Robert Scott Thompson–Phonotopological


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.

The clip is from the very opening of the piece, from the track entitled “Proximity.” I chose this bit because in preparing for this review it has become one of my favorite openings.

Tutuguri — Felipe Otondo


[N.B., this is a review from 2013, which I post here to lead into the review of Otondo’s new album, Night Studies, also from Sargasso, which came out last year.]

Tutuguri is a really splendid CD. I’ve listened to it several times, each time as much a delight as the first. In the first place, the sounds are gorgeous. All of them. In every track. Ear-grabbingly gorgeous. And in the second place, the pieces are well made–so cunningly constructed as to sound fresh and new even after they have become well-known and familiar.

The first track, Irama, starts the album off with some of the most delightful clangor I’ve ever heard, with hard, bright percussive sounds mingled with rich, voluptuous electronic sounds. Delightful clangor is a particular favorite of mine, and this piece delivers it in spades. In fact, I have to confess that for awhile, the other three pieces on this CD seemed less engaging to me. So much so, that I had to come up with a stratagem for this review, which was to listen to them in reverse order. Success! Now they all seem equally engaging and delightful, and I can now write about each of them without any favoritism.

The next track,Teocalli, starts softly with a quick three note rhythm. Bumbumbum Bumbumbum Bumbumbum Bumbumbum. Crescendoes in waves, each wave a bit louder than the previous one. This is joined by a male choir singing something quite other, an almost rhythmless, church-like chant sung in a church (a resonant space) and with some subtle organ sounds, too. While the drumming gets softer as the chorus gets louder, it remains as insistent as ever.

Then, after a tiny pause, the drums slam against your ears, and there are now some shrill crowd sounds as well. This is a terrifically exciting bit,for sure, partly because the drum sounds have changed electronically into something quite strange and extremely gorgeous. What a great imagination Otondo has. A great imagination and an even greater ear.

The “natural” drum sounds return, along with the crowd noises, and very quickly, everything is soft and the drums are thick thuds underneath a woman talking. Everything gets quite whirry and electrified here. And the excitement just gets ratcheted up and ratcheted up.

Until everything gets very quiet–but still rhythmical and still insistent. Then the woman’s voice returns, along with some very strange other sounds. And she and another woman laughing segues back into the men’s chorus which is almost immediately drummed off the (sound) stage. And then it’s all drums and drumming and electronically altered drum sounds and harsh electronic noises–a sonic thrill ride and no mistake.

Ciguri is all whirry, wirey kinds of sounds, quiet at first but getting louder and louder with sharper and sharper attacks–of the hard, metallic sounds–and then a huge, rich, thick attack. And the sharp attacks become quite rhythmical, dance-like. The sharp sounds are by now extremely sharp. And the thick sounds are extremely thick and sonorous. When some wood block-ish/marimba-ish sounds come in, the effect is quite magical. Everything becomes less rollicking but no less exciting. (This is a definite trend in these pieces–no change from fast to slow, from rhythmic to calm, from loud to soft makes any change to the intensity, to the excitement.)

The music becomes quite subtle and understated here with lots of sharp little clangs and bongs. Then the sharp little clangs become large, hard, harsh clangs. After some extremely harsh and delightful sonorities, Ciguri settles down to the relatively quiet and smooth harsh and delightful sonorities that carry it to its conclusion. What a treat!

The last track, Sarnath, is the bell track. Bells clanging and clanging and clanging. And lots of attacks but not so many natural decays. That is, often as not, the sonorous decays are stretched impossibly long and make drones for all the other sounds, drums, birds, miscellaneous rustlings, and other bell sounds.

Eventually, even the attacks become very much softened, hardly more than a kind of swell in the long drones of the extended decays. A really rich and rumbling crescendo ends in a single, hard clang–followed by very soft park-like sounds–birds and people–and some various other percussion noises. In all of these pieces, that is another trend. No matter where this music goes, rhythmically or electronically, we are never far from the every day noises of the actual world, either as they have been captured by Otondo’s microphones or suggested by how he treats the sounds.

The label, Sargasso, identifies this CD as Otondo’s first. May there be many, many more from this very talented composer.

