It can be easy for the discourse around a modular synth player’s work to get bogged down in the specific hardware they’re trying to master, rather than the ideas they’re expressing by using it. Even more so if, like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, their rack of choice is one of the notoriously temperamental but frequently beautiful sounding Buchla Music Easel series.
Smith has long been the equivalent of the poster star of the Buchla resurgence, alongside the likes of Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone. Initially viewed in a linearity from Suzanne Ciani, she’s instead - from 2016 breakthrough LP 'EARS' and its follow-up 'The Kid' a year later - quickly managed to work the machine into the fabric of her music and used it as a foundation from which to build ever more ambitious expanses of sound. Now, as we reach the Los Angeles-based artist’s latest LP 'The Mosaic Of Transformation', she’s at the point where the tools at her disposal now fully reflect her, as opposed to the other way around.
The abridged context behind 'The Mosaic Of Transformation' is that Smith simultaneously took to improvised movement and dancing alongside the making of this record, the shapes she shifted between reflecting her audio creating process of sending currents through synthesizers and into the air through speakers. You can dig deeper into the visual representation of frequencies and cymatics to further understand the record if you’d like, but you don’t need it to enjoy what is some of Smith’s most texturally rich and immersive work yet.
Even at surface level, it’s not hard to listen to the nine tracks and attempt to visualise them as a body’s movement. At the risk of hypocritically dwelling on the hardware, the Buchla is loved because of the organic sense of its sound, but that merely plays into something that Smith has always sought after. On something like the swelling string sounds of 'Remembering', or the mix of 'Carrying Gravity’s soft, drawn out notes and its pattering melodies, things couldn’t sound further from being strapped to the rails of a machine.
Elsewhere, something like 'The Spine Is Quiet In The Centre' drifts along almost tidally before being broken up by a blossoming refrain that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Joe Hisaishi soundtrack. What isn’t so prominent compared to previous albums is Smith’s own voice – although again she’s working in such detail now it can be hard to separate it from the layers around it. At its most clear, as on 'The Steady Heart', it effects the same cloudy harmonics that have characterised her use of vocals previously – a breathy, gentle murmur that flits in the breeze of the music. 'The Steady Heart', however, is also nearest to approaching a beat – in keeping with its title. It’s maybe the most structured track here and a necessary inclusion, as the rest of the album otherwise could be so ethereal as to drift away completely.
'The Mosaic Of Transformation' culminates with the ten-minute 'Expanding Electricity', posited as a suite that moves between rising strings and bubbling organ, to Smith’s choral vocal, before spiralling upwards and upwards, a swirling crescendo that retains a delicate touch even as – really for the first time – the volume starts to dominate. For Smith, though, she doesn’t need loud dynamics in order to submerge the listener; and for much of her latest record the command of her machines is such that the mind is easily able to wander, and forget that they’re there at all.
Words: Simon Jay Catling
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