Liz Meredith and John Somers go epic on five-LP box set
By Bret McCabe
Mar 20, 2013 | 3:00 AM
Composer/guitarist John Somers finds ideas for sound pieces in everyday places. Take, for instance, the path encircling Lake Montebello off East 33rd Street. A social worker by day, Somers had a client, "this really neat old woman," that he used to take for walks around the lake. "We would have these really nice walks and talk about life-not in a deep way," he says during a weeknight interview. "She would ask, 'Have you found a girl yet?' Stuff like that. So I had her in mind when I was thinking of the image I started with, and it evolved from there."
He's talking about "Montebello Lake," a single composition that is split over two sides on a single LP. A collaboration with local violist and composer Liz Meredith, over its 39 minutes "Montebello Lake" parts I and II suggest late-afternoon sunlight slowly drifting into dusk. Meredith's viola lines trace long drones that capture that levitating twilight when the sun sets yet the sky remains bathed in light. Somers' guitar textures get smeared into long shadows, and the piece concludes in a ringing tone of night's arrival, that reminder that dark has imperceptibly swallowed the sky and it's time to head home.
It's the sort long-form ambient immersion that might be a hard sell as a single release. So Meredith and Somers did what very, very few DIY artists might do when thinking about unleashing their niche product into a crowded marketplace. They supersized it. This month, Meredith and Somers self-release The Disposition of Vibrant Forms, a five-LP box set of ambient textures and droning soundscapes.
Yes, that's right: five LPs, a single piece of music per side, total running time 181 minutes and 28 seconds. They're being lathe-cut by Peter King in New Zealand, a veteran small-batch vinyl manufacturer who has pressed indispensable releases by the Dead C, Birchville Cat Motel, Thela, Six Organs of Admittance, and others. And while sharing the same manufacturer is no indicator of quality, it is a good signpost of the company they aim to keep. The Disposition of Vibrant Forms is an epic release in every sense of the word.
It's also quite frequently breathtakingly gorgeous, a recording that rewards spending the time it takes to drink it in. Three hours sounds like a huge chunk of time to listen to music, but that's only because music is too frequently delegated to be the wallpaper to doing something else: on headphones during the bus/subway commute, plugged into the car stereo, the playlist cued up when cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or reading a book. And while Disposition functions just fine as background ear/brain massage, it can be an intoxicating listen all by itself. For chrissakes, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy runs a whopping 558 minutes, and people watch that multiple times. Think of Disposition as taking in an Andrei Tarkovsky movie-it may feel slowgoing at first, but you just may feel a bit transported on the other side.
The collaboration was three years in the making, a period during which Meredith and Somers worked on ideas alone and together, trading them back and forth until they found the right mood. Although both native to the Baltimore area, they didn't meet until they attended the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, where they played in a few rock-leaning bands together before they headed to California for graduate school: Meredith to Mills College in Oakland, and Somers to the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. They both wandered back to the East Coast after graduating, and the seeds of Disposition were sown when they played the 2009 installation of Exotic Hypnotic.
"We always knew that we wanted to do these long-form pieces," Somers says, sitting at a coffee shop with Meredith. She agrees: "The musical idea was pretty set, dense soundscapes."
Side by side, they make an interesting study in complementary contrasts. Meredith is calmly assured, answering questions with thoughtful, confident precision. Somers comes across as a little reserved but he also vibrates with ideas and energy. When he speaks, sentences erupt from his mouth as if trying to flee. "I think both of us have been interested in [soundscapes] in different ways, being string players," he says. "Vibrating strings have such an enormous amount of resonance and harmonics, so through pretty simple processes you can turn one note into a whole spectrum. And once we started amassing more of them, we were inspired by the idea of two sides of a record, some of the early ambient music composers from the '70s had that format. So we were kind of paying homage to those guys to an extent."
An even better analog is Harmony of the Spheres, that intoxicating three-LP box set that Darren Mock's sorely missed Drunken Fish imprint put out in 1996, featuring swirling side-long cuts from Bardo Pond, Charalambides, Loren Mazzacane Connors, Flying Saucer Attack, Roy Montgomery, and the finest 22 minutes and 30 seconds that Jessamine ever oozed. Disposition is more severely austere, but it evokes the same intense chronicling of speculative spaces. "Resonant Flow" opens with a humming drone, almost like the ending shimmies of ringing bells-only it stays there and evokes the feeling of watching the tide go out in real time. The shifting textures of "Precession (in time)" evoke a reverent church organ whose tones get slightly quieter as the track progresses. Each piece is an example of extreme subtlety, music that works in different ways at low or intense volumes and becomes borderline hallucinogenic through headphones. What can initially sound like a snail's plodding journey also carries these little dancing tones in clusters, and the ear begins to seek them out patiently. Such minute alterations, like a window's lights coming on in Warhol's Empire, occur over such elongated time periods that they accrue a dramatic impact.
Such potential in the expanse is what Meredith appreciates about playing long drones. "I really like the space it creates," Meredith says of long-form drones. "I like how it allows you to get drawn into it. And I really like it as a performer, performing it live, that way you experience time."
In fact, Disposition is as much experiential art as it is music. When Somers talks about how to gauge what is and isn't working when performing, he goes straight to visceral feeling. "If you hear a wrong note or a wrong timbre, to me, it's an emotional thing," he says. "It's almost like if you're in a conversation with a friend and they say something that's a little weird and you feel uncomfortable asking, 'What did you mean by that?'"
And he advocates for thinking of Disposition as something to get to know, not passively consume as noise. "I love the idea of somebody sitting down and just making it their own," Somers says. "That's why I don't mind talking about generic flashes of an image or any kind of emotional stuff that maybe inspired it. I just think that's a really important part, making it personal. Get cozy."