The One Where Hank and Zach Finally Talk About New Tunes
The best album of 2021 (so far), Discovering Small Albums, Dinah Washington, and the surest way to beat the heat
It begins with a cluster of notes. Each one struck from a different source. The textures: wood, string. The raise in pitch and small flourish evince a dreamlike quality. The cluster repeats and again. At the start, the clusters are tight. Each instrument striking the same, but with the successive repetitions, instruments seem to take on a mind of their own. A synth line dawdles before returning. The cluster isn’t just musical. It’s spatial. There’s time, a breath, between the return. And again. Again.
Then a line between the clusters: the thin smoke of a saxophone. If you know the record already, you may already have had your breath catch in anticipation of the wail. A breath. Something human against the fabric of the composition. The sax snakes around and through the clusters, like walking between the raindrops which slowly drop down.
The album is Promises, a collaboration between three seemingly unlikely entities -- Floating Points (Sam Shepard), a UK-based electronic musician; Pharoah Sanders, the saxophone and spiritual heir of Sun Ra and John Coltrane; and the London Symphony Orchestra. The two artists at the heart of it are Shepard and Sanders, who decided to collaborate after Sanders heard Floating Points’ Elaenia. It’s Sanders’ first release since 2003.
Promises clocks in at a bit over 45 minutes and is really one composition with nine different movements. In truth, the composition is really this cluster of notes that you hear at the top. The way that they cycle and split reminds of Brian Eno’s early ambient compositions, particularly the deliberate piano at the start of Ambient 1. In the liner notes for Ambient 1, Eno says of ambient music: “An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.” And listening to the dreamlike quality, of Promises seems to place this record into the ambient genre, especially as the orchestra lays down textures of strings in “Movement 3.” It introduces, as Eno says, a tint into the world slightly altering your experience and perception.
The orchestral sections, too, seem intent on creating mood, as you hear in the great swells of strings through “Movement 6,” as of this writing the most popular track on the album. Here, the record takes on additional dimensionality. The cluster of notes, like a miniature Big Bang, have swirled out this expanse of a universe. There’s something of John Luther Adams in this, using an orchestra to take on sounds that are akin to whole landmasses or parts of the ocean.
After several listens through different means — put it in your headphones, your biggest speakers, alternate — one begins to get the feeling that this album is temporal and spatial. That this cluster of notes that seems to repeat ad infinitum is actually not the same notes that came before. that something has changed in between the movements, imperceptibly. Is it the tilt of the planet? Is it the passage of time? Where are we hovering in this world of sound? How long can we stay here?
Ambient music is often paradoxical. While on the one hand it’s there to merge seamlessly into the background in such a way to tilt your experience, ambient music also obsessed over and intricately orchestrated. It’s something that requires deep listening -- a honing of attention beyond what we might regularly put into listening. Deep listening requires a kind of excavation, a willingness to be open to sounds. A human voice seems to rise out of the mist at the beginning of “Movement 4.” If there are words, they seem to be unintelligible. This is the voice as sound. A baritone that sounds just beyond some of Sanders’ impressive range. The effect of this bit is disjointing. We’re no longer behind instrumentation, but now coming directly into contact with the musicians.
The biggest rebuke to putting this album squarely into the ambient camp is Sanders. His horn lines have rarely been clearer owing, perhaps, just to the production of this album. Without brass and percussion to contend with, his sax phrases ring out clearly throughout the album. Sometimes, the tune will falter with Sanders breathy cadences adding a profoundly human dimension to the orchestration.
There’s an old story about when the Spanish were colonizing the Americas, they forbade the playing of wind instruments, seeing them as diabolical enterprises. Strings on the other hand, those were the instruments of heaven. Now clearly this is just some superstitious colonial hokum. However, listening to Sanders’s playing in this record did bring it to mind. In particular how the human instrument can divide itself from the atmospheric textures that Promises conjures up. It’s somewhere between the power of the breath to blow and the sound of it twisting and turning that you see the human dimension and human origin of music. And, ultimately, that’s what makes this record not just one thing — ambience or jazz — but something stunning and new.
THE HUNT FOR NEW MUSIC
We’re only on newsletter number seven since bringing WLFY back and while I can’t speak for Hank… it’s going to take me some time to regain my old music/media writing routine and more importantly return to searching high and low for great new music to promote (we have a submission e-mail coming soon for any artists wanting to pitch their work to WLFY). The rusted wheels of music discovery are slowly starting to turn and I’ve already stumbled upon some great new finds.
It started up again with an introduction to a wonderful music recommendation Twitter account: SMALL ALBUMS (now a daily read/listen/must follow for me).
Just last week, Small Albums posted their “Favorite 50 Tracks Of 2021 (so far)” and I had heard a grand total of ZERO of their selections. They originally posted the list as a thread on TWITTER… but also provided BANDCAMPER and SPOTIFY playlists for ease of discovery/listening.
If you’re on the hunt for new music… here is a handy list of websites/twitter accounts/labels/etc that I’ve found to be consistent destinations for finding hidden gems:
and hopefully many more new websites/people to highlight in the future...
HANK’S ONE THING: Ceiling Fans
It’s been hotter than two rats fucking up here in Pennsylvania. Now, usually, it’s colder than a witches tit (or some other horrible comparison), so at our house we don’t have an air conditioner. Thankfully, I was able to muster the small amount of Mr. Fix-It that I could to install a couple ceiling fans. Thank god I did. Because there really is nothing better than sleeping with the windows open and the gentle creak of a mediocrely installed ceiling fan above you. Oh and it’s a part of the lyrics to one of my favorite Tim Easton songs, too: “…I want to be next to you so you can understand / I want to be next to you under your ceiling fan.”
ZACH’S ONE THING: The Complete Dinah Washington On Mercury Vol.6 1958-1960
(Over Three Hours Of Perfect Music)