Alphabet of the Trees (2017) — Robert Scott Thompson — Ambient Music
Alphabet of the Trees is a fine addition to what has grown over the years into a remarkable body of work by Robert Scott Thompson. In a highly personalized manner, the composer has helped advance the form and style of electroacoustic music with recordings where it’s often difficult to determine whether a given sound detail is acoustic or electronic in nature, and whether it’s been generated from a physical instrument or digitally simulated. Enhancing the appeal of Thompson’s productions is that while they’re thoroughly contemporary in conception they’re also thoroughly accessible to any suitably receptive listener. Calling this modern-day musical alchemist a pioneer isn’t unwarranted.
Certainly the opening setting, “Calling Across a Colored Sky,” is one of the album’s most striking. While its softly undulating washes of placid ambient sound and delicate, reverb-tinted tinklings are in many ways quintessential Thompson, the inclusion of male, low-pitched voices lends the material an arresting character, especially when vocal elements don’t regularly surface within his general sound design; ghostly ambiance also permeates the setting when it seems heavily sprinkled in dust and the voices exude a rather Gregorian chant-like quality.
Largely peaceful in tone, Thompson’s productions often meander relaxed-ly and invite the listener to bask within their turbulence-free zones for eight to ten minutes at a time. Darker hues, however, sometimes seep into Alphabet of the Trees, such that subtle hints of electrical disturbances imbue “Days, Strangest of All” with a noticeably ominous character, and Ligeti-esque vocal textures brand the time-stilled title track as a deep space evocation. Dread-inducing too is the concluding “Nights, Darkest to Fall” in the way glassy micro-sounds flutter alongside a creeping undertow of piano figures and dissonant noises.
Yes, some pieces (e.g., “Resonant Clockwork”) reveal similarities between his material and Brian Eno’s (the Eno of Apollo, say, not Here Come the Warm Jets), though Thompson’s hardly the only composer whose work has been influenced by Eno in one way or another. Even so, recordings such as Alphabet of the Trees, which comes to us courtesy of Thompson’s own Aucourant Records imprint, convincingly argue that he’s carved out his own particular place within the electroacoustic firmament.
The output of Mr R. S. Thompson is nothing short of remarkable, and even more remarkable is the consistently high quality of that output, regardless of whether we deal with the most abstract or the more “accessible” material.
Alphabet of the Trees sits firmly, at least in my book, on a very exciting middle ground between those two musical languages. So this work is especially dear to me, as it belongs to a certain type of music that blends “tonal” with “atonal” in a way that creates an irresistible contrast and “tension” in the best sense of the word, and where anything can, and does, happen. Mr Thompson’s obvious skills in using all the technical paraphernalia at his disposal is as awe-inspiring as the musical result itself.
Some people, less accustomed to this kind of music, may only find “noise” here, where those of us open to the uniqueness of different languages of music, find amazing drama, great, sweeping beauty and the sort of aural coolness I sometimes call “sonic sensuality.” This musical landscape, loaded with the most exciting movements and shapes, is like an unexplored, alien jungle, where many mysteries await those daring enough to venture.
I cannot really pick out a favourite track, they all deserve to be given the same amount of close attention, but I will say this: among the many works of Mr Thompson I have come to admire over the years, this one…belongs in the top 5.
— Ulf Claesson
Self-described as a ‘musical alchemist’, Robert Scott Thompson combines electroacoustic, contemporary instrumental and avant-garde music ever since 1976, naming Chopin, Satie, Stockhausen, Varèse, Cage, Bowie and Eno as his greatest inspirations. He runs his own label, Aucourant Records, home to different artists but also for his own (rather high) output .
Robert Scott Thompson is one of those artists that seem to breathe music: his Bandcamp catalogue presents 83 album titles! (Discogs lists only 33 of these, so there’s some work to do there..)
On Alphabet Of The Trees, he presents eight dreamy and mysterious ‘classic ambient’ soundscapes. Voice samples play a particularly important role on the tracks on the first half of this album. Sometimes up-front, sometimes hidden away, but ever-present angelic choirs, or like the spirits of the trees this album is dedicated to. Most of the album is quite comforting (with titles like ‘Travelling In Dreams’ you’ll probably know what to expect), but with the Twin-Peaks-like atmosphere in Nights, Darkest To Fall the album ends in a relatively dark and ominous mood.