Classical music is something that is often controversial among today’s generation. Without classical music, the theories and harmonies that pervade modern popular music would never exist. The Beatles famously allude to classical music through some of the string arrangements on “Revolver”, and even Zappa composed and conducted his own orchestral compositions alongside his outsider rock and jazz tunes. On the contrary, the theories that are often brought out are so repetitive that they either lose the interest of the listener completely, or so radical that they completely scare the listener out of their mind. Most would never listen casually to Mozart or Bach just as much as they would never listen to Messiaen and Schoenberg; Radiohead and Scott Walker nevertheless are popular and bring to the listener these surreal classical influences upfront. Therefore, when popular music seems to be the biggest thing, it seems as though classical music has nothing left to offer listeners. The ideas they set about hundreds of years ago have been the formula for music ever since, so where would anything new come into place?
The irony is that modern classical music is revealing more artistically and conceptually than what its predecessors brought to the table. Technology has helped to bring classical music out of the concert hall, and into listeners’s bedrooms, while also creating a surge in using technology in composition and performance. There are millions of examples, but perhaps the most distinct is Kyle Bobby Dunn, William Basinski, and Stars of the Lid. At the core of their works is traditional and classical instrumentation, but are processed digitally to create sprawling electroacoustic landscapes. Furthermore, there are even more schools teaching electroacoustic music, which shows that the genre is slowly expanding. However, even with technology, the ideas are what is important here, because without good conceptual justifications, then the music is rendered meaningless.
Lowered is a new project by London-based artists Chris Gowers and Katie English, who individually have gained recognition under various aliases on different labels. Their debut album, “Lost Seas”, which is also the first in a new vinyl series for Hibernate, consists mainly of the same modern classical music mentioned earlier. However, what makes “Lost Seas” stand out is that technology is heavily stripped down on this album. No digital effects processing was used, so therefore, the droning electronic soundscapes of the previously stated composers are not found here. There are drones here, though. Lots of it, but not in the way you would expect.
The opener, “Latitude 33 Degrees North, Longitude 40 Degrees West”, begins with the sound of the shore on Brighton Beach. The howling wind and the rough washes of waves across the sand helps to put the listener into a state of mind. A dissonant wash of sound weaves in and out of the mix before a lone cello sustains haunting notes, slowly revealing the melody over several minutes. The cello harmonizes with itself as well, creating a very melancholic mood before, in the end, it is swept up by the sea. The whole atmosphere surprisingly resembles any of Morton Feldman’s later long-form string pieces, or even one of the albums in Brian Eno’s Ambient series. “Movement of Slowly Dying Waves” is even more dramatic and somber, with a slowly evolving cello drone sustaining underneath like a storm in the distance. A piano then enters, playing soft chords and little melodies overtop, almost like in Arvo Pärt’s tinntabulation compositions. Later on, the waves slowly roll back in, which slowly swallow up the instruments, even as new lines in the piano play. “Low Tide” begins with the same dissonant drone that opened up the first piece, with a piano adding flourishes in the space between the cello and gong drones. The effect is pretty unsettling. “Adrift” begins with a clarinet and cello drone flowing overtop a field recording of crackling and percussive hits. The drones slowly move downward as the piece progresses. “Acceptance” is more or less the same piano-cello drone combo, except that it sounds more like some sort of melancholic church hymnal rather than trying to create an atmosphere. The final title track has another cello drone in it, but the piano plays out chords. The individual notes of these chords are then echoed by other layers of cellos, creating this ethereal reverberation that hasn’t been heard much in classical music before. Gongs silently add to the mix, which overall creates this beautiful ritualistic sound that sounds both ancient and futuristic, as though it is not of this world. What’s also delightfully strange is that the gong’s pitch sounds exactly like a distant buoy swaying in the ocean, which further gives meaning to why the album is called “Lost Seas”. It’s meditative, introspective, and yearns for longing and meaning as humanity is swept up day by day in these lost seas of depressive emotions. There’s furthermore upright bass and distant crash cymbals that further create an oceanic feel. Overall, the ending track is quite a harrowing composition.
Musically, “Lost Seas” sounds like any other droning modern classical album. Where Lowered draws the line, however, is in their decision to abandon digital effects. The album solely relies on compositional techniques, microphone placement, and natural acoustics to achieve similar soundscapes. All of this, however, adds up to an intricately textured album whose compositions delicately evolve. There’s no rush with what is going on musically. The compositions flow patiently and naturally like the waves of the sea. In the end, if listeners are willing to take the time to immerse themselves patiently in such an experience, then “Lost Seas” is certainly worth a listen. This is one of the most unique and forward-thinking albums in the modern classical genre to date, proving that technology cannot always put a gauze over raw compositional beauty. Nature must run its course, and Lowered lets classical music loose on that course.
Album: Lost Seas
Genre: Modern classical/ambient/drone
To be available in a limited vinyl run of 150 this month. See Hibernate’s website for updates.