Hannis Brown, Q2 Music
Hannis Brown is the associate producer for Q2 Music, WQXR’s online web stream for contemporary classical (or “new”) music.
If the ground is covered, are we still outside? – the opening cut from ambient chamber duo itsnotyouitsme's new album – immediately conjures images of atmospheric loneliness. Reverb-heavy bass bends sound miles away, icy breezes winding through leafless trees. Disembodied, wordless vocals drift weightlessly around seesawing violin riffs that bounce like sonar off unseen obstacles in the distant sonic periphery.
The track's reference to the outside world contradicts the self-reference of the album’s title – “This I,” but itsnotyouitsme has always been about blurring boundaries: the endless soundscapes of Brian Eno’s music-as-utility; the quiet finger-picking of solitary folk music; Morton Feldman’s assertion that music can be treated more like visual art, continuing to exist even after one’s looked away.
When you do look, in the case of “This I,” you find a thousand fragmented, closed-eye nuances, a compelling duality equal parts harmonic simplicity and textural density. I recently saw the duo (violinist and vocalist Caleb Burhans and guitarist Grey McMurray) perform at Le Poisson Rouge. It was improvisation as composition: a real-time fascination with letting a looped figure slip slightly out of control and spin endlessly into space. The musicians rarely made eye contact, each focusing on his respective universe of loops and reverb, as if to allow their musical interaction happen separately and incidentally. Even the band’s name seemingly rejects the outside world in favor of the self.
For “This I,” the duo is augmented by vocalist Theo Bleckman and bassist Skúli Sverrisson, though the sound reflects the echo-chamber of a single head. Bleckman throws his voice like a ventriloquist, marrying breathing sounds with long-tones and listless dips and dives – doubling the high delay-pedaled notes of the guitar, layered into the sounds of an underwater boys choir; chopped and processed, warbled beyond recognition. Sverrisson’s notes are less “articulated” than bled uneasily into the music's low-end – the sound of an unstable pulse, a distant thunderstorm.
There is no "forefront" to this music. Instrumental vocal timbres bend and blur. Minimalist string figures emerge from an ever-shifting fog of drones and delay pedals. Tremolo figures gather momentum and build tension before dissipating back into the void. Sometimes, as with the skiddish art-rock guitar that opens "Things Past Are Pretty Now," or the angelic clarity of Bleckman's voice that cuts through the machine sounds of The You Since Me, a specific sound bubbles to the surface. But for the most part, "This I" hangs as an enveloping cloud both profoundly intimate and chillingly distant – one that tick-tocks between bouts of active and passive listening, leaving the listener to wonder how much has been actually heard versus imagined.
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