A limited sonic grammar here yields startling results.
Equivalents, out now on Kranky, is named for Alfred Stieglitz’s black-and-white cloud photographs, taken between 1925 and 1934. In them, Stieglitz sought to render the sky as an abstraction, occasionally including buildings or trees in the framing but, more usually, leaving the clouds to float unencumbered, freeing them from the usual points of reference and allowing them to be considered as compositional elements in their own right. Famously, Stieglitz would resist explaining these works, believing that each photograph was the equivalent of a philosophical or emotional state of mind, and while it’s useful to know about the photographs when approaching Scott Morgan’s 12th full-length work as Loscil, it’s not essential. Indeed, it’s Stieglitz’s methodology that appears to be the governing principle here, where the pieces that make up the album come to stand for themselves, minimalist creations that provide the listener with all that’s needed to find the pleasure that’s definitely here to be had.
Each of the tracks on Equivalents is carefully and meticulously crafted from a deliberately small selection of sonic materials, minimal both in what’s being utilized in the making, and in the overall effect upon listening. As such it’s possible to create a kind of grammar where a selected number of drones, pulses and, occasionally, more distinguishable instruments and notes will combine with stereo modulations of different speeds and pitches. For listeners familiar with Morgan’s work, these compositions are identifiably from the same family as previous Loscil albums, but are far less busy, far slower and more considered. Cunningly, this means that talking about the individual pieces is made nearly impossible by the skillful use of a limited compositional palette; there’s only so many times a drone can be named before naming it becomes meaningless and the one thing left to do is listen to the album itself. For example, “Equivalent 1” begins the album with drones of the soft-synth pad variety, punctuated by a gentle rumbling bass that hovers at the very limits of audibility, serving as a platform for the variable speed oscillations that pulse faster and slower between the left and right poles, running into and out of sync with each other as they modulate.
In comparison, “Equivalent 3” utilizes sustained piano chords, some of which gently mutate into other configurations, some of which are cruelly cut short, the rolling sustain becoming the drone platform out of which pulses appear, half-heard in the cyclical movement of sound. Sound sources are added, each pulsing to a different rhythm and each in time with the other participants. Here, a choreography of arrangement is utilized such that while there’s no verse or chorus to speak of, the pulsing provides a steady rhythm such that we can still feel the 4, 8 and 16 bars of each sound, meaning that the additions and transitions from sound to sound which happen “on the beat” feel appropriate for anyone raised on Western pop music structures.
Meanwhile, “Equivalent 6” starts with the fade in of an atonal drone which is soon troubled by another faster left/right modulation. A slower bass pulse arrives heralding, soon after, a higher pitched, breathy sound. What sounds like a heavily reverbed marimba gently picks its way through the middle section of the piece, the irregularity of the notes adding a pleasing human touch. As with all of the “Equivalent” pieces, a limited sonic grammar here yields startling results.
Ultimately, then, a great deal of attention is paid to crafting pieces that don’t overly draw attention to themselves and which are surprising because of the care they evidence when listened to equally as carefully. Each piece utilizes slow fades, gentle transitions and a variety of oscillations to keep the small selection of often very similar sounding drones from settling into an undifferentiated mess. Instead, because of the attention taken to ensure everything arrives and leaves, pulses and moves at its own rate within the larger framework of the composition, there’s no confusion about the relationship of each piece to the whole, even if the whole, as suggested by the erratic track titles, suggests that the tracks can be rearranged endlessly, yielding as many permutations as there were in Stieglitz’s original photographs, and just as gently startling.