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CD Feature/ Asher: "Intervals", "Cell Memory", "Graceful Degradation: Variations"

img  Tobias

His latest releases reveal a striking penchant for haptically alluring, individual packaging and his style has by now been boiled down to a simplified decoction of piano, crackle, minimalist aesthetics and lyrical album titles in lower case letters by the press. And yet, Asher Thal Nir is one of the few contemporary sound artists whose oeuvre is foremostly based on ideas. While his technique of soft alienation and languid layering reached a point of high refinement and methodical perfection very early on in his career – “the depths, the colors, the objects & the silence” on Mystery Sea marking a milestone – his conceptual approach has allowed for continous development nonetheless.

“Intervals”, his latest full-length release on Brooklyn-based label TheLandOf fully supports this theory. Again, the album focusses on ambient atmospheres of hiss, decaying piano chords, disintegrating melodies and various field recordings, captured at the campus of Ioddara College in Plainfield, Vermont: The electric hum of Cicadas, distant voices, rippling and bubbling water, the sound of people walking on gravel, birds sailing lazily through the sky, cars drifting by. Divided into 39 segments between 30 seconds and one and a half minutes of length, the record contrasts concise compositions with hazy sketches and outdoor movements with melancholy indoor meditations.

Essentially, the album serves as a study on our perception of time, proposing that it depends on both the spaces we experience it in as well as our movement through them. Unfortunately, Larry Johnson’s otherwhise informative liner notes do not intimate the specifics of this relationship. However, the counterpointing of vivid outdoor scenes involving a greater degree of evolutionary forward propulsion (if that is the word in this, naturally, rhythmless context) with almost statical key semblances, which are, in a traditional Western sense, not “going anywhere”, implies that time should be moving faster psychologically within the multipolarity of urban life or the airy openness of the countryside – and slower in your lonely room.

It is almost endearing that as an experiment, the album fails completely. This is not just because the individual parts are of completely different length, denying an immediate comparison. Also, the fact that Asher’s Piano musings are, without a single exception, marked by surreal, dreamy and taciturne motives in minor keys automatically means they will be perceived as moving and developping slower than counterparts from the field recording department. Because “Intervals” allows for shuffle-play and a “multitude of available permutations”, there is a possibility of comparing different routes through the album. But coming to meaningful conclusions would necessitate repeated listening sessions within a very short timeframe and a methodology of categorising and evaluating them  - a tedious, frankly.

On the other hand, this kind of academia is anything but necessary. Over the course of the album’s duration, these ultrashort pieces develop an increasing pull, drawing the listener into a friendly and hypnotic space. The mystery factor has made way for a lascivious sensuality, the grand design of previous installations has been replaced by a chambermusical compactness. While “untitled composition (for b) “, “In Camera” and “Study for Autumn” (his last three releases) worked best in the reclusion of a dark room at night, “Intervals” is a work which suits itself ideally as a complement to your first cup of coffee in the morning. An open, unforced, emotive and diverse effort, it is a postcard from Summer, instead of a harbinger of Autumn and possibly Asher’s most accessible album to date. On a personal note, it also my favourite entry in his discography, which is saying quite a bit.

“Cell memory”, out on Winds Measure Recordings, meanwhile, is an alltogether different proposition. On this well-measured effort, a mini-album clocking in at 36 minutes and comprising of two tracks of almost exactly the same length, Asher teams up with long-time ally and kindred spirit Miguel A Tolosa, delivering a work of quiet forms, slow changes and hypnotic repetitions. Drones, both of the subtle, harmonic kind and in the form of ominously howling sheets of white noise are at the backbone of the music. Underneath their cover, hauntingly organic sighs and irregular rhythmic patterns are coallescing into intense lower case mantras.

Like a whispered form of Dark Ambient, the pieces develop through thematic variations and gradual evolution of a sustained mood – with both tracks ending up somewhere completely different compared to where they started. This may well be the first time either Asher or Tolosa have diverted into the idea of a “zone”, but this term certainly describes their encounter quite aptly: It is not so much intricate details that matter here, but the general feeling conveyed by these subtle soundscapes, as well as a sense of minutely planned movement inside a clearly delineated space. Somehow, this comes across as music for an imaginary vernissage – with the paintings provided by the listener’s imagination.

Tolosa is also one of the invited guests on “graceful degradation: variations”, a compilation covering reworkings of source materials to asher’s album by the same name. It is also the first outing on his Sourdine imprint, thereby closing ranks with the assembled cast of artists/record owners (Jason Kahn running “cut”, Heribert Friedl “NVO”, Steinbrüchel “synchron” and Tolosa “Con-V”). If the original recordings concentrated on pensive Piano playing amidst a snowflake-dance of static, the new versions display the wide range of expressions this circle of friends, lazily subsumed under various genre-definitions, is capable of.

While some stretch loose notes into long drones of both warm and sonorous (Steinbrüchel) or cool and spacey (Kenneth Kirschner) character, others weave tender loops of plucked pizzicatos and sneering chanting (Steve Roden) or of chiming translucence (John Hudak). Ubeboet’s seventeen minute take on “Untitled #305” almost sounds like an Asher-original, while Kahn replaces the structures of hiss with a crystal-clear field recording of a relaxed morning in the parc.

The latter piece may actually be the most respectful of the lot and a highly convincing example of a reinterpretation of a philosophy, rather than a mere rearranging of samples. Asher’s compositions are like portals into the chinks of reality, into the tiny everyday worm holes of our existence and Kahn’s contribution mirrors these thoughts congenially, offering plenty of potential for a future collaboration on equal terms.

All three releases come adorned by stunning artwork. Both the Sourdine compilation and “Intervals” are packaged in oversized envelopes (a complete coincidence according to Asher), with an additional slipcase containing the actual CD – their materials and individual design revealing quite a bit about the love and time which has gone into them. “Cell Memory”, meanwhile, is presented as an oblong cardboard-booklet with embossed letters and graphics. And yet, even though the visual aspect is more than just an aside, it is still the music that matters most – and the constantly changing ideas it is transporting.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Asher
Homepage: TheLandOf Records
Homepage: Ubeboet
Homepage: Winds Measure Recordings
Homepage: Sourdine Records

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