Many recording artists peak early, losing relevance as they age. Marvin Ayres is the exception to the rule. Want proof? Consider some of the bands to which the artist has contributed: Culture Club, Simply Red, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Prefab Sprout. Each had their time in the sun. But as their careers began to wane, Ayres was just getting warmed up. In the interim, he delved into film soundtracks, audio-visual installations and ambient jazz. And now he’s produced his most ambitious work: a six-movement symphony.
The most amazing facet of the current release is how contemporary it sounds. Instead of being enchanted by the past – the downfall of many a musician – Ayres is fascinated with the future. The 5.1 surround sound format is one symptom; this release sounds immediate and immersive. More importantly, Ayres blends his experience in the ambient field with his love for modern composition in order to create an effective hybrid. The meticulous recording process boggles the mind: 140 layers, each played by Ayres with the exception of a choir. Even with surround sound, it’s impossible to tug the layers apart. The strands stick together like cotton candy. This creates the experience to which the artist aspires: ”hologram harmonics”. Most are played on a detuned cello, leading to what the artist calls “old notes hiding in new places”. This is a wonderful description for the symphony, as it invites the listener to lean in, listening for these hidden notes like a birdwatcher straining to hear evidence of a rare specimen.
As the interaction between performer, instrument and environment are so important to Ayres, the artist would probably be horrified to learn that I first played Harmogram Suite in my car, then at home with the air conditioning on, and finally without the distraction of external sound. Perhaps in some Cage-like fashion, such playback options are fitting. Yet one gets the impression that Ayres wishes resonance for his suite. These variables are mentioned in order to underline an important point: that one does not need the 5.1 surround sound (lovely as it is) in order to enjoy the recording. As pure listening has become a lost art, it’s crucial to record pieces that can be enjoyed on the spot, and Harmogram Suites fits the bill.
The emotion builds quietly in the first movement, taking hold of the consciousness in the second. Despite the presence of so many layers, the recording comes across as coherent; clear melodic passages step from the shadows, twirl slowly through suspended dust, curtsey and exit. Certain passages lead to caverns, others to bright exits. But the BOOM moment is saved for the fourth: a sudden, multi-dimensional effect rising out of silence, 31 notes that advance and retreat, creating the album’s most immediate segment. When the passage repeats (in a slightly altered manner), it seems like a chorus. This gripping series of notes elevates the entire suite, serving as its dramatic center.
By the closing piece, “Lament”, the listener has been led by the hand through layers of emotion like the Israelites through the Red Sea. As the suite descends into appreciative mourning, it creates a sort of constructive catharsis. The spiritual undercurrent of Ayres’ work can also be found in his newest project, Sacred Spaces, which honors the sonic nature of cathedrals, observatories and other settings. The recognition of the sacred as a distinct force, apart from religion, provides Ayres’ work with an undercurrent even more valuable than the sum of its many parts. (Richard Allen)