Album: Touching Down Lightly
Label: Pocket Fields
Catalogue N°: PF050
Release date: December 2014
1. Field Rotation – Cloud Observation (05:23)
2. Offthesky – Upside Drown (05:27)
3. Segue – Retreat (05:09)
4. Ghost and Tape – Haven (05:40)
5. Spheruleus – Intervalla (03:20)
6. Pillowdiver – Your Version, Not Mine (03:25)
7. The Frozen Vaults – Frozen Streams (03:11)
8. Zvuku – Catch Your Death (04:40)
9. The Green Kingdom – Endless White Drift (03:20)
10. Maps and Diagrams – The Grey Ghost (04:00)
11. Giulio Aldinucci – Cocoon (05:36)
12. Porya Hatami – See-Saw (05:46)
13. Wil Bolton – Grey Seas (Edit) (04:57)
14. Hakobune – Buche de Noёl (05:32)
15. Christopher Bissonnette – Archivist (04:10)
16. Pleq + Lauki – XIV (Anne Chris Bakker Remix) (05:22)
VA – Touching Down Lightly (CDr Album, Limited to 200 copies)
Curator by Bartosz Dziadosz (Pleq)
Manager of label by Vadim Lebovski
Cover by Staszek Sokołowski
Limited Edition: CDr – 200 copies
Handstitched hard envelope.
Christopher Bissonnette’s first album for Kranky in seven years is fairly different from the more patient, pastoral ambient terrain he’s traversed on past releases. InsteadEssays in Idleness finds Bissonnette limiting his explorations to a single homemade modular synthesizer, which at first seemed slightly disappointing of a prospect to me. Given that modular synthesis is so en vogue at the moment as a sort of reaction against completely software-based electronic music, I don’t know that it’s as compelling or daring a move to make as it may have seemed a few years earlier for some of his peers. But listening to the album, my reservations about Bissonnette joining the modular synthesis bandwagon are for naught; while it’s a different animal from his previous repertoire, I find most of the album to be quite good.
There are times when Bissonnette employs a rather typical octave toggle to his monophonic leads, abruptly toggling from one octave to the next as notes cycle through. It’s the sort of thing that seems like modular synthesis 101, recalling the monophonic Moog sounds of Boards of Canada and conjuring up somewhat cliched images of sun-faded 70s camcorder footage. But Bissonnette only occasionally indulges such sounds here, instead often lingering in a more nebulous field of overtones and oscillating drones. The closest comparison I can draw is some of the recent synth output of M. Geddes Gengras, because both composers seem to be pulling inspiration from the same lonely and introverted places.
The delayed, sprinkling octave shifts of “A Deplorable Corruption” and “Entanglements” show off Bissonnette’s love of the sometimes arbitrary and abrupt changes in sound attributed to the nature of the synth. But it’s the lead track, “Greenish In Its Light,” that is such a clear standout to me — it’s fragile and luminous, the visual of refracted light in such an intuitive and instinctive way.
This album is a bit of an experiment in simplicity for Bissonnette, as he decided to limit himself solely to sounds generated from a synthesizer that he built himself. While I was initially dismayed to see that such a reliably excellent composer had tossed in his lot with the recent glut of synth-worshippers, I am pleased to report that Christopher has not completely lost his mind and that he is still making music that is distinctively his own. As a complete album, Essays does not quite stand with Bissonette’s lusher and more varied previous work, but some of the individual pieces are certainly quite good and I always like it when an artist takes an unexpected gamble.
As Kranky are quick to mention in their description of Essays in Idleness, Bissonnette wields his synthesizer a bit differently than most of his contemporaries, choosing to focus primarily on slowly transforming sustained tones. In that regard, this album makes perfect sense, as Christopher is no stranger at all to droning, drifting ambiance and the right synthesizer can offer some rather amazing possibilities for the real-time textural manipulation of such sounds. While Bissonnette does not rely particularly heavily on that feature, he certainly manages to score impressively with the opening “Greenish in its Light,” an absolutely beautiful mélange of warm drones, randomized buzzes, and melancholy bloops.
Unfortunately, Christopher then haplessly blunders into one of my personal peeves with “A Deplorable Corruption,” opting for some dated retro-futurist textures that scream “‘70s science program soundtrack.” That just about derails the album entirely for me, as he seems quite fond of those glistening artificial sounds, repeating them yet again on the following “Entanglements.” Thankfully, “Delusions” restores some of the lost momentum, gradually evolving from gently buzzing ambiance into something much more complex, quavering, and emotionally resonant.
