When a press release drops terms like “granular synthesis” and “mathematical analysis” to reference how music is made and the artist talks about “cellular automaton” and “visual complexity,” it’s a fair bet that the reviewer’s not in for a simple listen. Guy Birkin’s software-and-theory-driven Symmetry-Breaking is such a CD and, as predicted, can be a trifle dense to get into. Paradoxically, once you find your way in, it’s easy to get taken away in the underlying harmonics. Much of the work here comes off with a raw, almost unfiltered sound and feeling. You can almost hear the numbers at work as they pull found and instrument sounds into semi-specific shapes. At other times Birkin’s higher math solves for x in cool, accessible flows. “Bass Loop b3” resonates with a rich low-end twang and an organic rasp of the string laid over a trickle of swirling electronics. “Gravity’s Rainbow” is a quiet ambient piece that Birkin’s software ripples, folds and deconstructs; as we listen the sounds get smaller and sparser, but our own calm inner response to it remains and is rewarded when Birkin lets the numbers ease the pieces back to wholeness. “Bramble” is a pastoral keyboard piece that speaks its story as pads and electronic passages walk through the background. These stand in effective counterpoint to more challenging pieces like the opener, “Fourier-Gabor,” where Birkin grinds sounds against one another and lets the underlying protocol rend them down into a crackling, static statement, or the near-white-noise wall created in “Ice Cloud Ten.” Even here, under the washed-through sound, a semblance of chord progression can be heard. The density at work in “Sneinton Elements” makes “Ice Cloud” seem lightweight by comparison, and feels like a field recording of the titular neighborhood, stretched, manipulated and coursed through with a long drone.
In addition to all this, because of the unpredictable way in which the music is created, the Runningonair label is releasing 100 numbered versions of the disc; a second disc included with the release has three tracks rendered in a way that is unique to that version. (Did that make sense?)
So, yes, there’s some heady academic thinking at work behind the scenes on Symmetry-Breaking, but Birkin gets a passing grade for making it understandable to the ear. Listen up. You might learn something.
Available from Runningonair.