Oren Ambarchi Quixotism

[Editions Mego; 2014]

Styles: experimental, Düsseldorf School
Others: Thomas Brinkmann, Eyvind Kang, Jim O’Rourke, U-zhaan, Mark Fell, The Necks

Space in music is a slippery quantity to define. Reverb units will simulate a hall, a room, a church, and an arena, and especially complicated reverbs can even locate sound sources within those areas. But these are mere simulacra, often sought not for the specific properties and associations of those spaces, but rather just to deepen the harmonic content of the work; you can even select how much of the signal to apply the spaciousness, as if your speakers were half in, half out of the room. But digital reverbs, while they have their place, rarely compare to the sonics of a professionally mic’d chamber. A good engineer can fully recreate the acoustic environment of a room. On Quixotism, Oren Ambarchi’s most ambitious full-length since 2012, engineers including Randall Dunn and Jim O’Rourke have harnessed both the massiveness and the intimacy of these site-specific recordings. As Quixotism moves, Ambarchi, following the motorik pulse of Thomas Brinkmann’s electronic percussion, traverses these alternately huge and claustrophobic spaces in the span of a single, five-part piece.

Quixotism begins in the most immense space the album traverses: a concert hall in Iceland. Ambarchi and his collaborators, here including violist and composer Eyvind Kang, begin quietly, lost in immensity. Although the particular physicality of the spaces they explore is apparent, Part 1’s dark vastness evokes a journey through a cavernous tunnel, with John Tilbury’s questioning, atonal piano tinkling and Ambarchi’s guitar searching the space for its edges. Brinkmann’s constant percussion here works like a track, guiding the performers through time, providing the only element that unites all five parts. Through the stifling darkness of Part 1, it’s the most present element in the listener’s ears, the only continuity when the space contracts in latter sections.

The slight variations in the repetitious patterns of Brinkmann’s percussion and its tense rhythm keep pushing past the apparent stasis of the beat. It acts as the calm, taut center of a vortex, around which the rest of the elements rotate in sinusoidal curves. With such a thin frequency profile, it might seem strange as the central unit of a work about space; however, it’s this thin band of frequencies that provides a metric for the larger sounds, especially Ambarchi’s guitar. Drilling into each new sonic architecture, it measures the successive cavities by the other elements’ proximity to its presence. When Japanese tabla player U-zhaan’s drums resound in Part 5, they’ve finally met Brinkmann’s percussion where it is resting, yet continuing, on the central axis, where Ambarchi’s guitar has morphed into Brinkmann’s drums.

Although Part 5 features instrumentation that most closely coincides with the baseline of Brinkmann’s percussion, it also contains some of the album’s most impressive mixing, expanding and contracting spatiality at will. O’Rourke’s synths, with their space-filling width, help to push the outer boundaries here, expanding from the tiny space of Part 4. This part’s claustrophobic area minimizes primarily as an effect of Crys Cole’s contact mic manipulation. Contact mics collapse the space they inhabit by their very nature; in order to amplify, they must touch the very surface whose vibrations they will project. And yet, Brinkman’s percussion seems even more immediate in that it doesn’t ask the listener to shift his or her focal point. Although Part 4 circumscribes the smallest space, it reveals that spatiality is also a psychic phenomenon, expanding or contracting based on the relational distance between the point of focus and the other motion through the space.

Part 5’s near 15-minute length gives it the best position from which to define the inner-workings of auditory spatiality. It begins with the sound of a train (or at least the imitation of one), which both jokes about on the constancy of the rhythm and invades the auditory space with the first non-abstract(ed) content of the piece, signaling that the listener’s concept of space is severely limited. The train’s whistle finally shatters the warping boundaries of space, revealing that field recording can fit a massive locomotive into a studio. Audio space is purely an illusion, even when it results from the acoustics of a real space. It’s an illusion that immerses you in a shape-shifting world, as the rhythm clocks your motion into the future. The giant, immense void that swallows sound in Part 1 shows itself in Part 5 to be just another windmill, slain by Ambarchi’s guitar and studio magic.

Links: Oren Ambarchi - Editions Mego

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