Composer, performer, and producer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's 2016 album EARS is an immersive listening experience in which dizzying swirls of organic and synthesized sounds work together to create a sense of three-dimensional space and propulsion. Dense and carefully crafted, each of the songs on EARS unfolds with a fluid elegance, while maintaining a spontaneous energy, and a sprightly sense of discovery. Listeners familiar with her previous album Euclid will no doubt notice her heavier use of vocals on EARS. On all but one song, her gently ecstatic swells of vocals emerge to soar over a dense jungle of synths and woodwinds.
Much of the album's warmth and energy stems from Smith's use of the versatile analog synthesizer, the Buchla Music Easel. According to Smith, “…nothing compares to the sound of a Buchla. In my mind a Buchla synthesizer has the most human sound in it. I wanted to show the Easel's versatility and range of motion within a live set. I also wanted to spend as little time as possible in front of the computer during the creation.” After initially composing on the Buchla, she wrote arrangements for a woodwind quintet, added vocals, and further refined the pieces with granular synthesis techniques she developed in her sound design work.
Though the pallet of sounds Smith employs on EARS is darker than the ebullient tenor we heard on Euclid, she's careful to let in just enough light to covey a feeling of cosmic bliss and transcendence. Kinetic arpeggios of synths pulse, often buoying her graceful vocal mantras, while woodwinds breathe and flutter, emulating the wildlife Smith observed while growing up on the West Coast (she even studied recordings of slowed down bird calls prior to composing these pieces). Though some of her gestures echo the musical tropes used by early minimalist composers, the world she creates on EARS is uniquely hypnotic and full of life, not unlike Miyazaki's film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which she cites as an inspiration.
EARS is a masterful articulation of Smith's vision, which she achieved in part by spending time preparing her mind prior to composing the album. As she explains, “I am very intentional about the months leading up to when I am going to compose something new. I really trust the subconscious and try and feed it only information I want it to feed back to me. I make playlists that I listen to nonstop, or have images I look at daily, or I go to places I want to be inspired by… I do all this prep work and then try and forget it when I am writing.” Listening to EARS, it's clear that her approach paid off, and that the seeds she planted within have born a vibrant and hyper-natural world that's as joyful to experience as the flora and fauna that inspired it.
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