Christopher Bissonnette’s first album for Kranky in seven years is fairly different from the more patient, pastoral ambient terrain he’s traversed on past releases. InsteadEssays in Idleness finds Bissonnette limiting his explorations to a single homemade modular synthesizer, which at first seemed slightly disappointing of a prospect to me. Given that modular synthesis is so en vogue at the moment as a sort of reaction against completely software-based electronic music, I don’t know that it’s as compelling or daring a move to make as it may have seemed a few years earlier for some of his peers. But listening to the album, my reservations about Bissonnette joining the modular synthesis bandwagon are for naught; while it’s a different animal from his previous repertoire, I find most of the album to be quite good.
There are times when Bissonnette employs a rather typical octave toggle to his monophonic leads, abruptly toggling from one octave to the next as notes cycle through. It’s the sort of thing that seems like modular synthesis 101, recalling the monophonic Moog sounds of Boards of Canada and conjuring up somewhat cliched images of sun-faded 70s camcorder footage. But Bissonnette only occasionally indulges such sounds here, instead often lingering in a more nebulous field of overtones and oscillating drones. The closest comparison I can draw is some of the recent synth output of M. Geddes Gengras, because both composers seem to be pulling inspiration from the same lonely and introverted places.
The delayed, sprinkling octave shifts of “A Deplorable Corruption” and “Entanglements” show off Bissonnette’s love of the sometimes arbitrary and abrupt changes in sound attributed to the nature of the synth. But it’s the lead track, “Greenish In Its Light,” that is such a clear standout to me — it’s fragile and luminous, the visual of refracted light in such an intuitive and instinctive way.
Essays In Idleness, the third album from Canadian composer Christopher Bissonnette, is a refreshing change from the international school of ambient music and its widely held belief that the sweet chirps of birdsong and the serene streams of running water are vital, tonal ingredients to the genre, and therefore help to make ambient music what it is. Essays In Idleness is the result of two years of intense exploration and it is clear that during this period Bissonnette focused on and deepened his understanding of the craft and its relationship with life. The Canadian has dropped the aforementioned kind of ambience – the usual suspects – for a new, synth-led pursuit, a fresh tonal foray, and he never flirts with the idea of returning.
The soul of ambient music should be that of freedom; it shouldn’t feel restricted, but that is perhaps where the genre has, in recent times, found itself, with many ambient musicians intentionally or unintentionally backing the music into a corner with their repetitive, albeit lovely tones. It’s true that ambient music soothes deeply with its beautiful, shimmering showers and serene swells – beautiful, yes, but in danger of being a little predictable.
One of the track titles, ‘Uniformity Is Undesirable’, sums it up; Bissonnette may have become tired of the ambient cliché, which is one of the reasons why Essays In Idleness is so refreshing. Essays In Idleness revolves around a self-built analogue synthesizer, which in turn gives the music a bright-eyed focus. His ambient music is still exactly that, but it has a renewed tonal clarity that shines like an emerald jewel.
‘Greenish In Its Light’ is a spacious canopy of electronic sound, a dense electronic rainforest soaked in vitality. Electronic chirps call out from the treetops, one after another. Their voices sing a unique dialect, broadly smeared across the octaves. ‘A Deplorable Corrupt’ chooses to snake its way around the track, with hissing tones that overlap and then writhe slowly over the music. It is a chant, a half open gateway that leads to an ambient paradise. The transparent tones are left to lovingly linger as they explore the expanse. Listen after listen reveals its precious beauty. Harmonies disappear just as they’re about to develop, replaced by another lucid tone.
The music is experimental, with the focus on chance, risk and error creating a beautifully natural, organic sound. It’s naturally shaped, jetting out a curve of light that came out of Bissonnette’s own reflections. The synths are fresh bursts of mountain air and mirror his own crystal clear approach, but it has to be said that the music is often left to its own devices, allowed to spontaneously shoot up and then develop until it finally diminishes. In this sense, Bissonnette is there to oversee the music like a caring father to his child. Bissonnette taps into a narrow vein; a single, precise theme that gives the music a beautiful clarity. He abstains from the varied use of timbres, averting the modern ambient sound. In doing so, he has flipped the coin and the preconceptions, revealing another side to ambient music’s glimmer of infinite warmth. He has the vision and the execution to produce stunning music, no matter the source. Everything else has vanished. The forests stand quiet, with the sound of the wind the only kind of music. It’s an instrumental loneliness, the new outcast. This is the reason for its expansive sound; the unusual contradiction of expansion via contraction.
The tones warp gently, as if they were twenty year old tape reels, slowly awakening to the sound of another era. Despite the synthesizer’s age, the synth itself never feels dated. Instead, it points to the future, of endless days and nights ahead of them. Intentionally or not, the music is meditative and cool, bordering on icy. The futuristic ‘Another Moving Sight’ oscillates against an ever moving line of synth, and sweeping electronics skate over the smooth surface. At other times, the synths scream out as if vocalizing their current disapproval. ‘Wasting A Little Time’ is thoughtful and playful at the same time, and with the coda Bissonnette has made us all aware of the current climate. He creates moods that are just as peaceful as the aforementioned ambience, and there’s nothing to stop other artists going on a new adventure. It’s a stunning album, its snaking lines of synth radiating with inner warmth, its prism reflecting a thousand sharp colours.