I do suffer from Tinnitus. A lifetime of playing, and listening to, loud music has concluded with a significant high frequency hum in both ears. I’ve never however felt constricted by the affliction. It has always been clear to me what frequencies I’m less perceptible at, and I have been able to make adjustments accordingly. That was until I encountered Figueroa Terrace by Thomas Ankersmit (out now via Touch). It was the only time I’ve cursed my damned ears for their uncontrolled behaviour, but I soon realised that even if my ears could delve to the depths of 20Hz and back up again to the heights of 20,000Hz, I’d still be left wanting.
Thomas Ankersmit doesn’t merely rely on audible frequencies and the sonic possibilities from the Serge Synthesizer – The first machine in the artist’s arsenal working alongside traditional and experimental processes of sonic manipulation. Ankersmit goes where few other artists have gone before, beyond that of the auditory range and incorporating elements of natural acoustic phenomena. The most unique of these are the otoacoustic emissions (a sound that is generated from the inner ear) that he precipitates. It prompts the listener to question the reality of their sonic environment and blurs the boundaries between composer and listener. If I can hear frequencies that are neither generated by the composer nor the instrument, is it still part of the composition? As if to toy with us purposefully, Ankersmit immediately contradicts this anomaly with the existence of infrasonic frequencies – those we can’t hear, but are definitely there. Is it still music if we can’t hear it? Let me pose the question another way: If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?
My answer to this has always been yes and infrasonic frequencies might actually hold the key to answering this philosophical conundrum once and for all, but lingering on the conceptual framework of Thomas Ankersmit’s work will be doing the music of Figueroa Terrace an injustice. After the ideas are written down and formulated, what we are left with is the end result, and on this particular occasion the end result is remarkably distinct. There’s a compositional outline to the 36-minute-odd piece that I dare say reflects a standard Sonata form. There is a story that unfolds along its timeline as a number of variations of the theme come and go. Through what I would refer to as the development stage – the bulk middle section of the piece – we find persistent largo rhythmic impulses with glitch elements fracturing the sine waves intermittently. High-pitched frequencies, which at first induce a slight un-comfort, soon play around your audio spectrum evoking elements of nature. They never manifest as a single frequency, but instead continuously manipulate the listener’s ears in a way, that I have never quite experienced before. At around 8 minutes, I found it necessary to switch to a good set of headphones as the speakers struggled to produce the necessary spectrum of sound required by Figueroa Terrace. When the first audible appearance of the bass and mid frequencies comes our way, Ankersmit’s experience as an installation artist becomes apparent. There is a definite sentiment that you are occupying a space. The frequencies are very much harmonically related as they play out, filling the space in between them as their respective resonances create a rich sonic landscape of minimalist’s proportions that at the same time offers considerable warmth. There are similarities to La Motte Young’s Dream House project – which uses a complex synthesizer to create a sound installation made up from specifically chosen harmonic frequencies – especially in the way the sound is designed to be peculiar to the acoustic anomalies of the natural world. The sonic environment is meticulously crafted rather than left to its own instinctive devices. Unlike the Dream House, there is however a clear progression that takes this auditory space along its natural evolution. It’s like standing in an open field waiting for that tree to fall and taking in the sounds that your environment has to offer, only amplified. The high-pitched glitch theme from the beginning, or exposition stage, intermittently appears in a reserved form but at around 20 minutes it comes back in a more vigorous manner. It forms a particularly rounded composition as a result, book ending Figueroa Terrace like any other traditional composition. Along its existence the stereo filed too plays an important role in ushering the music along its time line as it moves around your space (specifically noticeable if you listen through a pair of good headphones). I felt a tinge of regret that I was not able to experience the composition in its original quadraphonic form. I can only imagine how experiencing the album as a fully realised environment, might bring even more developmental elements to light.
As Figueroa Terrace recapitulates on a variation of the opening exposition, there was a definite reflection period on what I’ve just encountered. I found myself constantly being drawn into the concept of the album and pondered whether the music would have worked autonomously had I not read about Thomas Ankersmit’s working processes. It would be impossible for me to conclusively suggest that the music would have the same effect, but I am very positive that the strong compositional development would be the defining factor. I would however advise the listener to approach Figueroa Terrace as an independent listening experience and ignore the artist’s own biography, especially on the first listen. Thomas Ankersmit has sculpted a magnificent listening experience through Figueroa Terrace and focussing on the method is definitely not necessary to appreciate this unique piece of music.