Robert Scott Thompson
My first major work of electronic music was from 1976. This was composed using a large Moog Series III synthesizer and two 4-channel tape recorders. For several years, up to 1981, my work in electronic music used this setup or a similar system often augmented by the ARP 2600 and other tools found at the various studios in which I was working. This particular early composition objet d’art is a long-form work, more than an hour in duration and in five large sections or movements. The original recording still exists, but it has not yet been restored and is not commercially available.
Since that time, I have often returned to the long-form conception for music of this type – modernist, experimental electronic music. The obvious parallel is instrumental symphonic music – music of large-scale extension, depth and development. Originally, my inspirations were drawn from progressive rock – Thick as Brick, Close to the Edge, Supper’s Ready – and distinctly the work of numerous modern electronic groups and composers (such as Tangerine Dream and Morton Subotnick) who have often worked with forms of symphonic proportions.
An earlier work of this type is The Strong Eye, composed and recorded in 1991 at the studios of the Danish Institute of Electroacoustic Music. This earlier recording, a suite of nine movements, combines the transformation of acoustic sounds (instrumental performances of flute, piano, ‘cello, percussion, and vocal sounds) with environmental sounds and purely synthetic sounds created in various ways including frequency modulation, and analysis-based additive synthesis and physical modeling. The blending of the acoustic and the synthetic – the real and the imaginary – has been a guiding idea of a number of my works of this type.
Numerous other long-form works are available on recordings including Solace (2012), De-Re-Construction (2015), Paradise Garden of Shiramizu Amidado (2015), Grey Blanket Drops and the World Reduced to Arm’s Length (2014), Precession (2014) and Parasympathetic Music (2013) among others.
Phonotopological is comprised of 13 large sections created from 125 complex sub-elements. Each one of these sub-elements, themselves created from a number of individual sound sources, is used only once in the work. Relatively continuous in sound, the composition has a clear formal design of contrast and internal development.
From a technical point of view, the work could best be described as acousmatic. Sound elements are often obscured from their acoustic origins due to significant transformational processing and re-contextualization. All of the sound sources are originally acoustic, and some of these sources are elaborated with resonance filtering techniques that imbue them with an electronic sonic tinting. While the work is created in stereo, many of the elements are spatialized on both moving sound paths and in static positions using ambisonic techniques. Tools used include Metasynth, Csound, Trajectory, Sound Particles, and Spat Revolution, among others.
According to electronic sound alchemist Thompson, Phonotopological technically qualifies as an acousmatic work because the acoustic elements used as a starting point are often obscured by extensive transformational treatments; in addition to the application of resonance filtering techniques, Metasynth, Csound, Trajectory, Sound Particles, and Spat Revolution are cited as tools used to produce the album’s thirteen parts.
The Strong Eye, composed and recorded in 1991 at the studios of the Danish Institute of Electroacoustic Music, might be seen as a progenitor of sorts for Phonotopological. On that earlier outing, Thompson merged transformed flute, piano, cello, percussion, and vocal elements with environmental and synthetic sounds. As longtime Thompson listeners already know, this marriage of the acoustic and the synthetic has been a running theme throughout his creative life (he dates 1976 as the year of his first major electronic work, which he created using a large Moog Series III synthesizer and two four-channel tape recorders).
“Proximity” quickly establishes the new recording’s utra-dense, microsound universe. In this album tone-setter, glassy sonorities and electronic creature noises intermingle alongside tendrils of sitar-like shimmer. Shifts in sound design and dynamics announce the change from one part to the next, with Thompson accentuating a different acoustic sound source in each track, even if it’s next to impossible to identify it after its originating character has been altered by processing treatments. That said, certain instrument sounds do appear to assert themselves, whether it be the gleam of an organ during “Accumulation,” the percussive tinklings of chimes in “Clopen,” or the glisten of harpischord-like sounds during “Local Flatness.”
