Other spaces: Postnebulism / Uncertainty Box (2021)

While these two albums certainly both share qualities of atmospherics, spacious soundscaping and ambient textures, they are both stylistically distinct from each other.  Part of why I’ve included them together in this post is that they also share the somewhat dubious quality of being ‘rehashed’, even if in different senses. 

I’ve written elsewhere about cannibalising past work as a fresh creative process, but sometimes I have an attack of conscience or doubt, and this presents me with a range of questions and perspectives. 

The ‘perspectives’ might pertain more to motives, eg:

  • As an ‘artist’, my attention, interest and persistent pleasure is always in the doing of it – the kinesthetic experience of ‘creative’ happening in my nervous system.  In other words, I ‘create’ for the neural excitement of ‘process’. I work out what to do with the ‘outcome’ later, as a different process.
  • As a matter of ‘integrity’, I aim for an honest document of the process, including organic erraticasies.  I know that in many ways I take enormous care, and apply a great depth of technique, but I also welcome and work with the inevitable ‘flaws’ and ‘accidents’ of the process.
  • Think sketchbooks, journals, or even photo albums: I really enjoy documenting, through various artforms,  the much vaster process of my life – as a source of reflection.  Also, being of existentially insignificant proportion, I tend to forget what I accomplish in life; having an archive of my ongoing process (eg Bandcamp, or this website) that I can see as a collective whole, reminds me that I do actually accomplish ‘things’ in my life after all.

The ‘questions’, on the other hand, seem to imply ethics:

  • Do I, as the ‘artist’, have some kind of ‘responsibility’ to my ‘art’? 
  • Do I, as the ‘artist’, have some kind of ‘responsibility’ to any ‘audience’ that might experience my ‘art’? 
  • Should I, as an ‘artist’, always have a standard of ‘best’ by which to measure my process? Surely this can only be subjective, and essentially a matter of personal satisfaction?

These questions are probably nullified by the fact that, at least in music, I have no ‘audience’ and create music entirely for my own benefit – whether for pleasure, amusement, psychological health, curiosity etc – there is no ‘measure’ unless I impose it, and no obligation.

Anyway, to the albums….

Postnebulism (2021)

Of these two albums, Postnebulism is decidedly the more ambient, and consists of two tracks: the first, Neverness, drifts and writhes in & out of shape for about 29 minutes.  The second, Foreverlessness, behaves in essentially the same manner for about 10 minutes.  I was tempted to extend the latter, but in the end the implied irony of the title amused me somehow.

As an audio experience, I think of them both as two music-like portals of evershifting fluid sonic texture, designed to move through empty space and give it undulating shape…muted, submerged, weightless, distant yet intimate, sighs and murmurs for the background mind. These pieces (moments) have no internal logic, no direction or intent, no arc; they leave nothing to grasp, just resonance in motion, shaped air.

All the sounds on this album are in fact me fingerplunking an electric guitar, played through an Electro-Harmonix Key9 pedal, and genetically reorganised into (to my ears) strange new tones, vibrations, pulses and swellings that (to my mind) move in the air like paint flowing from a brush.

The ‘rehash’ in this case is that both pieces have been modified from tracks originally recorded in 2018, among the improvisations that became the album Loveletters From Beneath The Waves.  For Postnebulism, out of boredom as much as anything, I took some original elements, reversed them, slowed them down, tweaked them here and there, and arrived at these resulting tracks.  Which seems a bit lazy to me, but I do like the effect – especially played into a space (room) as ambience…that ‘shaped air’ thing again.

Postnebulism could probably be thought of as an outer ripple or echo of the earlier (and certainly more interesting to listen to) Loveletters album.  It makes no effort to diverge from, or distinguish itself from, its predecessor. Nothing new is stated – it is simply itself.

I should note here that, as with Uncertainty Box, both albums were inspired by the photos that I’ve used on their covers – both taken by my partner Heidi, who I think has a particular eye for sensual abstraction.

Uncertainty Box (2021)

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, from time to time I like to select and reorganise certain recordings from previous albums into collections that illuminate the tracks in a different way, perhaps draw out the character of each track more sympathetically.  For me, this reassemblage is still a creative process, with its own aesthetic and contextual considerations.  Looked at from another angle, it also satisfies some of my autistic enjoyments – compiling ‘lists’, ordering and categorising, pleasure in ‘sets’ of ‘things’ for their collective ‘groupness’. Previous ‘samplers’ in this vein have been Rock Samples (Vol I & II), Introversations (I & II) and The Mood.

