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Cory Allen: "Hearing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Hears

img  Tobias

For an artist usually associated with the Ambient-genre, Cory Allen is refreshingly unafraid of shocking his audience. On „exedra“, the opening track to his previous full-length, he ferociously blasted through the opening minute, pulverising prejudice, preconceptions and whatever kind of resistance there may have been in a deafening roar of electrostatic noise. Like a dental drill, his frequencies set the listener's nerves on edge before hitting the softness of the gums, releasing a synaptic firework of bliss and beauty, of pleasure and pain. It was an intense, almost delirious effort, further complemented by Taylor Deupree's mastering, which enhanced the work's sub-bass physicality and forced the listener's entire body into a sympathetic resonance. Entitled „The Fourth Way“, the record indeed seemed to have found an enticing alternative to the extremes of mere noise, harmonic silence and academic Sound Art and it coincided nicely with earlier, equally bipolar netlabel release „Satori in Atlantis“, in which rough field recordings were counterpointed by infinitely tranquil and refined drones.

Allen's latest selection of pieces is ostensibly very different from these compositions, but it proudly continues a tradition he has pursued from the very beginning: That each new work should wipe the slate clean and be allowed to contrast with or even outright contradict previous material. „Hearing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing one Hears“ consists of a cycle of five tracks, all grouped around the same timbral qualities and connected by notions of openness and organic development. Minimalism is of quintessential importance, as Allen has reduced the colourful array of instruments displayed on his debut „Gesemi Tropisms“ to the much more condensed chromatics of very specific Bell-, Bass- and Vibraphone-like sounds. A continuous, subtly modulated high-pitched whir is softly buzzing in the distance throughout the entire album, providing texture as well as a degree of abstraction and estrangement, but other than that, there are no intrusive sonic impurities to be found here. It is music happy to exist alongside (rather than outside or in opposition to) our quotidian reality, accepting its existence but otherwise keeping its distance.

This element of otherworldliness is a conscious one, as Allen has pointed out in the press release himself. Using a set of similar, but never strictly serialist compositional techniques, the tracks on „Hearing“ initially sound like discreet variations on a common organisational principle and like five different versions of the same piece: Rhythmic lines provide for a sense of motion and tender tonal droplets harmonically cascade against each other while the compositional construct is tactily twitching from within. Not a single bar is mechanically repeated, yet it is actually hard to discern where exactly changes are occuring. Phase-shifts can be made out, but they are taking place so slowly and gradually that their effect is rather one of gentle, subcutaneous irritation than of outright confusion – and quite often, by the time one has begun noticing them, motives have already started to return to their original position. Melodies and loops sometimes consist of long chains of either very big or very small intervals, which results in two notes either merging into a single tone or seeming entirely unconnected. As a consequence, these highly structured aural concepts feel all but formless, weightless, unpremeditated and as constructs of pure sound.

Rather than in the typical areas of chord- and key changes or the evolution of themes, the real musical action is taking place somewhere else. Two elements are of particular importance here: Sustain and stereo-effects. The former implies that Allen is regularly juxtaposing tones of the same instrumental group with highly divergent durations. As a consequence, he is creating very subtle nuances in timbre (with some of the Chimes occasionally taking on the properties of an Organ) as well as a constant flux in ambient characteristics. Not only is the music therefore uninterruptedly reinventing itself in a process of never-ending permutations, but it is also creating the very space-temporal continuum it is moving through in the same process.

The idea of making full use of the stereo image, meanwhile, is a specialty of Allen and already had a strong impact on „The Fourth Way“: The same sonic events may be occurring within a certain piece, but on different speakers. They may be panning from left to right and sometimes, the entire image may be split into two separate entities, before blending together again in perfect unison a mere second later. This emphasis on factors regularly considered byproducts not only turns the listening experience upside down, but also focuses the audience's attention inwards. The functional nature of music, symbolised by the unhealthy stylisation of western classical composition, disappears and makes way for a borderless galaxy in which sounds finally appear as they really are.

One could certainly ask whether there is anything truly new in this approach and echoes of early Eno are definitely all over the place. Whether a work like this needed to be recorded roughly three decades after „Ambient 1“, is however one for historians to answer. The task of a composer is to challenge and surprise himself as much as his listeners and to make his latest work seem as fresh, fertile and fantastical as his first. Thanks to a healthy penchant for "shock values", Cory Allen has managed to achieve all of these aims on this occasion.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Cory Allen
Homepage: Quiet Design Records

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