Elemental

by Robert Scott Thompson

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    On this particular project, electro-acoustic composer Robert Scott Thompson is quite literally an alchemist, albeit of the sound synthesis kind. That's because Elemental's four long-form pieces are designed to represent the four astrological elements: air, water, earth, and fire. The recording captures Thompson, a multiple award-winning composer who is currently Professor of Music Composition at Georgia State University in Atlanta, in experimental sound designer mode, more focused on sound sculpting and the arranging of heavily transformed source materials than on creating conventional melody-based compositions.

    Derived in part on the solo percussion part of a separate work for percussion and electro-acoustic sound, “Vivid Air,” “Out of the Vivid Air” explores and dramatically expands upon the sonic possibilities of a set range of sounds, specifically the shimmer of clock chimes, whirr of percussion, and rumble of large drums. Thompson brings the meticulous hand of a craftsperson to the shaping of the myriad elements as they're positioned throughout the meditation. Sounds overlap and bleed fluidly into their respective spaces, all the while doing so unhurriedly so that the track's elements can breathe freely. Though the piece is obviously the “air” element of the four, there's an elemental earthiness to it that suggests it might just as easily have been used to represent “earth.”

    “Waters of Cabeus (A),” on the other hand, is undoubtedly a title well-matched to its element, as sounds of flowing water appear throughout the piece, at times prominently and at others more subtly. Inspired in part by the discovery of ice crystals (by implication water) within one of the moon's craters, the piece is based on modifed field recordings Thompson recorded outside his home during a heavy downpour. Even here, however, the character of the material pulls it into the orbit of “air” during its ethereal passages, as if to suggest the movement away from earth-based liquid toward the less concrete version of it discovered on the lunar surface. The compositional material itself reflects the element in question in the way in which it gracefully swirls.

    The mysterious “Shinrin-yoku” (Japanese for “forest breathing”) takes its inspiration from a popular Japanese practice of walking through the forest to benefit from the therapeutic effects of breathing air enhanced by the flora's presence. Certainly there's a misty quality to the piece and a clean and hygenic sense too, with the delicate, shimmering sounds buffed and polished to a sheen, their rough edges smoothened off and the grime washed away. The twenty-two-minute “Shinrin-yoku” is at times even more time-suspending than “Out of the Vivid Air,” though admittedly some hint of turbulence surfaces midway through, almost as if to suggest the incoming threat of a virus that will need to be destroyed before it can take root in the forest and spread. A delicate, even ghostly dimension emerges at times too, as if to suggest the setting's processed acoustic sounds are being held together by the thinnest strands of sonic material.

    Rounding out the recording is the slightly longer “Embers,” an exploration that's of an entirely different character than the others as most of its sounds were taken from piano and then dramatically transformed via sound processing treatments. The percussive side of the instrument is exploited, such that the instrument's notes are stretched, bent, and elongated into reverberant creaks, with Thompson convincingly conveying a fire slowly dying out until it's nothing but dust.

    Elemental's four pieces are mini-universes of natural and treated sounds that unfold with deliberation at their own resolute pace. Though they demand the listener's full attention in order for the richness of the settings to be fully appreciated, the material rewards the effort by virtue of the immersive experience it provides.

    ~ Textura, January 2011

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about

These electroacoustic works are conceptually related, in terms of sonic morphologies, compositional processes, materials, and musical aesthetics, and also in terms of extra-musical ideation. The four form a kind of set of compositions inspired by attributes of the astrological elements – air, water, earth, and fire.

Out of the Vivid Air (2009) was originally composed in octophonic surround sound for premiere at the 30th New Music Festival of the Mid-American Center for Contemporary Music. Materials for this work are derived from the solo percussion part of the work for percussion and electroacoustic sound, Vivid Air (CD AUREC 1002). Fleeting and mercurial gestures are transformed and recast throughout the work. An important sonic signature in the composition is the sound of clock chimes coupled with large drums to enhance and extend resonances. These resonant sounds are further used as time-varying filters and applied to other sounds.

Waters of Cabeus (A) (2009) was inspired by two events. One was the discovery of possible water as ice crystals within the now famous moon crater and also the rushing of water though the burn in front of my home during a torrential downpour. All of the sounds are transformations of field recordings of water flowing along this burn. The water source materials were also used as models for time-varying filtering and are elaborated in myriad ways using digital signal processing and sound synthesis techniques.

Shinrin-yoku (2010) is a Japanese term that means “forest breathing.” This is the popular practice in Japan of walking in the forest to take in the therapeutic effects, both spiritual and physical, of breathing the highly enriched air enveloping the flora. Phytonicides, airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect them from rotting and insects, seem to be beneficial to health. This work focuses on the delicacy of sound materials – all originally acoustic in origin but carefully transformed by acousmatic techniques.

Rounding out the collection is Embers (2010), a work that alludes to the decaying heat of a hearth as coal fire diminishes and is extinguished to dust. Most of the sounds heard are originally from the piano but are significantly transformed and elaborated.

***

These four compositions by Robert Scott Thompson, all for fixed digital audio playback, blend notions of the natural and unnatural worlds. All the sounds used are crisp and clean, elegantly placed in time, and each work progresses at a slow and unencumbered pace. Most of the sonic materials are drawn from natural sources: water, wind, or simple percussion sounds and the synthetic elements grow into and out of these natural sounds so deftly that it can be hard to tell how much you are hearing is, in fact, artificial. Shinrin-yoku, with its obvious instrumental timbres, never quite sounds like it is either instrument or environment. Lots of attention is given to spatialization and these works would do extremely well in a surround format. So much of this music is based on where things happen that I feel the stereo field is a bit of a let down. Be that as it may, these organic and ambient tracks are splendidly created and infinitely listenable.

~ Sequenza21.com

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released January 1, 2010

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Robert Scott Thompson Atlanta, Georgia

The term musical alchemist best describes modern music composer Robert Scott Thompson. Combining his mastery of the electroacoustic, contemporary instrumental, and avant-garde genres into a swirling cohesive whole, he is an important pioneer on music's new frontier.

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