Vegetal Negatives by Marja Ahti

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Marja Ahti | Vegetal Negatives
Hallow Ground (CD/DL)

There is something wonderfully structured about Marja Ahti’s emotive ‘Vegetal Negatives’. A warm and organic tableaux that courts both the familiar and the strange, each of its elements appears rendered with a loving and meticulous hand, an approach that feels on the surface as if it should be at odds with the lively and unspoiled ecology within which she works, and yet, thankfully, instead compliments that rich sound-world.

It is the sort of album that rewards the attentive audience, revealing more of itself each time it is listened to, despite its apparent simplicity. What begins as waves of fairly associative and culturally related sounds – field recordings of the sea, creaks, singing bowls, plus the obligatory minimal synthesis – soon evolves into something far greater. Ahti approaches her sources with a delicate control, exploring not only the richness and subtlety of each of her tools, but doing so in a distinctly organised fashion. Sounds feel sequenced and inter-defined without ever feeling incongruous – there is none of the sharp collage of Musique Concrete, yet there is that same sense of a deep investigation of source and sense, sound and meaning. 

At first, the reliance upon such recognisable and over-used sounds is off-putting. Upon first listen, you might be forgiven for thinking this is some awful hippy jam session, a group of stoned bearded men faffing about with hand percussion and crinkly paper on the beach. The sound world is familiar, and the combination of its elements does point to a certain overwrought aesthetic. However, the composer here imbues such sounds with a precision that betrays any lazy stereotypes, a methodology and consideration that, in terms of the arrangement and production both, firmly extends the capacity of the sounds used and any collective meaning they might hold. 

The opener, ‘Coastal Inversion’, appears to utilise recordings of the sea as a form of instrumental structure, with the percussion and synthesiser following its listless crescendos, rising and falling in waves born of minor changes in amplitude, the sudden holding, like a breath, of some previously staccato element. Likewise, ‘Chora’ treats these same fundamental elements as a sort of additive or spectral source – held tones and organic creaks seem to coalesce, combining to invoke timbral deviances that emerge from an earthen, lethargic backdrop, before themselves dissipating, lost to a distant filtered voice.

Admittedly, the two middle tracks are a little less overwhelming, with ‘Rooftop Gardens’ straying far closer to the ‘field-recordings of people opening doors and banging stuff’ than I am typically comfortable with. The sound of birds – a source nearly impossible to find creative use for such is its omnipotence in this kind of practice – gives way to a solo bell, chime or bowl, which suffers much the same fate. Even here though, amongst sounds I so often struggle with, Ahti responds with an impressive yet understated intervention. Without ever really noticing how, these recognisable sounds are gradually lost to bubbling, pleasant feedback, retaining the same mood and colour but divorcing the sounds from their sources in a fashion Pierre Schaefer would be proud of. 

Vegetal Negatives’ is a wonderful album, and one that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Ahti is a phenomenal composer and arranger, and the album demonstrates a supreme ability to not only let sounds be, to truly listen to her source material, but equally to make well-judged and articulate interventions. 2019 already feels like an excellent year for experimental music, and ‘Vegetal Negatives’ takes its place among the best of that already strong crowd.

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