Somehow, this was my first experience reviewing or listening closely a Michael Northam release. However, I had encountered his existence consistently over the past few years through my industrious friend and bandmate Evan, who gushed over everything from Northam’s quality of output to his prolific release rate to his aesthetic sense to his exotic musical life, which has landed him for varying periods in various parts of the U.S., India, Japan, and (apparently currently) Berlin, collaborating with an endless stream of sound artists of many stripes. Quite a guy, I thought, and this economical CD fulfills in every way. It is from a project called Michael Northam’s Owl Songs, and features the first two performances the eponymous piece (both live from venues in Berlin).
Like most of Northam’s work, this is very evocative sound art, building sound environments of unusual vividness. He has referred to “sound actions” in the past, seeking to bridge the idea of music-making with the experience of sound itself. Here, scraping and fidgeting actions, field recordings, looped vocals, sparse keyboard drones, and electronic touches form ever-changing ambience and even seem to evoke specific characters. Density and dynamics are meticulously controlled. There are ritualistic, mystical-primitivist overtones throughout. It’s narrative, organic, and in a notable way cinematic – a mysteriously full blank surface on which to project.
The other interesting point is how the two performances match up, being named as the same piece. By this I assume that Northam is using the same musical “system” for both – the same gear or same set of recordings or sounds or some such thing. I’m still not quite sure of the nature of their relationship, and in fact the CD doesn’t say which one came first, so one can only guess. The atmosphere is consistent, with the second performance quieter and more restrained, more slow-moving, and more vocal-centric. Overall, though, they differ in the manner of walking through two different sections of prairie at dusk.
I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I probably won’t track down Northam’s full discography anytime soon, but no matter. This release, like many others I suspect, is a fantastic gateway that will fulfill repeat examinations.