Night Studies –Felipe Otondo


This is Felipe Otondo’s second album, the long awaited sequel to Tutuguri, from 2013. Anyone who already had Tutuguri has doubtless already bought Night Studies, probably several months ago, that’s how out-of-date this review is. (And that’s how eager Otondo fans were to get his next album.) But reviews aren’t really for people who already own what’s being reviewed, but for people who have yet to buy them. For those people, I would first say “buy Tutuguri. If you love your ears, buy Tutuguri.” As you know, Asymmetry Music Magazine was almost completely destroyed last year, and as time goes by, the articles that used to populate its pages will begin, slowly, to reappear. Since these two albums by Otondo are related, this seemed a good time to repost Asymmetry’s review of the first album. I would write it differently today. I would try to be more accurate in describing the sounds, and I would praise it more highly. But that’s as may be.

The first thing I thought when I first listened to Night Studies was that I was in a familiar sound world, one I knew already from having been listening to Tutuguri over the past five years. And while it is true that there are similar sounds, similar phrases, and similar uses of percussion, subsequent listens will convince you, I am sure, that the three night studies are quite remarkably different from any of the four pieces that make up Tutuguri. Not better, different. And different is, of course, a very good thing in a composer, I think. I also am sure that once you’ve gotten a copy of both, you will be twice as happy as you were before you had neither.

I’m only offering one clip from Night Studies, the first two minutes of the first one, but I will say that if I were so inclined, I could give you a detailed study (as it were) of how cunningly and intricately these three pieces are connected to each other. You can easily hear all that for yourselves, and I’m sure that if you buy one of these discs, you will also buy the other, and so will easily hear how clearly the two albums are related—and how vastly different they are. Otondo is a genuinely fresh voice and has something genuinely new to say in each piece he writes.



Michèle Bokanowski’s Enfance is already seven years old. I was at its premiere, which was grand, and am only now getting to this review, which is reprehensible. So first I have to apologize to Michèle and to the entire music-loving world. If you have already heard of this piece, great. If you have already heard it, even better. If not, here at long last is the review you didn’t even know you’d been waiting for, for a piece that you will shortly add to your growing list of favorites. For this is a rich and rewarding piece of music, cunningly made and a treat to listen to again and again.

There are a lot of things I could say about this piece, about the deep drone and the smooth textures and the utterly charming voices of the two young children (Bilal and Suleyman Bokanowski) who provide the vocal sounds. I could talk about the narrative and musical logic of the piece, about the recurring piano tune and the various ways it’s broken up as it meanders through the piece. But what really struck me, listening to it many times to prepare for this review, is that this is a very deceptive piece. It is made up, for instance, of lots of various, different bits that are juxtaposed, but the smoothness of the drone, the slowness of the pace, and the general richness of all the sounds all serve to conceal this structural reality. It’s as if you were to sit in front of a dense forest scene in a museum only to gradually discover that you were actually looking at a cubist painting.

Also, even though the drone and the smooth, rich texture is prominent, and engaging, a close listen to this piece will, I believe, reveal that it’s a piece primarily about rhythm. I would say that the drones and the pace and the overall smoothness of texture are there primarily as a foil for a kaleidoscopic plethora of rhythms and counter rhythms—rhythmic counterpoint at times. And where the rhythms come from is interesting, too, a speech rhythm morphing into song and then made into a different rhythm by being made into a loop, or a single syllable extracted and used to punctuate the texture, or just normal speech, which in the context is impossible not to notice as being equally rhythmical to all the rest.

Which brings us back to that drone, which I have rather mis-reported—the drone is as full of rhythmical subtleties and complexities as all the rest. I could go on and on.
Best to just leave you to the piece itself, forgetting everything I’ve said about it to enjoy just it, itself, first in this five minute clip and ultimately, it is to be hoped, in the piece as a whole. I can’t imagine you’ll regret buying this album. After all, on the very unlikely chance that you do not particularly like Enfance, you’ve got a whole ‘nother piece to enjoy, Cirque, a piece quite different from Enfance, and quite delightful all on its own.