I have reviewed quite a lot of ambient/modern classical releases in the past few weeks or so. I’ve reviewed them because, as I’ve said, ambient and modern classical music has a different feel than most music. In every song that has been composed since recording technology was made possible, there is undoubtedly some time of soundscape or atmosphere that can be found if listened to closely. Even before recording technologies, many pieces made in the 1600s and so forth contain atmosphere simply because of their melodies and harmonies, and in some cases, some of these pieces were specifically composed to be performed at a certain place simply because of the reverberations or the tones that the place provides. Ambient and modern classical music, however, is the sound of the atmosphere. Melodies and harmonies may not be quite as distinct as popular music, but they are there, obscured by the tones and reverberations of the spaces that it is performed or composed in. However, I would like to introduce you to Neil Milton, whose most recent EP contains a sound that somewhat challenges most of ambient and modern classical music, but yet still contains atmosphere, though from sources that you may not expect.
Neil Milton is a Scottish composer and musician currently living in Warsaw, Poland, who has written and recorded music since 1999, ranging first from post-punk and post-rock to currently a unique style of modern classical and experimental electronic music that has been described as “a glacial snowdrift of ambient soundscapes, electronic experiments and haunting, elegant modern-classical compositions.” Neil also runs a label, too many fireworks records, which releases the same vein of genres that are present in his works. His most recent 4-track EP, “White Spring, Black Cloud”, however, is one of his more experimental releases, in that it combines evocative piano works with field recordings and experimental electronic sounds from different sources including radios, which often call to mind the experimental classical pieces that John Cage and Edgar Varèse composed in the 1950s. Nevertheless, it is a refreshing listen that forces listeners to focus on the subtle details of sound that would not have been immediately heard in everyday listening.
The first composition, “Ennui”, contains interesting field recordings, ranging from the chirps of birds, electronic tones, the footsteps down a hallway, the opening of gates and doors, and clinging keys, in which afterwards, a piano enters, playing an emotional soundscape of melancholic yet optimistic melodies that are hard to describe unless you actually listen to the piece, which ends out with more field recordings and soft experimental noises. The track segues into the next composition, “314”, containing warping, lo-fi drones of sine waves that slowly drift in and out, creating different harmonies and exciting harmonics that sound almost like a dozen different Tibetian singing bowls being played, providing a mantra that soothes the mind. Near the end, there are also some exciting, arpeggiated rhythms played by water-like synths, which sort of wake up the listener from the soothing drones. “Biala Wiosna, Czarna Chmura” is one of the more ambient soundscapes on the EP, containing beautiful melodies played by a cello alongside the soothing harmonies of a piano, all encased in a soft reverberated atmosphere. The last composition, “Variations on ‘Radio Music’ by John Cage”, is exactly as it sounds: a composition influenced by John Cage’s 1956 piece where a radio is tuned to different frequencies throughout, producing an almost musique concrète-like electroacoustic soundscape filled with radio noise, bits of talk show chatter, samples of songs that cannot be immediately detected due to their short lengths, and all the improvised noises inbetween, providing ambience in a new way.
Overall, though it is a relatively short EP running only 12 or 13 minutes in length, Neil Milton’s “White Spring, Black Cloud” is quite a refreshing listen from most of the ambient and modern classical compositions on the market today. Its experimental yet wholly accessible sound is reminiscent of the experimental electroacoustic pieces of John Cage and Edgar Varèse, as well as the modern sounds of piano and strings coming from composers like Library Tapes and Dmitry Evgrafov. It may take a while to sink into, but after a few listens, the both beautiful and evocative “White Spring, Black Cloud” will definitely become an unforgettable listen. Recommended for those into modern and experimental classical pieces, or just looking for something completely different and exciting.
Album: White Spring, Black Cloud
Artist: Neil Milton
Genre: Modern classical
Released in 2011 on Valentine Records
You can download the EP for free here: https://neilmiltonmusic.bandcamp.com/album/white-spring-black-cloud