the sensation of “Hiraeth,” but it’s not hard to see how Olan Mill’s interpretation, its longing and its beauty laid bare, wouldn’t be far off.