From then on out, Essays is almost unwaveringly solid, though none of the remaining four songs quite manage to topple “Greenish” as the album’s reigning highlight. “Missing Chapters,” for example, evokes an otherworldly tableaux of bittersweet loneliness and distant memories, while “Uniformity is Undesirable” dabbles uncomfortably close to those accursed science film textures, but keeps them pleasantly ominous with some well-placed swoops and snarls. Similarly dated textures dog the weaker “Another Moving Sight,” but it at least boasts an appealing throb and builds to a likable (if a bit understated) crescendo. Essays then concludes in fine fashion with the sublimely twinkling and blissed-out coda of “Wasting a Little Time.”
All of that adds up to a perfectly likable album, but Essays is definitely a relatively minor and divergent addition to Bissonnette’s discography. If I were not so predisposed to like Christopher due to his previous work, I probably would not have allowed myself much of a chance to get drawn in beyond “Greenish in its Light.” However, once I started actively looking for reasons to like Idleness, I certainly found them. While I think that anyone new to Bissonnette should probably bypass this one, as its very limited palette sacrifices quite a bit of depth and humanity, longtime fans will likely find this to be a pleasant enough detour (and will need to at least hear “Greenish”). Or they will be absolutely heartbroken that Christopher’s first solo album in seven years is so different from what they were expecting. It is hard to say. God, I wish Bissonnette was more prolific. Damn.
Essays In Idleness, the third album from Canadian composer Christopher Bissonnette, is a refreshing change from the international school of ambient music and its widely held belief that the sweet chirps of birdsong and the serene streams of running water are vital, tonal ingredients to the genre, and therefore help to make ambient music what it is. Essays In Idleness is the result of two years of intense exploration and it is clear that during this period Bissonnette focused on and deepened his understanding of the craft and its relationship with life. The Canadian has dropped the aforementioned kind of ambience – the usual suspects – for a new, synth-led pursuit, a fresh tonal foray, and he never flirts with the idea of returning.
The soul of ambient music should be that of freedom; it shouldn’t feel restricted, but that is perhaps where the genre has, in recent times, found itself, with many ambient musicians intentionally or unintentionally backing the music into a corner with their repetitive, albeit lovely tones. It’s true that ambient music soothes deeply with its beautiful, shimmering showers and serene swells – beautiful, yes, but in danger of being a little predictable.
One of the track titles, ‘Uniformity Is Undesirable’, sums it up; Bissonnette may have become tired of the ambient cliché, which is one of the reasons why Essays In Idleness is so refreshing. Essays In Idleness revolves around a self-built analogue synthesizer, which in turn gives the music a bright-eyed focus. His ambient music is still exactly that, but it has a renewed tonal clarity that shines like an emerald jewel.
‘Greenish In Its Light’ is a spacious canopy of electronic sound, a dense electronic rainforest soaked in vitality. Electronic chirps call out from the treetops, one after another. Their voices sing a unique dialect, broadly smeared across the octaves. ‘A Deplorable Corrupt’ chooses to snake its way around the track, with hissing tones that overlap and then writhe slowly over the music. It is a chant, a half open gateway that leads to an ambient paradise. The transparent tones are left to lovingly linger as they explore the expanse. Listen after listen reveals its precious beauty. Harmonies disappear just as they’re about to develop, replaced by another lucid tone.
The music is experimental, with the focus on chance, risk and error creating a beautifully natural, organic sound. It’s naturally shaped, jetting out a curve of light that came out of Bissonnette’s own reflections. The synths are fresh bursts of mountain air and mirror his own crystal clear approach, but it has to be said that the music is often left to its own devices, allowed to spontaneously shoot up and then develop until it finally diminishes. In this sense, Bissonnette is there to oversee the music like a caring father to his child. Bissonnette taps into a narrow vein; a single, precise theme that gives the music a beautiful clarity. He abstains from the varied use of timbres, averting the modern ambient sound. In doing so, he has flipped the coin and the preconceptions, revealing another side to ambient music’s glimmer of infinite warmth. He has the vision and the execution to produce stunning music, no matter the source. Everything else has vanished. The forests stand quiet, with the sound of the wind the only kind of music. It’s an instrumental loneliness, the new outcast. This is the reason for its expansive sound; the unusual contradiction of expansion via contraction.
