Thomas Ankersmit’s Perceptual Geography, Phil Julian’s Carrier Dynamics

Monday 3 May 2021

You don’t have to be smart or knowledgeable to enjoy stuff. I just got hold of Thomas Ankersmit’s new release Perceptual Geography and spent the weekend getting off to it, so much that I forgot to read the sleeve notes or remember what I liked about his last album, Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. Perceptual Geography is a piece Ankersmit has worked on over the past few years, built up from sounds made on the Serge Modular synthesizer; it sounds gorgeous. The wide range of sounds, from piercing bleeps to deep, organic rumbling, is a testament to Serge Tcherepnin’s instrument building and Ankersmit’s musical chops. Finely distinguished colourations in noise evoke natural forms, but the type of nature at work here is unformed and primal, testing its bounds for a structure that would contain it. It’s this protean quality, suggesting limitless possibilities in both material and composition, that seems to distinguish electronic music I love from the majority of pieces I find to be dull, safe and antiseptic.

In the latter half of the piece the phased beeps and pulses emerge from the fabric and I started congratulating myself for picking up on the hommage to Maryanne Amacher, until I remembered that I hadn’t read the sleeve notes yet and of course it was Amacher who introduced Ankersmit to the Serge synthesizer and he’s worked with both Amacher and Tcherepnin. The album comes with a substantial interview transcript between Ankersmit and Tcherepnin, which provides a lot of historical background. While apparently more ‘pure’ in its construction than Homage to Dick Raaijmakers, Perceptual Geography is no less complex in its sounds. It had been a while since I last listened to the earlier work and the psychoacoustic effects had slipped from my memory; this new piece makes itself less “about” those phenomena by inserting them as one more complicating factor in making music an immersive, all-engaging experience.

While I’m praising examples of this genre, I should mention Phil Julian’s Carrier Dynamics. Made at Ina-GRM Paris in 2019 and released last year, it’s a suite of eleven ‘intervals’ exploiting what appears to be a restricted set of tools based around pulse generation for maximum effect. Emphasising shape and texture over colour, each track could be misheard as a particularly forbidding moment from Stockhausen’s Kontakte, but Julian’s means of organising the material are very different. The lack of sleeve notes means I’m guessing all of this, but each section tends towards stasis or, occasionally, chaos, with slips and glitches in the surface suggesting an algorithm at work, if not an element of randomness. The short opening sections develop more complex textures before suddenly reverting to longer stretches with little discernible movement. Within a relatively tight timeframe the music alternates between favouring sound sculpture, patterning, and transformation, deftly avoiding a consistent overall form. If there’s a detectable plan at work here, then you’ll be kept listening right to the end in the hope of finding it. It’s all bracingly inscrutable.

Organs, Inner and Outer: Thomas Ankersmit, Rohan Drape

Thursday 6 September 2018

I’m a sucker for feedback synthesis* and therefore I’m very happy with Thomas Ankersmit’s new CD Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. There are two things that stand out after the first listening. Most obviously, there is the utilisation of inner-ear phenomena (the notes advise against using headphones for this piece) that predominate at certain times, creating those satisfying shifts in texture and tone when you move your head around while an otherwise static sound is playing. Almost as striking is the compositional sense at work behind the sounds. This type of music making can so often result in an overwhelming torrent of sounds that never let up, a cataloguing of technical effects or an unvarying slice of sound sculpture. Homage to Dick Raaijmakers flows with an almost romantic feeling for the material as it rises and then ebbs away, the mood passing between tension and relaxation. Repeated listening reveals new details, reflecting the blend of different media put to use here: analogue feedback units and oscillators are combined with contact microphones and tape manipulation. Multiple strands of electronic sounds are often at work, creating subtleties not noticed at first. The psychoacoustic effects arrive in two plateaux during the course of the piece, and even there the pulsing and pitches change from time to time while the listener is head-bopping.

The whole high-pitched beating frequencies thing made me remember that I wanted to mention a recent CD by Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras. Ellesmere is apparently the first commercial release by Drape – an event I’ve waited a long time for. I’ve heard him play live, in groups and solo, on several occasions and always been wowed by his technical knowledge, particularly his understanding of software as a means for making music, beyond using it as a tool to achieve a desired outcome. This virtuosity shines through from within the music, not as a flashy surface, so perhaps it should be expected that Ellesmere ignores high-end technology and consists simply of two duets for old electric organs. In the shorter work, Harleian, the two keyboards focus on high pitches, with the differences of intonation and overtones between the two instruments creating plenty of activity to keep the cochlea buzzing. The long piece, St Johns Wood, is in a more sombre register, a slow chorale for organ played as a strange double image, the matched keyboards creating microtonal chords and ghostly harmonics. The otherwise simple organ sound becomes disembodied, without background or perspective the instrument becomes unreal.

*To the point of using it myself, with both analogue and digital electronics.