Acousma (2001) — Robert Scott Thompson — Electroacoustic Music

Double Compact Disc

Robert Scott Thompson is a rugged individualist when it comes to composition (never taking the easy path in anything he records).

— Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire

...a sense of loveliness amidst the purity of the invention...

(from the album’s liner notes: “acousma [Gr. akonsma, from akonein, to hear]: Ger. Akusma; Fr. illusion ou hallucination auditive; Itl. acusma. – a form of auditory hallucination.

acousma – Sensation of hearing imaginary sounds. Also called acouasm

Reviewing a CD like Robert Scott Thompson’s brilliant Acousma is a maddeningly ridiculous venture. It’s difficult enough to review straightforward ambient music, with it’s subtle twists and turns as it morphs endlessly in tiny steps or wild deviations. But this recording — yikes! First of all, it’s a two-disc set; second of all, each disc holds over 75 minutes of music; third, the music contained therein is some of the most adventurous I’ve heard since Ken Moore’s Conviction from my Extraction. Acousma is extremely heavy-duty and is only ambient in the most broad sense of the word. To my mind, playing this in the background is pointless. You will never appreciate it to any degree whatsoever, simply because it is too dense and complex to absorb indirectly.

Which is not to say that direct listening will appeal to many people either. Abstract and experimental, sometimes in the extreme, the music on Acousma is comprised of acoustic sound sources, both musical (e.g. violin, guitar, voice, flute, piano, et al.) and non-musical (field recordings, spoken word, other acoustic sources), that are literally transformed through computer devices and techniques that, while well-explained in the liner notes, are so far beyond my level to understand that I won’t even try to do so. And, I’ll admit, the first several times I attempted to listen to Acousma, I was completely lost somewhere between bewilderment and extreme dislike. In the beginning, it just all seemed so confusing — a jangle of noise, musical snippets, and distorted sounds.

However, out of this chaos, beauty did emerge for me. Not traditional beauty, but a sense of loveliness amidst the purity of the invention which is part and parcel of what Acousma is all about. As Robert Scott Thompson himself states in the liner notes, “Sounds become enchanted, imbued with enriched nuance, essentially changed and transformed through the agency of computer synthesis and processing.” “Enchantment” is a good choice of words.

There is a special breed of magic at work in the selections on these two discs. It’s almost hypnotic. If one was to craft a perfect listening environment (no outside noise or disruption, comfortable position, headphones, low light or no light), I would imagine that this recording would provide quite the fuel for an active imagination. On the other hand, something about the music is also amazingly non-visual and incredibly aesthetic from a purely intellectual standpoint. This is not to say that an emotional response won’t be evoked by various sections of either disc. However, the overall feeling of the record is more exploratory and less celebratory, frightening or somber. I also would caution you that on first listen, (as was my case), you might hear this as a soulless exercise in “gee whiz” studio chicanery. I’d only urge you to stick with this CD and do your best to get past that stage of comprehension.

While I have painted a picture of Acousma that may make it sound harsh or completely non-melodic, it’s not all like that (if even like at all). Since the sound sources are, mostly, musical instruments, an astute listener will catch moments of melody and phrasing, as one catches a firefly as it flits about in the dark night air. Some stretches of the CD are cacophonous, bringing to mind conflict and the clashing of powerful forces, while at other times the music is diaphanous, floating and wafting as delicate as a wisp of smoke. Crescendos that erupt from seemingly out of nowhere are melded into eerily beautiful stretches and then reverse themselves back into an explosion of discordant sound. Processed vocals can sound ghostly one minute and celestial the next. Violins, flute, and koto flirt with normalcy and are swallowed up in a miasma of soundscapes that would be grating if they weren’t so intricately crafted and meticulously engineered to take the listener just to the brink of some sonic cliff, gazing over the edge and yet never losing balance as one teeters at the abyss.

