On Heavenly Spheres the Australian born vocalist and musician Penelope Trappes depicts the fragility of improvisation and experimental practice, while imbuing the spaciousness of ambient music’s soundscapes with surprising heft.
On album opener “The Bitterness of Parting,” an opening wave of tape hiss and the humming of air give way to the infrequent hit of a piano key and a well as a muffled voice delivering ethereal vocals in a minor key. The vocal distortions Trappes plays with across the album are ghost-like but serene. Her soundscapes are murky and dissonant but also relaxed, their slow development opening onto plenty of space.
On the second track, “Away from Tidal Waves,” the chirping of birds is added to Trappes’ exploration of filtered vocals and her delivery of sporadic, ominous piano chords. In the song’s second half another subtle fragment of sound enters, a recurrent melody almost recalling the ascending tones delivered by a landline phone when it failed to connect to a dialed number. The slightly mischievous melody adds a layer of incongruity to the otherwise somber track.
There are a number of these more playful moments on the album. Slightly goofy vocal bleeps and blips open the following track, “Voices Will Not be Drowned,” to be joined seconds later by another simple, yet ominous melody gently delivered by piano and voice. Another friendly melody, albeit one submerged in filters also opens the album’s titular track. “Heavenly Spheres” is one of the album’s sparsest—all gurgling vocals, effects, and hits of tape hiss—but is followed immediately by the least fragmentary song. “A Seagull Learns to Sleep Alone” features a continuously playing piano, repeating a four-note melody and evolving it slightly as Trappes’ voice sings alongside it.
Each of the tracks on Heavenly Spheres feels exploratory and improvised, even as the album’s songs each cohere into a discrete whole. Trappes describes the album as the result of experimenting with just her voice, an upright piano, and an old German reel to reel tape deck. In many moments across the album the tactility of the tape deck is all we hear— the click or release of its buttons, the noisiness of the tape as it cycles across its reels, the captured static as it is played back into the space of recording.
The sound of the tape player, the hiss that hints another sound will soon emerge, as well as the sparseness of Trappes’ piano playing leaves the space between the album’s musical elements pregnant with possibility. There’s a sense that Trappes may literally be thinking about where to go next with her voice or her piano in the moments between their entrance. She describes the album as emerging from a period in which she was learning to live with solitude and silence and the space she leaves in the tracks on Heavenly Spheres evokes the harshness but also welcome interruption of sound amidst the eeriness of silence.
Heavenly Spheres is mournful and lonely, music from the depths, but it is also, fittingly, rather heavenly. Similar to other contemporary musicians such as Liz Harris who play with quiet and space as well as the line between ambient music and pop , Trappes finds haunting, ethereal beauty in hesitation and minimalism (Jennifer Smart)