I’ve been listening a lot to Porya Hatami recently, and it has been a delightful experience. It all started with a bandcamp sale by the Flaming Pines label to celebrate their third anniversary – a different album was offered for free download every two days. That drew my attention to their wonderful Birds of a Feather 3″ CD series, and to the first in that series, The Black Woodpecker by Porya Hatami, and that led me to his impressive new CD on Tench, which I will review below. But first a few words about The Black Woodpecker, since that was the piece that tuned my ear to Hatami’s sounds.
The Black Woodpecker is a beautiful 18-minute composition for slow listening. It opens subdued and intimate but active, with a breathy hum and soft chimes fluttering like the scurry of insects and ripple of leaves in a warm breeze. The chimes shift slowly to the foreground, brief staccato patterns foreshadowing the woodpeckers to come, and birdsong emerges in the background. The background hum swells almost imperceptibly, like the gradual increase of morning light, and takes on a slow swell, a gentle rising and falling cadence. The rustling also begins to ebb and flow, like waves on a beach in the middle distance, as the woodpecker’s rhythmic rattle punctuates the sense of constantly moving stillness. The gradual shifts have made the stage larger, lighter, more luminous, more spacious; the scene is set. A few tentative, tinkling notes enter on tiptoe, as if unsure whether to intrude, wanting to join in but hesitant to disturb the fragile balance of activity and peace. The background tones rise and take on a slow, wistful melody. We begin to hear footsteps, and eventually the music slowly withdraws, leaving only the rustle of the footsteps, the quiet susurration of wind in trees, and the birdsong. Across 18 minutes of patient exposition Hatami has attuned my ears to the bright-eyed bustle of birds amid the vast, swaying stillness of air and forest, stilling me while at the same time nudging me forward. Hush descends. When the carefully orchestrated envelope of sound withdraws, and I am left with footsteps and birdsong, the birds are poignantly present, and I am ready to really hear them. I have been drawn out of the bustle of my mind and focused on the beauty of one fragile creature, the continued crunch of careful footsteps keeping me aware of human presence, of my own power to respect or to interrupt, to care or to march on regardless. It is a lovely piece, reason enough for thankfulness, even if it had not led me on to more discoveries.
Brian Eno famously described ambient music (at least famously enough to convince Wikipedia) as music that is “able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” The comment would hardly have become so familiar if it were not saying something true about the genre, but it can at best be only part of the story. Porya Hatami’s music formally meets the definition – it does not enforce one level of listening through arresting rhythm or abrasive sound; you can put it on in the background while you pay the bills if you like. But that does not mean that it does not gently call for a particular level of listening. From start to finish the compositions are patiently asking us to listen carefully, and to reflect; this is no less true of the new full-length album, Shallow, on which more below.
Shallow begins in territory familiar from The Black Woodpecker (and, as I am discovering, from other Hatami recordings), with a serene background drone undergirding a busy rustle of tiny noises that at once evoke the natural world and strike the ear as arranged, processed, not quite entirely natural after all. The focus here is less on presenting naturalistic field recordings and more on music-making. What at first sound like perhaps trickling water and insects buzzing prove harder to place on closer attention. A small, cyclical world of gently percussive sounds and skittering buzzes on a watery background is looped to create a languid sense of rhythm. Once this is established, a liquid spatter of brightly fluting chirps and whistles takes the foreground, sometimes bright-edged, sometimes soft and plaintive. They meander melodically until the buzzing backdrop gives way to a warm swirl of ascending synth tones and faint chimes, a place of mellow, wandering beauty to get lost in. Ambulatory chimes join the scene, like the arrhythmic patter of the last few raindrops after a shower into the surface of a pond. The light insect chittering returns, and then the water, the natural world returning at the fringes of a dream. The track, titled “Fen”, closes with birdsong.
“After the Rain”, the second and shortest piece, smoothly picks up what feels like the same dream. It begins patiently with a gentle alternation of whispered notes, gradually increasing in assertiveness, adds the now familiar ascending tones, some processed piano, a patter of high chimes. There is a stronger focus on elusive patterns here, built one upon another until the layers frolic together like independently swaying levels of a complex mobile in an afternoon breeze. “White Forest” begins with the album’s most intrusive moment, its strongest withdrawal from the natural world, while retaining the gently looping momentum. An oscillating hum sways over small electronic chirps until the familiar play of chiming sounds gradually emerges, softer this time, new but continuous with what preceded. The rest of the track offers further rearrangements and retunings of the by now familiar sound palette.
The album as a whole has a very cohesive sound and a strong sense of gradual unfolding and coherent progression. Across all the tracks the softly ascending patterns set between a calming background drone and a free play of high tones recur. Hatami’s compositions work by setting pools of soothing, softly stirring stillness against looping rustles of activity, adding gently rolling upward gestures, and overlaying the whole with bright melodic shards that cluster and glisten in a graceful, fluttering dance of light. The sharp, glistening edges of the foreground sustain motion and prevent a lapse into the soporific. Shallow is a beautiful recording, essential listening. I expect to be listening to it regularly and with gladness for a long time to come.
(Before I close, Tench deserve a special footnote. I ordered the CD of Shallow from their website, and was pleased with the good price and the low shipping charges – $2.50 is well below average. A few days after ordering, I received an email from Marc at Tench letting me know that he had found a cheaper way to ship the CD and was refunding the difference. $1.10 appeared in my PayPal account, the CD was with me in a few days, and the palpable sense of care that pervades the music was echoed in the obvious care displayed by the label. Way to go.)
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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