Think of music as a river. Once upon a time, as humanity was emerging from caves and treetops, all music was simply organized sounds. Over time, the whistles, clicks, grunts and banging rocks were organized into an accepted harmonic language, and the river split into increasingly finite tributaries, known as genres. Each genre has its own rules, associations and following, which makes intercommunication difficult.
This atomization of sound makes for false dichotomies, such as folk & classical, high & low. Electronic music was originally the terrain of high art and culture, incorporated into classicism via composers like Olivier Messiaen and Iannis Xenakis, who sought to expand the harmonic vocabulary. On the other hand, you have genres like jazz, which started off as music by, for and about the people, trickling out of whorehouses and street parades. This popular language would be co-opted by the academics, until it's at this point about as stale and dead for the most part as a painting in a museum.
Like inbreeding, too much specialization inside a genre leads to atrophy and decay. There comes a point when you need to trace the river to its source, to find the root of all sound and music. That's where things get interesting.The Philomath by English-born, Indonesia-based producer Transmigrant is an intriguing blend of classicism, electronics, non-Western music, field recordings and spoken word samples that seek to tell a story in tone poems and other people's worlds. The Philomath was born when Sam Morgan, the man behind Transmigrant, relocated to Papua, New Guinea for a teaching position. There wasn't much to do, so Morgan filled the hours playing violin and piano, which would become the skeleton for Transmigrant.
Stylistically, Transmigrant bears the strongest sonic resemblance to explosive, emotive instrumental post-rock of the 2000s, like Rachel's or The Dirty Three in particular. These instrumental soundscapes are particularly adept at tugging the heartstrings, particularly with the soaring, keening, crestfallen violin, which is a highpoint of this record. Morgan's tone poems get particularly interested when layered with the additional associations of music from other times and places.
So yeah, it's classical, it's electronic, there's a bit of jazz ("Halley's Comet," the thunderous double bass of "Youth And Age And All In Between"). Not content with creating another instrumental rock record, no matter how beautiful, Morgan layers his climactic, emotive and tumultuous sounds with spoken word samples from notable physicists to express Morgan's love of the universe's deep, dark mysteries.
There's a lot going on in The Philomath, enough to warrant a philosophical essay, so let's cut to the chase - does it sound good? The challenge of dabbling in multiple genres means a record must succeed by the standards of each. It's got to be great electronic music, outstanding classical, exceptional jazz or else the whole thing crumbles to dust (think about how many tracks were ruined by piss-poor remixes in the '90s). The answer, thank the gods, is - it does indeed. Morgan's violin and piano playing are the real showstoppers here, on par with any of the artists already mentioned (no small compliment), but Morgan also reveals himself to be an astute electronic producer, particularly rhythmically. This is what makes or breaks an electronic record, ultimately. If someone just drops some pre-made presets onto a track and lets them repeat indefinitely, you can definitely tell. It is equally apparent when a lot of time, attention and detail goes into an electronic track, as you can hear with masters of the genre like Aphex Twin, Boards Of Canada, Autechre, et al.
Sam Morgan set out to take listeners on a journey with The Philomath, a sonic simulacrum of his experience being away from home, ensconced in the jungle, and I would say he definitely succeeds. If you are looking for a record to represent the emotional depths of whatever Natural Geographic documentary or photo spread you happen to be looking at, look no further.
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