The tones warp gently, as if they were twenty year old tape reels, slowly awakening to the sound of another era. Despite the synthesizer’s age, the synth itself never feels dated. Instead, it points to the future, of endless days and nights ahead of them. Intentionally or not, the music is meditative and cool, bordering on icy. The futuristic ‘Another Moving Sight’ oscillates against an ever moving line of synth, and sweeping electronics skate over the smooth surface. At other times, the synths scream out as if vocalizing their current disapproval. ‘Wasting A Little Time’ is thoughtful and playful at the same time, and with the coda Bissonnette has made us all aware of the current climate. He creates moods that are just as peaceful as the aforementioned ambience, and there’s nothing to stop other artists going on a new adventure. It’s a stunning album, its snaking lines of synth radiating with inner warmth, its prism reflecting a thousand sharp colours.
The work of Christopher Bissonnette is, even to those who do not find his particular brand of contemplatively-minded electroacoustic work riveting, a worthy flag to hoist in the argument for the positive aspects of social media, and the internet as a whole creating a global community within which to share art of any sort. Those bemoaning the loss of geographically-based scenes and the flooding of the web with below-par art (music especially) as a consequence of ever-increasing interconnectivity simply aren’t listening to the right stuff – stuff that could only have got the exposure it has due to the internet. Christopher Bissonnette is one such individual – he himself crediting socially-minded internet spaces to the growth of his fanbase in an article for trashaudio.com on his work environment and methods in 2012.
‘Essays in Idleness’, his third and very awaited release, is out on the ever-eclectic Kranky on 7th April. The album sees Bissonnette actively shift his palette away from electroacoustic sound sources and towards “a more tactile approach to sound generation” (according to the label). Acting in accordance with this sonic change, his methods too have changed – instead of drawing and shaping sounds from a variety of sources, all the material present on the record has been garnered from a handmade synthesiser of his own creation, with this allowing him to take a serious step back in the creation of the album to critique and mediate on his methods of sound production, not merely the sounds being produced.
That is not to say that this record is one of pure self-indulgence, or some lifeless exercise within which the methodology and thought behind is the record is more interesting than the raw audio itself – ‘Essays in Idleness’ is synthesiser music shimmering with riveting sounds; despite the general feel of the sound itself is, as with many analogue synthesiser meditations, arguably ‘old’ (bringing to mind as they do the work of Kraut, Eno and memories of everyone’s first ‘synth music’ experience), the sounds themselves are often very ‘new’ in that they are somehow idiosyncratic, and slightly confusing at times. This is not a record that can be simply placed on in the background of some activity, or perhaps even meditated to – this is a record that oddly demands your attention, only to demand that you relax once you have given it.
The attention that has gone into shaping every sound on the record justifies entirely the two-year span of its making, and where Bissonnette goes now is very much an open question. Simply listening to opening-track ‘Greenish in its Light’ is enough to excite one to seek out Bissonnette’s previous releases, both solo (which can be found on Kranky as well) and collaborative (with David Wenngren on the similarly high-flying Home Normal). Any further talk about the actual subjective experience of listening to this release is pointless, since it really just has to be listened to.
Review by Max Hampshire
The continual crossover between the wings of academically trained electronic experimentalism and what can generally still be called “indie music” – at least in the sense of independent labels, if not jangly whatsits troubling the charts – has long been in evidence with Kranky, thanks to performers like Tim Hecker and Gregg Kowalsky among many others. Christopher Bissonnette’s third release for the label, Essays In Idleness, continues the association, with a series of pieces composed on a homemade analog synth. With Bissonnette having over a decade’s worth of formally recorded work in a variety of collaborative and solo contexts, Essays is also a chance to hear a performer not merely comfortable in an idiom but continuing to test it.
It does Bissonnette a disservice to call his work cerebral – here it’s as tactile, as he’s said himself, as one could want, audible in the way ‘A Deplorable Corrupt’ ebbs and flows with layered noise and serene keyboards interacting, a series of what almost sounds like dying amplifiers recording the sound of equally doomed machines. It’s somewhere between a ritual and a gallery showing, if not both. These themes of calmness and chaos as interaction drive much of the album, aiming to move beyond simple descriptions of sounding like a “drone” when there can be drones, of multiple sorts and strange kinds. Compared to where he was with his last, more spacious effort for KrankyIn Between Words – released seven years back – Bissonnette has embraced an angrier, much more unstable aesthetic.
