The Covid era has been a fascinating one for ambient, drone and long-form music, with some extraordinary records and projects emerging from a time of intensified listening. But even among all this, Lea Bertucci’s A Visible Length of Light stands out as something special.
The New York-based composer has developed her unique style over some 12 albums now, as well as untold live projects. Existing somewhere between classical, jazz, ambient, installation sound art, and even folk, she heavily features saxophones and bass clarinets, as well as other wind instruments like pipe organs, and – on this album – the venu, an ancient Indian wooden flute. These instruments are blended with field recordings and digital processing to weave otherworldly atmospheres.
She has frequently incorporated the acoustic properties of buildings into her compositions, to create a magical and sometimes uncanny sense of place. This time, the focus is on the landscape — in particular the American landscape — with a sense of vastness surrounding the intimacy of the instrumental recordings. The effect is astounding; by consciously reflecting a time of turbulent social and political change, and the shifts in relationships between enclosure and freedom the pandemic has brought about, the album can be both troubling and transcendent at the same time.
We spoke to Bertucci at home to find out more about this complexity, and ask her about some of her inspirations when it comes to relating sound to landscape.
Q. Hi Lea, as release date approaches, how do you feel about the album?
I see this album as a continuation of the musical language I’ve been developing around woodwind instruments since about 2014 or so: explorations of micro-tonality, tape collage and all sorts of creative misuse of musical instruments — although the palette of instrumentation is always expanding. Once I’ve finished a project, I don’t really listen to it anymore, unless it’s way later for the purpose of reflection. When something I’m working on is finished, it has its own life, and will exist in the external world on its own terms. By that time, I’m often already onto the next project.
Much of my previous work revolves around exploring the phenomena of resonance by physically making music in unique acoustic conditions, and in many ways this album is an expansion of that interest.
The one thing I’ve heard from some friends is that they seem genuinely moved by listening to it. I’ve had a few fellow musicians tell me that it was “needed” for them at that time. People have expressed gratitude for something that seems to speak to them, and is helpful during these incredible and strange times. So, now I like to think of it as a gift, or at least, a humble offering, that these sounds can act as a reminder of the beauty of our world, even in all of its complications and contradictions.
Q. You're explicit about using place and landscape as part of your work - can you explain why you've been drawn to doing this?
I’m deeply inspired by the work of many land artists from the ‘60s, including Agnes Denes, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and James Turrell, among others. In much of my previous work, I was interested in finding the meeting points between architecture and sound. I’ve now expanded this approach to describe a landscape, or a particular exteriority through music. It’s also not just landscape in general: these are specifically American landscapes. I have always held a frustration with being a citizen of a country whose evils run deep, yet whose people and natural features are profoundly beautiful and singular. The social and political instability of this past year has triggered an even more meaningful questioning of all these things, so I tried to digest and understand the nature of these feelings in my music. I also suspect that my response of focusing on landscape is a way of coping with having to inhabit interior spaces so much this past year. I can’t go outside, so I dream of open spaces instead.
Q. You have worked a lot in the world of galleries and experimental festivals like Unsound. What are the benefits and constraints of operating with these kinds of audiences?
I came out of the underground music and art scene in New York, so even though I appreciate being given the opportunity to work in more organised, institutionalised contexts – and, yes, it is an incredible thing to perform in the shadow of a Richard Serra sculpture, or play for 700 people in a historic synagogue in Poland – I’m often frustrated by the exclusivity of these types of spaces, and the inherent class and status divide that can come with them. My favorite kinds of shows involve feelings of freedom, community and gratitude from an audience, and I think I’ve experienced that much more in underground settings. This is complicated however, because I also really like excellent sounding rooms and amazing PA systems, and the underground is of course limited in what you can really do on a technical and logistical level. I like being able to traverse the two worlds, to have the intimacy and community of DIY shows while also sometimes having the opportunity to realize ambitious more projects that require logistical and technical resources.
Q. It seems like lengthy immersive listening of various kinds is becoming more a part of mainstream culture, thanks to gaming, surround sound at home and in cinemas, podcasts, increasingly detailed sound design in club music and so on. How has this affected people's receptivity to sound art, do you think?
We are living in a time of continually crafted sound design. From some new sleep app to ambisonics, contemporary life is shaped by a built environment of sound. Amazing audio technology has enabled artists and engineers to realize work never before possible. We do seem to be living in a moment in which sound as an artistic medium has stopped being considered only in relation to music; it’s now taken seriously by museums as a fine art discipline. Once you dematerialize the art object, and make work that exists in the realm of pure phenomena, people can become very confused. There’s still a lot of compartmentalization of the discipline in terms of “music”, i.e. performing arts, or “sound art”, the installation or visual art realm. I think the form is actually incredibly mutable and it is important to consider sound work not as either installation or performing arts, but as an interdisciplinary form that encompasses “musical” elements, performance, durational gestures, acoustics, sounding objects and speaker design and installation. There is still a lot to be done in terms of institutions truly understanding how to present this work but I’m excited to see new recognition of the discipline and a greater understanding by both curators and the public.
Q. Do you think much about how, in a technical sense, people will specifically listen to your releases, and how it might affect their everyday lives? What do you hope someone might get from this record specifically?
A Visible Length of Light is really a space made for reflection, so I hope that people hear my attempt to articulate processes of realization, of understanding. I hope this record will help its listeners to process the intense changes of our times by evoking the wildness and strangeness of the American landscape. As far as the physical listening experience goes, I’ve learned to cope a little bit with the tragedy of earbuds and computer speakers, but I hope also that people will listen on legit speakers, because the conceptual and emotional impact of the music is so much more apparent.
Lea Bertucci’s inspirations in landscape music:
Eliane Radigue – Occam Ocean
Occam Ocean is a series of freestanding and modular pieces of music for acoustic instruments and players. This ongoing series began in 2011 and has accumulated 22 pieces written by Radigue in a score-less, collaborative approach with each musician. A single composition may be played solo or in various combinations with other instruments. Solo pieces are Occams, duo pieces Rivers, and larger ensemble pieces Deltas. It’s a meditation on the nature of water, from contemplations on the physical properties of waves, to organizing the structure of the piece as a metaphor for a sublime body of water.
Chris Watson – Glastonbury Ocean Soundscape
Here is a more direct oceanscape, although I was surprised when I first heard this recording. I expected the obligatory wind and waves both distant and close. Instead, there are harsh ASMR taps, great creaking sounds and way more percussive textures than expected. A true masterwork by a pioneer in field recording.
Neil Young – Dead Man Soundtrack
It’s nice when Neil Young frees himself from song forms. This moody soundtrack from Jim Jarmush’s 1995 film evokes burnt out textures of the American west. A slow, distorted slide guitar evokes images of mountain passes and vast expanses, washes of feedback, of hallucinatory experiences near train tracks and derelict motels.
Various Artists – Tuva, Among the Spirits
This amazing record from Smithsonian Folkways creatively documents music from the high Tuvan plains. Field recordings of wind sweeping through a valley are intermingled with traditional music that clearly evolved in relationship to the unique landscape, such as the track “Xoomei on Horseback”, a beautiful example of melodies sung in cadence to the gallop of a horse.
A Visible Length of Light is out now!
Cover Credit: Colin Conces
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs