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Taylor Deupree, "Sti​.​ll"

Sti​.​llI had a roommate back in the '90s who was deeply into the ambient side of techno, which was something that I intensely loathed at the time. Unbeknownst to me, however, that was my first exposure to the seemingly ubiquitous and eternal Taylor Deupree (via his Human Mesh Dance and Prototype 909 projects). I have since grown to genuinely love his work, of course, but I am sufficiently guilty of taking him for granted that I slept on his landmark 2002 album Stil. The same is not true of Joseph Branciforte (who runs the greyfade label), as he was so taken with the album that he embarked upon a multi-year project to "bring Deupree's explorations of extreme repetition and stillness into the world of notated chamber music." That initially seemed like quite a quixotic endeavor to me, but the resultant album is an absolute revelation, as breaking Deupree's elegantly skipping and sublime ambient magic up into individual acoustic components reveals an incredible degree of harmonic and dynamic sophistication that would have been otherwise lost on me. To paraphrase a scene from Mad Men, hearing Sti.ll after listening to Stil. feels like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when everything unexpectedly bursts into vivid color.


According to Deupree, the original album was inspired by the seascapes of Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and led to a significant change in the direction of his own vision (the idea of "stillness" became a guiding theme, as alluded to by the album's title). Compositionally, that change manifested itself in the four longform pieces of Stil. being devoted entirely to the "complex repetition of looping passages," as Deupree found that sustained immersion in repeating patterns could reveal "hidden pulses and movements not initially apparent," which is a vision that historically resonates quite deeply with me. In nuts-and-bolts terms, the original album was assembled from "melodic and granular passages juxtaposed in variable-length loops." Naturally, the "variable length" bit is what triggers the subtle, slow-motion transformations in these pieces, but Deupree illustrated the process more dramatically by noting that Stil.'s title piece was "based entirely on oscillating variations in a single 0.33 second tonal fragment." In short, small changes eventually bring fascinating and unexpected results.

In more conceptual terms, the aim for Stil. (and presumably for Sti​.​ll as well) was to create the sense of being suspended in a "brief moment of frozen time." In keeping with that theme, the 10- to 23-minute song durations on the original album were dictated by the CD format of the release, as Deupree saw the individual pieces as "fragments" of "longer works that extend for many hours." For the most part, Branciforte and Deupree opted to stick closely to the album's original durations for this re-envisioning, which was presumably came as a great relief to the ensemble of New York musicians enlisted for the project (Madison Greenstone, Ben Monder, Laura Cocks, Christopher Gross, and Sam Minaie).

That said, I suspect that Branciforte would have gone completely mad if he attempted to notate and arrange a multi-hour version of one of these pieces, given the sheer glacial subtlety of their transformations. Hell, merely figuring out which acoustic instruments would be best suited for each piece seems like it would have been an incredibly tall order all on its own, as Branciforte wound up with some surprisingly unusual configurations, such as the title piece's limited palette of only vibraphone and bass drum (hearing the piece, I would have guessed a thousand other instruments before I ever would have landed upon "bass drum" by blind chance).

Unsurprisingly given the instrumentation, "Stil. (For Vibraphone & Bass Drum)" is the most aggressively minimal and distilled piece on the album, evoking a searchlight slowly sweeping across a sensuously flickering and undulating psychedelic fog. It is also the most "ambient"-sounding piece on the album and the one that could fit most seamlessly on the original album, but this latest version feels deeper and richer than the original. It also features plenty of sublime sorcery of the fluttering and ghostlike variety, but my personal favorite piece is the more dramatic "Recur," which genuinely sounds like the work of a chamber music ensemble (albeit one that is constantly stuttering and overlapping upon itself). After about a minute, however, a tense repeating loop crash lands in the mix to steer the piece towards increasingly cinematic terrain suggestive of a lysergic espionage thriller set in Morocco. Aside from that, the piece is teaming with odd whistles, hisses, plinks, and pings that make it feel like the piece is gradually tearing itself apart from the inside, continually venting pressure as the various cracks and tears intensify and spread.

Impressively, the remaining two pieces are similarly absorbing in their own right. For example, "Snow-Sand" feels somewhere between a blurred impressionistic deconstruction of Reich- or Glass-style minimalism and sensuously swaying drone magic (though a strangled-sounding clarinet sometimes breaks through the reverie to keep things unpredictable). Elsewhere, "Temper" transforms a clarinet and shaker into a quivering and flickering haze of shifting harmonies, crackle, hiss, and murmuring woodwinds. Cumulatively, the four pieces add up to quite a sustained plunge into immersive and dreamlike suspended animation. Moreover, it feels like a very different album than Stil. due to both the new instrumentation and the altered balance of sounds and textures. I can now easily understand why this became a labor of love for Branciforte, as Sti​.​ll is a one-of-a-kind deep listening experience that will probably feel fresh to me forever, as I am constantly finding new shades of beauty as I notice more details and small changes.

Listen here.