“The acoustic properties and sonic signatures of physical spaces have always been essential to music, from how theaters and halls were designed to Alvin Lucier’s iconic representation of re-amplified acoustic modes, “I Am Sitting In a Room.” Markus Mehr’s latest full-length album, Brief Conversations, uses sound to activate spaces, and then uses electronics to further re-contextualize the recordings of those spaces.
The artist’s dialogue between sound objects and their environment yields a full-length experimental work that blends acousmatic, electronic, and field recording principles. At various moments, it evokes comparisons to Ian Wellman, Richard Chartier, and Martin Stig Anderson, but Mehr’s sonic palette creates its own wake through the seas of acoustic sound manipulation. It’s work of richly harmonic and distressed beauty. Brief Conversations primarily succeeds in two areas: First, creating evolving and ear-grabbing ambiences, and second, not overlooking the small details.
On paper, or in other hands, Brief Conversations could be a hard soundscape with sudden and jarring shifts in sonic perspective. Mehr’s approach is instead to make evocative, emotive pieces that are slow burners rather than frenetic experimental freakouts. The album as a whole sits right on the border of unsettling and calming. The pieces are meditative, immersive, and certainly intense, but the structure and hard cuts aren’t jarring jump scares or disorienting shifts in thought. Each piece evolves with a solid narrative arc; many are palindromes, ending much like they began, but the journey is the destination here. The acousmatic properties of the recontextualized sounds have a delicious mystery to them; some are easily recognizable, others utterly unknowable.
While electronic drones and acoustic hits drive most of the pieces on the album, it’s the small details that wrap the proceedings in a gauze of mood and nuance: the shuffle of feet, distant airplanes overhead, the rustle of cloth, human coughs, and microsounds to which we can’t possibly assign an origin. These sounds are as much a vital part of the sonic landscape as the menacing bass drones and the blips and glitches of granular processing. Crackles, stutters, and pops adorn room-shaking bass and airy, ephemeral tones of unknown origin. Mehr deftly uses rhythm and time as well as sound design to create complexity and density that’s intriguing to the brain but at times also tugs at the heart.
Brief Conversations maintains its musicality during its more experimental moments, which is impressive, but when more traditional timbres like subtractive synthesizers or polysynth pads enter the mix, Mehr’s ideas start to dilute slightly. Musically it’s all very successful, but the focus of the concept starts to blur. The unearthed harmonics from within acoustic spaces or from audio-rate sample modulation are much richer and fresher on the ear, while being much harder to unlock and discover—but that effort pays off with extreme character and a more unique creative voice. But these imbalances are brief, and absolutely subjective—almost like interstitial ballads on a rock album—and again, musically it all remains on solid, evocative ground.
These countervailing forces of intensity against calm, large against small, atonal against melodic, unadorned and ornamented, and percussive against drone are what helps position Brief Conversations at a near-perfect balance between music and pure sound art, creating a rare work where experimentalism never becomes alienating, and musicality is embraced as much as texture.”
– Igloo Mag (written by Nathan Moody)