In A Certain Slant of Light (2020), Thanos Chrysakis and Chris Cundy successfully explore a distinctive sonic territory that stems from the duo's strategy of mixing digitaland analog electronic instrumental sources. This electroacoustic duo performs on a variety of instruments and sources. Chrysakis performs on laptop, synthesizers, a vintage reel-to-reel tape deck, and a Watkins Copicat. Cundy performs on bass clarinet, megaphone, voice changer, zither, and amplified objects. This distinctive instrumentation has great potential for experimenting with various timbral combinations, and can exploit a full sonic range in one fell swoop. This sonic palette provides performance possibilities that have the potential for continually developing the musical landscape.
Chrysakis and Cundy do not seem to follow any rigid format when setting up their performances beforehand. Instead, they meet each other in the moment, intuitively matching one another, and encouraging musical development. Both players are ready to work together in search of a composite sonic identity. They carefully listen to one another when introducing their materials during performance. This also allows for musical adjustments that are made on the spot.
A Certain Slant of Light, a compact disc released on the Aural Terrains label, was recorded in a studio in Cheltenham, England. Throughout the work's five-part form the listener hears how Chrysakis and Cundy build an electroacoustic picture, communicating a musical narrative within this composite structure. The introductory dialogue between the players might be heard as a succession of noisy utterances, but Chrysakis and Cundy work toward producing a distinctive counterpoint between the delicate, more carefully placed layers, and more weighty sonic events.
It is interesting to note the role of the bass clarinet as it relates to the group's aesthetic as well. First, neither player uses live sampling in his setup. In Cundy's performance, he makes his own adjustments, demonstrating either leading or passive musical behaviors. In Part I, he seems to primarily match other electronic timbres, forging his performance based on dense, or metallic soundstreams. Part I also seems to rotate through a series of timbral combinations, exploring subtle inflections of noise-infused elements. The duo presents an intuitive approach to improvising, demonstrating spontaneous, individual exploration. Chrysakis performs on a laptop using the Max programming environment, two custom built synthesizers, including a Korg MS-20, and the Watkins Copicat tape machine mentioned earlier. Cundy uses a voice changer, a megaphone, and other effects with his bass clarinet, as well as a collection of stones and glassware used to play a zither.
The duo's performance method suggests an environmental approach, wherein their setup spontaneously interacts to a given environment. Cundy mentions this regarding the voice changer: “The voice changer is a toy originally marketed as ‘Mr. Alien,’ but adapted for a studio setting with an output and an extended microphone for choosing close or wide placements. Its basic function is as a pitch shifter and distortion pick-up and in this situation it was used on the whole room. It's good at picking up unintended and incidental noises that happen as we move around and operate.”
It is this approach to timbre that expands the players' musical potential and sonic range—picking up the unintended. Regarding the application of electronic synthesis, it sounds as if the players had coordinated their performance with each other, never intending to overpower the other, or create any imbalance. An important aspect of their way of working is a willingness to learn how to produce music together. In situations such as these, the players embrace uncertainty.
Upon listening to Part II one notices an ambient drone in the background. It can be viewed as a starting point for developing smaller, fluid fragments, whose sequences emerge at varying distances relative to a lightly pulsing convolution layer. The approach heard here can also be described as a type of electronic ornamentation, pitted against a focused, noise layer. Initially, I asked Chrysakis whether noise played a central role here. His response was: “we are not noise artists. We see sound in a continuum from noise to pure clear pitch and what exists in between.”
Another related aspect of texture occurring throughout A Certain Slant of Light is what I would call the metallic, a characteristic timbre. Chrysakis views this quality as assisting in “filling out” a particular range. The noises that Chrysakis and Cundy are interested in relate to their concern with the natural environmental, or even something hidden. Chrysakis adds another comment regarding noise: “You can see it also as a metaphor (of noise) trying to obscure the signal (the music). To create more entropy while we try to work around it, transform it, and bring into the foreground some musical sense.”
The solo bass clarinet stream heard at the end of Part II sets up the listener for a much more intense opening in Part III, wherein the duo is noticeably quite active, performing a wide range of sonic shapes. Here, they create not only large performative gestures, but more-refined and, perhaps, less-complex sound activity, in which each person plays off of. At around four minutes into Part III the form changes noticeably. Each new section, afterward, begins with materials that sound like microthemes. Overall, Part III offers the listener a more complex musical narrative, demonstrating a succession of varied musical behaviors.
Part IV begins with less momentum compared with Part III. Here, the duo creates microtextures, further extending the lighter-weight layers. This movement builds density, while still maintaining a deliberate pace forward. Within some of these broader textures, one hears an improvisation with metals as well. As heard throughout the other movements, Part IV also demonstrates a fluid relationship between the players with respect to timing and its relationship to the electronics. Their performance is clearly guided by active listening. This activity seems to have also assisted in managing the contrast between the more treated, and untreated sounds, which creates a unified character. At times the duo superimposes contrasting textures of live instrumental and electronic sources.
In Part V, the bass clarinet line initially expands to layering a performance around a nature-based sonic theme. The role of these core environmental sounds provides a background accompaniment. As such, this movement can be characterized as continually developing due to the robust sonic dialogue between the players; they play with congruent levels of energy with one another. Although this movement may demonstrate a limited form of interaction, the players seem capable of producing almost any musical figuration that is woven into the sonic landscape.
Ultimately, the musical gestures heard throughout this work contitute a performance that can be heard as free-form experimentation. However, A Certain Slant of Light develops a focused level of control to manage a range of musical transitions. Overall, I sense that this work has developed a type of attitude toward crafting sound, mixing clean sounds with other, degraded audio fragments, alongside integrating the use of the surrounding environment. The duo demonstrates a distinctive compositional approach within this electronic performance medium.
Compact disc, 2020, UK TRRN 1443, available from Aural Terrains, www.auralterrains.com/.