Dolphins Into The Future On Sea-Faring Isolation

[Not Not Fun; 2011]

Styles: cetacean trance, new age, ambient, synth, sound effects
Others: Emeralds, Daphne Oram, Robert Wyatt, Oneohtrix Point Never, Chris Watson

What is it about the sea that attracts so many musicians? Is it the opportunity to explore oceanic sonority, to plumb the depths of the sonically possible, to literally channel sound? Is it a sense that aqueous noise can resonate so well within the mind, evoking memories, launching speculations, taking us on voyages of the imagination that return us to the past and dive into the future? A hope of freedom on the other shore, a seduction of the underwater world that is both liberating and lethal? Or perhaps the sense of isolation, of being away from the world or between worlds.

The sea as isolation ward has fostered many musics, from folk ballads to fados. As dreamscape, it has led to such masterpieces of immersive hallucination as Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom and its signature “Sea Song.” As underwater grave, it has inspired instrumental works by Gavin Bryars, Dennis Eberhard, Explosions in the Sky, and Philip Jeck. As soundtrack to paradise, it has informed the exotica of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Arthur Lyman.

Dolphins Into The Future, the new age synth and sound effects project conceived by Lieven Martens, connects to a number of these precursors and more. Surfacing from the depths of a murky back catalog (long-lost cassettes, CD-Rs, tracks left to drift upon the internet’s digital ocean) comes On Sea-Faring Isolation, a limited vinyl repress of DITF’s vinyl debut. Its six interwoven tracks share the gluggy, consciousness-altering quality of Wyatt’s finest keyboard bleepery, the subaquatic sonorities of Bryars & co., and the Hawaiian references of Lyman. But the influences go further than the musical. A new liner note informs us that the album was inspired by the work of John C. Lilly, physician, psychoanalyst, friend of Ginsberg and Leary, and author of Man and Dolphin and The Mind of the Dolphin. Lilly was a pioneer in researching the effects of isolation tanks on the consciousness, and it is that sense of isolation as much as any of the more traditional lonelinesses of the sea that informs Martens’s work.

Interspecies communication, another major aspect of Lilly’s research, is also prevalent here, as cetacean sounds mingle with manmade noises and recordings of the ocean. The soundworld calls to mind another pioneering researcher, Daphne Oram of the Radiophonic Workshop. Martens’s blurring of sound effects and music — or rather, the insistence of sound effects as something as enjoyable as music — echoes Oram’s work while also maintaining its own strong concept. Like Oram, Martens reminds us of electronic music’s dialectical relationship with “natural” or “organic” sounds, a relationship that is too often denied in histories of electronic sound art, whether avant-garde or popular.

“Remind” is the operative term for much of this album. Even without titles like “Memory of Self” or “Lapse - Dream,” listeners would probably be guided toward some notion of memory work here. These are not specific memories that are being called up, but rather the awareness of memory as sense, as something we turn to when, as here, our other senses are becalmed or confused. This memory-of-nothing is possibly an invitation to speculate on the prelinguistic, on what some psychoanalysts term the “sonorous envelope” of infantile experience — though, given Lilly’s and Martens’s preoccupations, it would be better to speculate that the proposed destination is the extra-linguistic sphere of interspecies memory/empathy.

To say as much is, perhaps, to be carried away. But being carried away seems to be the whole point of this album. Without headphones, it is a transformative experience; with phones attached and no other disturbances, it’s a veritable sonic isolation tank. Electronic signals gestate and softly mutate. Waves crash upon distant yet intimate shores. The cries of seabirds become tribal whistles, reminders of the unseen flock. Even the end of the record is a lulling experience, as the needle floats ashore on the gentle wave of the runout groove and laps against the paper label.

Returning to the shore returns us to the sure, allowing us to fit this Dolphins Into The Future release into a sonic context that includes Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds (and in particular John Elliott’s Imaginary Softwoods project), Brian Eno (connections nautical and ambient), and the nature recordings of Chris Watson. Martens’ work exists in a world that has all these in it, but it sets itself apart with its insistence on the possibility of “cetacean trance” and its commitment to the life aquatic. Well worth a lengthy immersion.

Links: Dolphins Into The Future - Not Not Fun

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