I won’t even attempt to single out a track on either disc as a favorite, since that is missing the point of “the whole” of this album. I suppose that, over time and repeated listening, I may come to like one track more than another (the songs are markedly different from each other). I strongly recommend Acousma, even though I imagine my review has left many of you scratching your heads and wondering “Yeah, but what does it sound like?” Well, there is no easy answer to that question. Acousma sounds like music that has been changed and transformed (as Thompson states in the notes above) into something new, exciting, and courageous, and also something dangerous, scary, and unstable. It’s a statement of how unique and startling this CD is that if I was pressed to compare it to anyone else that I know, I’d say this: If L. Gaab and Daniel Byerly (recording under his pseudonym Bertrom Cabot Jr.) mind-melded and recorded an album, you might get something that sounds like this. But, on the other hand, Robert Scott Thompson is such a rugged individualist when it comes to composition (never taking the easy path in anything he records), even that comparison is hopelessly flawed.

In the end, Acousma will delight and thrill you if you are searching for music that strays far afield of traditional ambient or even twentieth century classical or avant-garde recordings. While not as unfriendly as some of what I have received from the Staalplaat label (which, in my opinion, frequently is just bizarre noise), Acousma is seldom, if ever, accessible or “normal” in any true sense of the word. But somehow, through all the altered sounds and brief strains of familiarity, something amazingly artistic and innately human emerges. I don’t know how or why, but Acousma speaks to the open-minded listener in tones that are both alien and native. It’s an amazing album!

— Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire

This is an absolutely essential CD!

If this is not the best CD of Robert’s career, it is certainly one of the most important CD’s. This is an absolutely essential CD!”

— Jim Brenholts .

...a veritable kaleidoscope of emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual responses...

Dr. Robert Scott Thompson created the elements of Acousma: Electroacoustic Music during the period from 1996 through 2001. Some of the elements (pieces) have appeared on previous releases. Acousma, as an entity in and of itself, was created in 2001.

An acousma is “a form of auditory hallucination, a sensation of hearing imaginary sounds (also acouasm) or a nonverbal auditory hallucination, such as a ringing, buzzing or hissing.”

This double CD set comes with a booklet of detailed comprehensive liner notes in which Robert describes his styles, techniques and/or intents for each piece. There is also a very informative and enlightening essay by Ronald Squibbs, Ph. D.,  one of Robert’s colleagues. The project was commissioned by The Electronic Music Foundation.

If this is not the best CD of Robert’s career, it is certainly one of the most important CD’s. This composition can be appreciated as a long-form continuous-play symphony or as a collection of related pieces. It also works very well on random play with other ambient, minimalist, classical and/or avant-garde discs.

So, where does the focused listener go with this set? The set represents a veritable kaleidoscope of emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual responses. There are Celtic references, accolades to Robert Moog, references to T. S. Eliot and mathematical progressions and algorithms. So, deep listeners will go in many different directions, some of them simultaneously.

The career of this genius is, essentially, the history of modern computer music. That Robert is able to translate that to the ambient and minimalist genres is a tribute to his genius and to his creativity.

— James Brenholts, All Music Guide enjoyable sampling of this fairly prolific composer’s electroacoustic oeuvre...

Robert Scott Thompson writes a lot of ambient music. He also writes a lot of electroacoustic music, like you would have heard in Bourges back in the day, and indeed some of it was done in the studios in Bourges. Acousma is a blend of both, not as in alternating from piece to piece but as within several of the pieces, which is as much to say as that the dozen pieces on this two CD set draw on all of Thompson’s experience and expertise. It makes for a pretty satisfying listening experience, for sure.

Each CD has six pieces, ranging from the brief 6:15 of Tagmene to the majestic 20:30 of Fog Index. And while there are many of the same sounds from piece to piece–the inside of a piano or a hard-edged harpsichord sound (both of which I associate, for better or worse, with Buchla) as well as variously altered voices and other acoustic instruments–Thompson has no trouble building a distinct personality for each of the dozen pieces here.

And speaking of familiar sounds, The Widening Gyre is an example of a piece that uses old school electronic noises–a tricky thing to pull off, but quite refreshing when done well, as it is here. Old sounds, new contexts. A very resonant and front-stage kind of work, The Widening Gyre is over way too soon.