Calling one track ‘Uniformity Os Undesirable’ both works as weirdly threatening command and as motto for the effort; though a mood is established throughout the album nothing quite resembles anything else. If new age is indeed back to some degree as functional description of a sound explored by many, this is a new and potentially dysfunctional machine age at heart, one where the clear feeling of feedback arcs as on ‘Delusions’ suggests the properties of Fennesz in one sense but are played with the kind of looming intensity that underscored original pioneers like Tangerine Dream and Popul Vuh on the other, a slow motion supernova.
‘Wasting A Little Time’ almost comes as a kind of concluding uplift to end the collection, tones bubbling like gongs floating in space, but Essays In Idleness is neither the product of someone resting on their laurels nor simply designed to offer an aural background for contemplation. You can if you want to let it, but it’s not an easy way to drift away.
Essays In Idleness is a translation of Tsurezuregusa, a collection of medieval Japanese essays, penned as streams of consciousness by the monk Yoshida Kenkō. Its casual, thematically miscellaneous nature is a hallmark of zuihitsu literature. In this form, all material is shaped by the author’s environment, be it the immediate, physical atmosphere or the space in which their thoughts are occupied. This is the approach that Christopher Bissonnette adopts for Essays In Idleness, contextually distancing himself from his reputation as a composer that places weight on the interconnectedness of the senses and the relationship between media forms. Bissonnette’s environment is an artificial one, creating with a premise of dissatisfaction towards current trends of gritty, feral and untempered analogue production. Essays In Idleness sees Bissonnette exclusively utilise a self-built analogue synthesiser, critically narrowing his own sound pallette with an all-in attempt to squeeze as much innovation as possible from himself and his tool. Essentially, it’s far from a risky gambit and is more akin to an experiment — or rather the results of Bissonnette’s tests in ambience.
As “Greenish in its Light” patiently opens the album with its slow waking, pensive probing of delicate textures, I’m preoccupied with the alarm bells ringing out in my head. I can’t fathom who the album is for, and why, and my search for existential justification, that our species craves so voraciously, remains unfruitful by the end of the record’s final waltz through harmonics, “Wasting a Little Time”. Bissonnette seems a deft enough manipulator of sound, though as accomplished his sonic craftsmanship appears to be, Essays In Idlenessleaves me none the wiser. The intended audience for experiments is traditionally other scientists or practitioners of the relevant field, and it seems to be a record both by Bissonnette and for Bissonnette — a test of his own ability as well as a gauntlet thrown in spite of producers less gifted in subtlety. The album propagates the esoteric bubble of the science lab, and I’m left peering through the glass at half-formed algebraic equations.
It’s the album’s intention to convey the worth of fully exploring and understanding the tools one possesses to create, as well as the seemingly forgotten art of mastering the instrument of choice. Bissonnette stretches and delves into intricacies organically, shirking the school of thought that keeps things constantly in flux in order to conjure an illusion of evolution. Occasionally, he strikes gold and really impresses, such as on “A Deplorable Corrupt”, an unwinding beacon that picks up a transitory melody as it veers off into the distance. Other times, the tracks can be as perishable as that chord progression, yet absent of its gleaming impressionability. Take “Missing Chapters”, which loses itself in introspection, or “Entanglements”, lingering in stasis — as pretty as they may be, they’re vacuous listens that don’t go anywhere, never mind take the listener along. They’re felt and held onto like a brief moment of gentle breeze amidst a blizzard, acknowledged rather than appreciated. Neither comforting nor healing, they simply exist, unmoving.
Whether Bissonnette’s experimentations are successful in light of his objectives remains unknown to all, save for Bissonnette himself; there’s no way for listeners to discern whether the shortfalls of Essays In Idleness are down to the constraints of the machine, or imperfect vision on the part of the one playing it. It’s a listen that glances more than touches, rarely engaging and largely passive, and as such, the potency of Bissonnette’s findings suffer. Ultimately, he stands apart from contemporaries but fails to stand out. One thing that certainly is clear is Bissonnette’s adeptness with composition and sound generation, discernable from the graceful consistency of the record, most rousing on the riffy soliloquy “Uniformity is Undesirable”. The seamless flow of the release stems from its shyness towards structure, a symptom of Bissonnette’s zuihitsu-like approach, allowing the peaks to occur as genuine surprises to the listener with no build-up of expectations. That said, streams of consciousness aren’t always particularly interesting to follow, with insights and delights few and far between. Essays In Idleness is a shimmering and glistening listen, though its beauty is fleeting and unenlightening. Rarely does the record provoke intuitive emotion or interest, and it’s time pleasantly spent rather than well-spent. Turns out it doesn’t pay all that much to invest so heavily in idleness.
by Tayyab Amin