by Mark Morton
While this release is indispensable to fans of THE DREAM CIRCLE, it should also be on any Roach fan's short list and, in my opinion, is one of the greatest all-modular recordings ever made. As a result any fan of soundscape or electronic music will want this recording. Roach continues to find ways to be creative, but he has outdone himself with the rejuvenating sounds on this masterpiece.
In this age, the concept of "elevator music" has more or less taken over. The distant, soft, unthreatening milieu, so anonymous, has paved the way for computerized "backing tracks" that now dominate the music field. In contrast, music created through improvisation brings with it a definite exploratory feel that, in this new "elevator age" is viewed with suspicion even by those who formerly indulged. I recall a recent interview with a former electronic music improviser who is now enamored of total control, to the effect that previous recordings of his were not worthy of discussion because the sounds were just happened upon and could not be reliably reproduced. The implication was that this was a fault. However, Stravinsky and others have expressed sympathy with the view that the more an artist is willing to work with minimal materials, the more creativity can be profitably generated, in no small part because the element of surprise can become a guide.
Steve Roach's releases generally do not dwell on the equipment used to generate his visionary sounds. "Analog and digital synthesizers and samplers" is usually all the detail you get. But his fantastic new Timeroom release, POSSIBLE PLANET, extensively notes the equipment and, by implication, methods used to create this uniquely expressive tour de force. We are informed that only modular synthesizers were used; specifically no keyboard, MIDI or computer synthesizers.
The use of only modules, which allow the artist to dictate the sonic pathways, can be both daunting and liberating. By avoiding old paradigms of synthesis -- as a piano-type instrument with an extended sonic range -- the artist can begin to create a pure soundstream without being boxed into any traditional linear notions of what to do with the sounds once they are generated. Creation becomes more direct as the musician has to plug and unplug cords and physically twist knobs. A sound, once created, may never be recaptured because there is no way to "store" the exact parameters. This approach brings to mind the statement of jazz musician Eric Dolphy: "When you hear music, after it's over it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again". Thus, creation has the potential to be more immediate, more in the moment and in the case of POSSIBLE PLANET, more satisfying to create and listen to than music created using other approaches.
"First Murmur" opens the recording and listeners are immediately rewarded as it quickly passes the first sonic stirrings of a primordial bog and transforms itself into a wondeous tapestry of a natural landscape teeming with throbbing life and hinting at potential life. Rich, layered drones predominate and Roach uses modulation and reverb very effectively to transmit the idea that we are listening to something organic, not "music". Crickets, frogs, and atmospheric conditions of a sort abound. One limitation of modular synthesizers, monophony, is transcended with ease through tuning, modulation and multitracking, so that a complex yet relaxed composition is presented.
The pieces flow into one another and before we know it, "Gestation" is underway. Although still within hearing distance of the bog, we are emerging onto a windswept plateau. The drones become more predominant and seem to flow into each other. Stronger winds are heard and the sound painting brings to mind deserted-looking plateaus with activity just below the surface. By this time, the listener is far enough along that he or she should be feeling like they are part of the whole process. Here Roach takes us on his most successful sustained inner organic journey since THE DREAM CIRCLE. The sonic materials remain the same throughout but somehow the presentation varies enough to seem alive, as though the composition was breathing. After about 20 minutes, the winds begin to howl, momentarily peak and then gradually reduce in volume as the piece takes on its own arc, slowly returning to the bog.
The final leg of the journey, "Cell Memory" elevates POSSIBLE PLANET to indispensable status with a historic demonstration of modular virtuosity. Using his long years of programming experience and liberated from the constraints of keyboard interfaces, Roach comibines simple melodic sequences or just triggers short motives to give the impression of a cosmic tilt-a-whirl. The piece is drenched in gorgeous sonics and subtle modulations, with effective use of panning and what sounds like surround sound. Timbral and delay modulations dominate and are marshaled to great effect. Finally the swirling subsides and we are left with the return of the bog sounds and the wind, along with some tasty, guitar-like melodic fragments, with varied attacks and decays to expressive effect.
POSSIBLE PLANET is well-suited to the traditional Timeroom Editions "continuous play" format, and the sonic environments generated have spent many a day morphing in my living spaces. The luxurious analog sounds are best appreciated at a higher volume. While this release is indispensable to fans of THE DREAM CIRCLE, it should also be on any Roach fan's short list and, in my opinion, is one of the greatest all-modular recordings ever made. As a result any fan of soundscape or electronic music will want this recording. Roach continues to find ways to be creative, but he has outdone himself with the rejuvenating sounds on this masterpiece.