I thought that about The Gramophone, too, that it was over long before I was ready for it to be. This piece uses voice sounds a lot, and I was intrigued by the difference in quality between the voices at the end from those at the beginning, as if the original, acoustic voices used were from two very different groups of people. (I’m just trying to give an impression here, not a description. There was apparently only one person’s voice used for all the various vocal sounds, whether individual or choral.) Also intriguing was how at one point a gesture is repeated, then grows into a phrase, and eventually simply becomes the next section, as it were, of the piece.

Fog Index has an even more intriguing structural logic. The first half of the piece is all piano sounds–plucks, strums, chords–and very resonant voices until one very large piano chord that fades very slowly. After an insect chorus of voices grows out of that, and fades, there is no obvious voice or piano sound for the rest of the piece until the very end, when the voices and the jangly piano harp sounds briefly return. I had the impression, however, that the materials for the second half were all the same as for the first half, just less recognizable.

Piano is not the only acoustic instrument to figure in Thompson’s pieces. There are also violin, cello, flutes, clarinet, and guitar, all duly acknowledged in the booklet. My favorite of these (of the instrument sounds not the acknowledgements) is The Ninth Wave, which is full of all sorts of rich and various sounds, from the hum of a distant prop plane to some giant thuds from equally gigantic drums. And string sounds: a violin gesture, some lovely slapping and scraping of a cello, and a section that sounds like a string quartet has been invited to an electroacoustic party (and electrified so that they’ll fit right in, of course). The electrocello flurries around eight minutes in are almost worth the price of admission all on their own.

And I almost want to say the same for the opening of Elemental Folklore, too. It opens with a brief crescendo, then the merest hint of a decrescendo–enough to seduce you into thinking everything is calming down generally, and then there’s a sudden loud clang. Very cool bit of aural misdirection, there.

All in all, quite an enjoyable sampling of this fairly prolific composer’s electroacoustic oeuvre.

[One of the pieces on this album, Acouasm, may be heard in its entirety on the Art of the States site.]

— Asymmetry Music Magazine

...the blending of the familiar with the unfamiliar that draws us in...

What does ‘acousma’ mean? It refers to a form of auditory hallucination, the sensation of hearing imaginary sounds. Robert Scott Thompson writes, “Sounds may become enchanted, imbued with enriched nuance, essentially changed and transformed … A common thread which connects these works is the notion of illusion; whether borne of dreams, hallucinations, memories or the creative imagination. My goal in creating music of this type is to open a view into sound-worlds which are compelling, unique and perhaps even alien. Audition becomes a journey of discovery and adventure …”

Robert Scott Thompson fashions soundscapes that are so imaginative, it seems that we’re in another distant world listening to the sounds of that far away place. And then we hear a hint of something familiar, something like a flute, or a koto, or a chorus of voices, and we’re reminded of the sounds we know. It’s the blending of the familiar with the unfamiliar that draws us in and becomes fascinating. Thompson’s music is almost narrative as different things happen and different stories seem to unfold and time moves in a very special way. amazing album!

Acousma sounds like music that has been changed and transformed into something new, exciting and courageous, and also something dangerous, scary and unstable. I strongly recommend Acousma. It’s an amazing album!

— Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire

Program Note

Sounds become enchanted, imbued with enriched nuance, essentially changed, and transformed through the agency of computer synthesis and processing.  I am profoundly interested in the alchemical processes of sound creation; however, each of the works in this collection also reflects my desire to transform the listening process and extend the lexicon of musical discourse using contemporary synthesis and processing techniques. The invention of new kinds of virtual instruments and using the sounds they are capable of intoning, is of greater interest than, for example, the juxtaposition of everyday sounds in the musique concrete style.

Listening to sounds as music has been a crucial evolutionary step in the art of contemporary composition and yet, sound, as it exists in our environment, is constrained by its own limitations and physical character. Transformational techniques, enabled by computer music processes, turn elemental sounds into malleable materials; the composer becomes a sculptor, shaping sonic detail and morticing simultaneities and interactions on every level of detail.