While the activity level in any given track is plentiful, Thompson generally opts to relax the listener with placidity (“Phase Space” a representative example) rather than fray the nerves with turbulence, even if the ascending pitch-shifting that occurs in “Connectedness” induces a strong sense of vertigo. It’s also not uncommon for traces of a gamelan influence to emerge, and while the shift from one part to the next is discernible, he smoothens the transitions by having the work advance without pauses between the tracks and by sequencing them to promote a natural and logical progression (accompanying the digital version of the release is an unindexed, seventy-nine-minute mix that obviously bolsters Phonotopological‘s identity as a large-scale single work as opposed to one made up of individual pieces).
Issued on the San Francisco, California-based Acousmatique label, Phonotopological is no minimal exercise. Rather than reduce each part to a single instrument sound or two, Thompson opts for a multilayered approach that turns each track into a rich, ever-evolving panorama of aural stimulation, the experience of listening to the material analogous to the visual overload of a Hall of Mirrors visit. Phonotopological makes for a fine addition to what’s grown into a remarkable, decades-spanning discography by a creative force resolutely committed to moving forward.
Electroacoustic composer and synthesist Robert Scott Thompson is back with an acousmatic recording. Phonotopological consists of 125 musical “elements” distributed across the album’s 13 tracks, without repetition. The elements are sound recordings, each processed to the point of rendering their respective sources indecipherable.
Despite this rather detailed compositional technique, the resulting soundscapes, while alien, would not be out of place amongst electronic / ambient music or musique concrète. Thompson layers several of these patterns together at any time. They vary from sounding vaguely synth-like to discretized, sequenced samples. Some resemble water or waves, others a storm of insects, and yet others electrical interference, bells, or microtonal percussive units. Indeed, it as if Thompson has invented a unique form of programmatic synthesizer with its own distinct palette.
In terms of feel, there are moments of brightness mixed in with ominous substrates. Rapid oscillations combine with features moving in geological time frames. Throughout all of this, the only constant is change – while the theme is consistent, Phonotopological‘s constituent parts are in a neverending, non-repeating search. Without being unduly jarring, the rattling, buzzing, and droning continuously offers up surprises. Highly recommended.
– Avant Music News
I have been living with Robert Scott Thompson’s new album, Phonotopological, for several months now. And the longer I live with it, the harder it is to write anything about it. For one, it is so complete and satisfying in and of itself that any words about it will seem feeble and impertinent. For two, I fear that the one thing I have come up with to say about it will give a false impression of what the piece is really like. And since I really like the piece, I don’t want to say anything about it that will convey the wrong impression. But too bad. I have promised Robert a review, so here it is.
Although divided into 13 tracks, each with an evocative title, Phonotopological is genuinely one piece, to be played without break, and which progresses from its arresting and captivating opening through a multitude of sonorous adventures to its soft and ethereal ending. Though I hasten to say that the piece does not so much “progress” as it exists. Time passes as it runs its course, of course, but the piece doesn’t really move from one event to another. It is more that Phonotopological is an event and one perceives different elements in it much as one perceives different elements in a painting. It takes less time to take in a painting, may be, but I think that time passing is equally impertinent to one’s experience of either art form. So soon as one is looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music, time ceases to exist—or at least it ceases to impinge.
The best I can come up with for the experience of listening to Phonotopological is to compare it to watching the smooth, brightly colored stones in the bed of a crystal clear stream. The piece as it sounds will remind no one of a stream. The stream is an analogy for how the various layers of sound strike this listener. Just as one is aware of the stream and of the stones and of any fish or insects or plants in the stream, just as the stream seems to be always the same even as it is in constant motion, just as variety and novelty are the real realities as soon as one attends to everything going on, so does this piece present the listening ear with a rich and constantly changing tapestry of color and activity, always the same, always different.
If you have listened much to either Morton Feldman or Eliane Radigue you will easily understand how sameness and variety can co-exist. If not, give this album a listen or three. You’ll see.
Thompson has been at his work for several decades now—since 1976 by his own account—and here’s hoping we can have several more decades of his distinctive sonic magic.
– Asymmetry Music Magazine