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Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng - Vigil

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Artist: Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng

Album: Vigil

Label: Quecksilber

Review date: Oct. 22, 2003

The sound of Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng’s latest journey might be best characterized as just that – sound, rather than an exploration of music as such. Vigil is the duo’s second release of experimental, minimalist electronic music, and is an equally simple and challenging release, suggesting little with its sustained monotones, and yet the lack of apparent movement is in itself an exercise in patience and expectation. They subvert expectation and disorient the listener as the piece progresses through a series of subtle manipulations.

This kind of challenge is no new one to Oren Ambarchi, as co-organizer of the What is Music? festival with Robbie Avenheim, with whom Ambarchi played in the bands Phlegm and Sisters of Menstruation. Highly influenced by the Austrian/German digital audio scene from such labels as Mego, Touch, and Staubgold (who distributes and markets the fledgling Quecksilber label), he began exploring the quieter side of experimental music, releasing four solo albums since 1998 and performing and recording with acclaimed artists such as Fennesz, Otomo Yoshihide, and Phill Niblock.

A new artist in the avant-garde scene, fellow Australian Martin Ng has participated in a collaboration with Jim Denley as well as Reconnaissance with Ambarchi. Ng’s love of variety resulted in his lauded Amperase, a turntablism project of astonishing intensity that elicited comparisons to Otomo Yoshihide in style and ability.

Vigil sees a complete departure from instrumentation, leaving behind Ambarchi’s guitar and Ng’s turntables for the subterranean caves of cold sound. The two work in between micro-levels, and are interested in the inaudible manipulations of these levels. What kinds of changes can be wrought on the ear without its knowing? More importantly, what is its reaction when the change is evident?

Barely audible at first – though enough apparently to make my cats hide – the tone slips into the register of the ear with no ornament, no variation or theme whatsoever. Just the steady metallic hum of sound. The tone begins to lose focus eventually, blurring in and out of the original tone. Then it stops. Halfway through this first installment, the tone begins again, and becomes the core sound while shimmering bell tones slide their way over the top of it.

A ding signals the end of “Part I”, and the second part begins to grow, relying on slow manipulation of volume and reverberation to create dynamics. The tone wobbles, and the composers begin to surround it with more pitches; to sink into softer sections before rising in crescendo, to add grating sounds that sound like hollow echoes of water, or perhaps even human voices. The tone is twisted, brightened, taped on, scraped, struck, filtered, raised, lowered, joined by other tones; any manipulation of the first monotone we heard is a flouting of expectation, taking that tone into the imaginative and empty worlds of sound. “Part III” is much the same, relying on the chilling, quiet scrapes over the sustained tone that developed during “Part II”.

“When Love Comes Back to Haunt You” is the strangely verbose title of the fourth piece on the record, and a departure from the first set of pieces is immediately evident in both its warmer tones and overlapping montage. A liquid quality pervades this piece, so that it echoes not only the manipulations of the former piece but reinterprets them with denser textures and louder pitches that submerge and flood the ear canals with the inviting mystery of a thicker medium.

Ambarchi and Ng include on the CD two visual interpretations of pieces off their first collaboration, Reconnaissance, to great effect. Artist Tina Frank (of Mego fame), who also created the CD artwork, lends bold colors to the bare tones of their audio experiments, aptly choosing lines to suggest the infinite quality of the sustained pitches. “Surfacing” is a scant 1:13 and plays solid sheets of red against a black background, each sheet having been sliced with parallel lines. Against the second visual, “Possession”, the red sheets are like a negative of the varicolored cross-hatches of the muted spectrum drifting across the screen. “Possession’s” spears of color hang slightly out of focus like continents adrift on an ocean of blackness, shimmering and quivering as a sustained bell chime begins to outline the main tone(s). The edges begin to blur more and more, until the sides of the screen are shifted and jerking in greater chaos with the tone. Frank’s presentations are fascinating, yet bare when flung across the blackness of empty space, a reminder of the bleak and empty world that Ambarchi and Ng explore.

The question has been raised. What can we expect of music? If not to challenge and confound us, then at least to be interesting and imaginative. Ambarchi and Ng do both.

By Joel Calahan

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