An ephemeral hum intones over what sounds like water droplets falling in a cavern made of resonant crystal. The hum murmurs and fluctuates. Soft choral vocals drift in the distance, so faintly that you’re not sure if you’ve heard it, or if it was a chorus of human voices at all. Ambience gathers in rippling pools. A low rumble emanates from somewhere far away.
A shimmering swipe of sound runs through the echoing space. Soft, trailing, noise-objects race by with increasing frequency. Although there is a definite sense of an enclosed, echoing space, there is nothing these sounds conjure in the imagination more than comets, meteors, and other small astronomical objects whizzing by at an incredible rate through a place so large that they are rendered relatively slow.
This is Emersal Tracings, the tape which one might call the first full-length album from Nathaniel Ritter’s experimental ambient project, “Circulation of Light”. Though it only clocks in at nineteen minutes per side, it is at any rate the lengthiest release under this name to date. It is also notable for having titles describing its content rather than simply numbers, a trait shared by only one of the previous three releases from the project.
The sonorous masses continue to pass until they become a cluster approaching and receding tones. The dripping water begins to form into a distinct melody, turning our seeping cave into a kind of vast glass-harp. It seems possible that what we are hearing is the “music of the spheres” which the Pythagoreans of 5th century BCE suggested guided celestial bodies along their appointed ways through the great concentric orbs of the universe.
A booming nimbus shakes the crystalline tones. Distortion creeps in. The melody drops out, and the composition finishes with an uncertain, wavering wine, like an insect looking for a place to land.
I presume that what I have described here is the first side, because this is what the tape was rewound to when I opened the package. In any case, what I have related above refers to the black side. The lack of labeling is an aesthetic choice I suppose, but it does seem a little counterproductive to go to the trouble of giving the sides names (“Emersal Tracings I: Choke Point” and “Emersal Tracings II: Waking State”) but not clearly indicate which one is which.
In any case, the other side, which is silver, begins with the same distorted, wavering whine with which the first side ended, though it is weaker here. A piano clangs like a slow drum behind it, gradually finding a halting melody. At first, the instrument seems fairly clear and undistorted. Before long though, tape distortion begins to affect the piano as well. The entire composition gives the overall impression that it is running down and about to collapse. Though there are a few echoes of the bright water droplets from the previous piece, the whole affair is considerably less uplifting and affirmative than the bright, rushing cosmos of the black side. We traverse instead across a bleak and shadowy soundscape. It has its own kind of desolate beauty, but as it progresses it slowly diminishes in direction and variation.
It is hard to know exactly what to make of it, though the presence of the title “Waking State”, regardless of what side it is applied to, suggests that this album may be intended to address the Gnostic subjects which Mr. Ritter has devoted some attention to in his work with Kinit Her, among other projects.
It is difficult to give a simple explanation of Gnostic thought. Indeed, it has founded its reputation on both mystery and controversy, and as such almost any attempt to expound upon its ideas or history is sure to be met with passionate objections of one kind or another. The word itself comes from the Greek gnōsis, and means “knowledge”. More specifically, the term “Gnosis” in the field of theology and religious mysticism implies knowledge received from divine sources through meditation and other exercises intended to detach the seeker from materialism.
The Gnostics regarded materialist worldviews as the ultimate in delusion, and even went so far as to criticize the existence of matter itself as being either a colossal mistake or an intentional act of cruelty perpetrated by the Creator or “Demiurge”. This being, who fractured the universe into light and dark, shackled souls to bodies, and set time rolling on the downward path of history, is the villain of the cosmic drama, and his primary weapons against humanity are falsehood and sleep.
The Gnostic preoccupation with the notions of waking and sleep is eloquently described in Jacques Lacarrière in his 1973 literary essay, Les Gnostiques.
“Sleep is to consciousness what weight is to the body: a state of death, inertia, a petrification of the psychic forces. We sleep. We spend our lives asleep. And only those who are aware of it can hope to break down these walls of mental inertia, to awaken in themselves the spark which, in spite of all, still glows within us, like a tear in the veil of corporeal night.”
It is this spark that the music of Nathaniel Ritter seems intended to nurture. The very name of the project, “Circulation of Light,” suggests an internal luminance which courses through the veins of the soul, carrying the vital fluid of supernal truth to its extremities, just as blood travels through the arteries of the material body.
If the lilting, chaotic assembly we find on the silver side is indeed Mr. Ritter’s vision of our “Waking State”, there is definitely a Gnostic perspective of conscious, waking life as delusion being expressed here. The recording never forms into anything more coherent, and by the end actually manages to dissolve further, descending into incoherent, muffled tones heard as if from deep under water. This is remarkably well aligned with another passage from M. Lacarrière’s poetic essay:
“All the beings of our world are, in the eyes of the Gnostics, the sediment of a lost heaven. And from the bottom of the sea, man perceives nothing of the luminous surface of the upper world except in ephemeral forms, fleeting reflections, evanescent phantoms which are like those phosphorescent fish that alone illuminate the age-old darkness of the great ocean depths.”
We are, in essence, like those lost under the waves of the Deluge, dragged down by the material gold we are too foolish to release for the pure, philosophical gold of truth’s illuminating light. For me, the final, drowned strains of this cassette called to mind Mamoru Oshii’s 1985 film Tenshi no Tamago, which explores similar esoteric themes regarding links between the Last Judgment and Flood of Genesis.
Other than the use of piano in the opening, the rest of the silver side is largely devoid of recognizable instruments. It comes across as an invitation to wake from our waking state– not into dream, but into that which is behind the exoteric veil of the physical.
Since the entire composition on the silver side is choked with distortion, the “Choke Point” title seems much more appropriate. However, a dead space at the end would seem to indicate that this is indeed the B-side. In this case, it would seem that the constriction of the “Choke Point” title is indeed meant to be paradoxically applied to the more spacious composition which we find on the black side. Perhaps its presentation of splendid beauty within a vast enclosure is intended to convey the majesty of Creation, while reminding us still that it is reality of restriction. A beautiful and spacious prison, but a prison nonetheless.
In the material world, this release has manifested in an edition of 100 cassettes from the San Francisco based label, Black Horizons. The J-card is created from a sturdy, bronze metallic stock, with silver ink applied through offset printing.
01 Emersal Tracings I: Choke Point
02 Emersal Tracings II: The Waking State
Stuart Sudekum writes for a number of online publications, including Examiner.com (where he provides coverage of New York City’s underground music scene) and Ritual House (an online resource for investigations into ritual magic). You can follow his work on Twitter, or email him with your comments and questions.