Uncertainty Box is one such curation (hence the ‘rehash’), a free sampler of some of my favourite atmospheric sound experiments – the shorter ones at least – and a suggestion of similar spaces I go to in my longer experiments, on albums like the Walkabout series (I – VII), the Red Tape Bardo series (I – IV), the Music For… trollogy and others.

Earwise, this album is far more diverse and textured than Postnebulism.  It is a gathering of atmospheres, otherworlds, sonic abrasions, dreamscapes and spatial experimentia; sounds range from submerged piano minimalism to controlled electric guitar sonics to glitchy loopdrones. I have tried to select pieces that can offer both interesting subtlety for a deep listener and textured ambience in a background setting.

While I’ve been gestating the idea of an ‘atmospheres’ compilation for some time, the catalyst for this release was the cover photo.  Often I will compose an entire album based around a particular cover image, that is, the visual directly determines the direction the music takes.  This has happened several times now with photos my partner Heidi has taken – I’ll see one of her images and think ‘I have to make an album for that!’  Obviously this time the music already existed, it just needed the right visual to assemble itself around.

Heidi’s photo of the darkened doorways was so evocative that I immediately thought of ‘atmospheres’, and in particular, the opening track, Uncertainty Box. The title also seemed evocative of the overall mood of many of these soundscapes, in that often their implied ambience has an element of agitation or dissonance (uncertainty) to some degree or other.

The title track features a recording of Heidi and her dad Lucas, singing inside an empty silo on Maria Island, Tasmania.  I slowed the recording down significantly and the result is a kind of ghostly Gregorian choir, swelling over a muffled pulse and explorative ‘underwater’ piano abstractions.  This piece was a technical breakthrough for me when I first included it on the Melancholia album, and opened the door to certain textural forms I still enjoy creating.  Also from that album, and also featuring the same 100-yr old ‘underwater’ piano, is Sinking In, which slowly builds a spacious, asymmetric piano melody as a bed of cello gradually surfaces.  Solar Sonar I also selected from the Melancholia album, for its blanket of beebuzz and birdsong, pierced by the plaintively plucked melody of a solitary ukulele, smoothed over by undulations of cello toward the end.  These three tracks are easily the most ‘musical’ pieces on this compilation, leaning gently in a ‘neo-classical’ direction.

I added the less soothing sonic soundscapes Being Held Underwater and Exulansis to provide contrast. Both are from the album Crux, and utilise layers of controlled distortion & metallic guitar noises, reversed and manipulated into wraithlike moans akin to a Roland S Howard singalong. Perhaps this is ambient music for goblins, but I think sculpturally the pieces still work in this setting.

Four other tracks add contrast in quite different ways.  Hymn To Her (from Blues For A Mapless God) is a heavenly wash composed entirely of Heidi’s voice, multiple samples that I carefully layered into fluid choral harmonies.  What The Fox Dreamt (from The Ears Have Walls) features glimpses of percussion and intermittent voice samples of my two youngest children, recorded when they were toddlers, floating in and out of the dreamlike fog like willowisps.

Ghost Piano (Spectral Syntax Mix) is ambient but quite atonal, an otherworldly sonic wash constructed from the resonances of piano strings inside the piano body.  It first appeared on And Then I Wasn’t…, and belongs with a bunch of similar piano experiments as yet unreleased. Murmurations (from Down On The Farm) was an experiment using a pedal steel simulator app – with limited success, but the swooping and dissolving motion of the sounds reminded me of those astounding synergetic movements, known as ‘murmurations’, that flocks of birds create – group mind (or mindlessness?) in flow.

Amongst this mesmerising melange, and occupying their own kind of atmospheric zone, are the remaining tracks Oort, Peacecore, and Last Night I Dreamt Of Birds, Singing, from recent albums Oort and Occupy Your Mind. All make use of drone-ish loop textures to induce a kind of liminal space, where not much occurs unless one listens for it. Little bumps, granulations, wobbles and scratchy bits swim in and out of the dominant hum, fish flickering out of the gloom. Sometimes I think the repetitive underlay of these pieces offers a meditative aperture, along the lines of a monastic chant, or the counting of the beads…