A common thread that connects these works is the notion of illusion, whether borne of dreams, hallucinations, memories or the creative imagination. My goal in creating music of this type is to open a view into sound worlds which are unique and compelling, perhaps even alien, for the listener. Wherein audition becomes a journey of discovery and potentially rewarding for the adventurous spirit.

— rst

On Acousma — By Ron Squibbs, PhD

Robert Scott Thompson is a fashioner of surreal dreamscapes. Acoustic and electroacoustic sound sources interpenetrate and fuse, leaving one to question whether the timbres one hears are remembered and recognized accurately, or if they mimic sounds one thinks one may have heard in the past. The blending of familiar and unfamiliar elements is particularly rich in the opening track, Oneiromancy. This work, whose title – as the composer informs us – means divination by dreams, presents a bleak inner landscape reminiscent of the fascinating and yet unsettling fusion of organic and geometric forms in the paintings of Yves Tanguy. Clusters of discontinuous sounds give the impression of a flickering disembodied presence circling around more stable, continuous sounds. Many of the characteristic sounds found throughout the album are introduced here: string instruments (articulated in various ways), flute, a koto-like instrument, chorused voices, and granular synthesis (giving the effect of a wind tunnel). A palette of metallic timbres is introduced in Elemental Folklore, which opens with gamelan-like sounds, temple-bell-like sounds and a timbre resembling wind chimes. A ritual atmosphere is evoked here through the combination of these timbres with flute, chorused voices and chanting. Bell-like timbres are also featured prominently in The Widening Gyre, which is a more intimate work than its predecessors on the album. Appropriate to its “chamber music” dimensions, a solo voice appears here instead of the chorused voices used in the previous two works.

In contrast to the varied timbral palettes of the opening pieces, the remaining tracks on disc one focus on more specific groups of timbres. Light Is a Liquid gives a prominent role to clusters of rapidly discontinuous sounds, calling to mind the quick and persistent actions of a large group of insects. The swarms of string sounds, together with granular-synthesis “wind” and a few hints of bells, cymbal tremolo and the koto-like instrument, lend a sense of continuous transformation to the shimmering surface created by sound quanta in motion. The Gramophone is an intimate portrait of Eliot’s “lovely woman” whose story gradually emerges from the layered sounds of her solitary listening session. Aetherial calls to mind the image of an Aeolian harp. It sustains a beautifully serene mood, subtly embellished by sounds like wind chimes gently brushed by a steady wind.

Fog Index, the first track on disc two, is a beautiful exploration of the sounds of piano, voice, wind, and the koto-like instrument, the distinctions between them blurred and obscured. Although Thompson chose the title with reference to the readability of text, the work also conjures up the experience of moving through physical fog, in which the identities and locations of sounds as well as visual phenomena become difficult to distinguish. The Ninth Wave signals a return to the orchestral sensibility of Oneiromancy. A new element here is a sense of harmonic warmth complemented by the impression of a resonant space that seems to surround the listener. In this work and in Acouasm, the last track on the disc, an infusion of Thompson’s ambient style may be felt. The warmth of the washes of diatonic choral sounds in both of these works nicely complements the more fragmented and mysterious sounds found in all of the works on this album. On this disc, it is the middle tracks that feature specific timbres. Cathedral Sky features the prolonged decay of isolated sounds together with glistening metallic timbres. It thus forms a subdued counterpart to Light Is a Liquid. Tagmeme features a slow exploration of the overtones of cello sounds along with solo voice, “wind,” and fragments of ambient choral sounds. Contrasting with the unpredictable shifts of texture and timbre in Tagmeme is the steady drone underlying Rebar, which is both derived from and punctuated by the sounds of actual pieces of rebar falling through the air.

This 2001 album is a summation of Thompson’s acousmatic explorations of the previous five years. It represents a culminating point of a resonant inner soundscape whose territories he has been charting with determination and elegance for years. The works presented here clearly proceed from the foundation established in his earlier electroacoustic releases The Strong Eye (1992) and Shadow Gazing (1994), while at the same time pointing toward a deepening synthesis between his avant-garde and ambient personae, the latter richly represented by The Silent Shore (1996), Frontier (1998) and Blue Day (2000).

— Ron Squibbs, Ph.D.


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