The Mortimer Trap is the name of a series of chess moves—the kind of trap you’d have to be a real schmuck to walk into and lose the game. If I played chess, I’d be that schmuck. But more importantly, you could read the album title as a statement about ambient music, about the fine line that runs through the genre between the utterly banal and astonishingly moving or beautiful. As a genre, ambient music is full of such traps and disguises. This record may say something about those traps, but it certainly doesn’t contain, much less fall into, any of them. It’s seventy-eight minutes of straight, unadulterated, modulated tones of indeterminate origin that hover, shift in volume, hit you, and carry you along towards the unknown. Well, until about thirty-eight minutes into it, when a very basic techno rhythm appears, though still in the background. It’s a drum pattern that you would expect to hear from somebody like Thomas Brinkmann or from Berlin. And it’s completely captivating. The rhythm softly nudges everything forward only to eventually fade away to inaudibility and place you back in the realm of an unsettled, unresolved and seemingly infinite modulation. For me, these qualities are the closest connection to For Bunita Marcus, the solo piano composition by the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, which Brinkmann and Oren Ambarchi state the album is loosely based on.
Like all ambient music, how you hear this album depends on: 1. Your own mood and 2. Hearing things in the background that are independent of the recording. For me these are usually the sounds of the bus or train, or the rhythm of my walk and the way my legs brush against the side of my iPod. As its creators, Brinkmann and Ambarchi must be aware that listeners are not just hearing the music when they play the album. Also, it’s entirely unclear who’s doing what here. Brinkmann is known for both a minimal techno sensibility and his more experimental performances and compositional approach to electronic music: turntables with multiple arms, manipulated vinyl and unconventional re-edits. Ambarchi is a guitarist and a drummer who hovers between free rock—such as his collaborations with Keiji Haino, Jim O’Rourke and Stephen O’Malley—and the art world. He’s one of a new breed of musicians/ artists who don’t stay in one place or play one thing. He also performs a lot in galleries and art related events, and that has definitely had an affect on the way people hear his work. I drift in and out of the sounds of his various projects through the filter of my own world—like I would in a gallery space. And The Mortimer Trap in particular is not just about pure musical structures. It’s about the perception of music and has little to nothing to do with the disco, the dance floor or the stadium.
In a way, I’m at a loss of words for why I think this is such a good record. I’ve been listening to it over and over again, and I just can’t seem to crack it. Maybe it’s because over the last twenty-five years and working at The Wire, I’ve heard so many boring, tedious records pretending to be ambient or atmospheric. Somehow this album neutralizes such crap with its complete indifference about where it fits in, musically speaking. This is not a bunch of field recordings; there aren’t any tweeting birds or obvious “ambient” elements. This is about discrete changes in tone, changes in oscillation, changes in volume, beat entries, beat exits. From Stockhausen through Kraftwerk to techno, electronic music has always been about looking forward and never backwards. At least before the digital age, that is, which has triggered a nostalgia for antique tape and analog tools. This record is all the more exciting for its lack of concern about time or place. Sometimes you wish more artists would do the same. Given how little happens over its seventy-eight-minute duration, it’s not the easiest thing to listen to, and I’ve heard from one person that the lead modulating synth tone actually makes them nauseous. Well, perhaps that’s a good thing? I mean, when was the last time you heard something that made you sick to your stomach? For me it must have been Throbbing Gristle in 1978. Or maybe The Residents. I wish I liked The Residents but their songs are so crap. Alas, I digress. More than anything else, this album makes me feel other. It makes me feel not there. It’s beyond good and evil, or good and bad… which is where anything approximating art should start. ~
Published June 12, 2012.