Forrest Fang: Ancient Machines (CD)

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Tracks

1 Ancient Machines
2 The Celestial Diver (I. Winds of Betelgeuse)
3 The Celestial Diver (II. Shooting Star)
4 The Celestial Diver (III. Traceries)
5 In Air, It Seems
6 Firefly Run
7 Smoke Rings
8 A Recursive Tale
9 The Other Earth
10 Zone One
11 Night Swans

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The ambient music of Ancient Machines — the eighteenth album from veteran Bay Area electronic musician and multi-instrumentalist Forrest Fang — embraces an arc of mysteriously complex moods and emotions. Fang’s latest work reflects both his Western influences as a classical violinist and his Eastern influences as a player of Javanese gamelan and other Asian instruments. The pieces are imaginary narratives that gradually reveal themselves, incorporating the sounds of both electronic and acoustic instruments.

On his latest Projekt release, Fang found inspiration reflecting on one of his early influences — minimalist classical composers. “During the early 80s,” notes Fang, “I was fascinated with the trance-like effect of pieces like Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Terry Riley’s improvisational Persian Surgery Dervishes. For this album, I use the repetition of minimalism as a point of departure. However, what follows in the pieces is a hybrid ambient style that invites interaction between Western and non-Western instruments that are not ordinarily used together in a way that I hope conveys my love of sound in its many manifestations and permutations.”

When asked, Fang purposely leaves the “ancient machines” referenced in the title open to the listener’s interpretation. However, he may well be referring to the internal “machines” of all sentient and nonsentient life on this planet that evolve and mutate as part of the symphony of change.

The sonic atmospheres on Ancient Machines are diverse. The album begins with the title track — a short exploration of gentle elongated rhythms and floating electronic textures. The energetic minimalist suite, “The Celestial Diver,” follows with three pieces dedicated to the late Italian minimalist composer, Piero Milesi. The juxtaposition of spacey textures and overlapping polyrhythms in the pieces, including the occasional sounds of a harpsichord, introduce a new dimension to Fang’s stylistic voice.

The album continues with “In Air, It Seems,” a delicate and pensive piece for piano, violins and quiet background ambiences that provides a calm resting point midway through the album. This is followed by “Firefly Run,” a dreamlike soundscape of luminous figures and vivid movements suggestive of flight, and “Smoke Rings,” a short interlude featuring processed balafon and gamelan that bring the listener back to terra firma.

Next, the piano-based fractal piece, “A Recursive Tale,” provides the transition to the last three pieces forming the closing arc of the album — “The Other Earth,” “Zone One” and “Night Swans.” “The Other Earth,” a melancholy and contemplative piece is reminiscent of classic electronic space music but with occasional hints of minimalism at its quiet core. The mood is lifted with “Zone One,” which combines a slowly evolving melodic rhythm with shifting orchestral clouds which hint at promises of the future. “Night Swans” closes the album with the quiet sound of an electric piano against an ambient background of electronic night spirits.

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Reviews

  1. padmin

    From Textura

    For his eighteenth album, Forrest Fang drew for inspiration from the early, trance-inducing minimalism of Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes and Philip Glass’s Einstein On the Beach. Don’t think, however, that Fang’s use of minimalism-styled repetition has dramatically altered the trajectory his output has followed to date: Ancient Machines is instantly recognizable as material by the Bay Area-based multi-instrumentalist, who again combines acoustic and electronic sounds into a stylistically diverse presentation spanning Eastern and Western musical traditions. While Javanese gamelan and ambient electronica are conspicuous reference points in the eleven productions, the typical piece resists simple categorization when Fang’s various influences are integrated as seamlessly as they are.

    Sweeping synthesizer-generated washes merge with the sound of acoustic instruments and percussion, Fang’s luscious, multitiered music checking classical, ambient, gamelan, and other boxes as it wends its mystical way through the recording’s seventy-plus minutes. An early standout, the three-part The Celestial Diver begins with “Winds of Betelgeuse,” a World Music-styled soundscape exercise rooted as equally in Eastern percussion as vaporous ambient. As engulfing ambient winds howl in the background, hand drums and harpsichord patterns combine to arresting effect, after which a clanging, dulcimer-like instrument offsets the otherwise serene ambiance of “Shooting Star” and “Traceries” threads intricate harpsichord patterns into a 7/8 rhythmic framework.

    Whereas the album’s gamelan dimension advances to the fore during the percussion-heavy interlude “Smoke Rings” and synths-drenched soundscape “Zone One,” the meditative effect of the ambient-electronic space music setting “The Other Earth” is bolstered by its ten-minute duration and the lulling swirl of its ethereal tones. Certainly one of the album’s prettiest and most memorable settings is “In Air, It Seems” for its peaceful, contemplation-inducing melding of piano, violin, and ambient washes.

    The title and cover imagery Fang selected for the release are in keeping with the music’s fantastical character. Given the depiction of biological organisms of some alien kind on the cover, the title could be interpreted as an allusion to the machine-like functioning of sentient life forms, human and otherwise, that’s been in place for millennia. As with all Fang releases, however, Ancient Machines holds up solidly on musical terms alone, the other aspects essentially supplemental to the experience. And, finally, one shouldn’t make too much of the aforementioned influence of Riley and Glass on the project; while subtle nods to minimalism are present, the album’s panoramic character is consistent stylistically with others preceding it in Fang’s discography.

  2. padmin

    From Stars End

    What is Forrest Fang doing for this world? With the release of Ancient Machines (73’06”) he asks us to hear what he hears. By listening to this album we take our first steps into a larger realm – a zone expressly for those desiring to encounter things outside of themselves. These new territories are reached with each of his successive efforts. The 11 luminous, graceful, self-assured tracks found on Ancient Machines seek a timeless space. Reconnecting us with life as it should be this music thrives. The most absorbing material may be compositions that feature violin or piano, which have been plucked, picked, bowed, struck or strummed. Propelled gently by tempo energy their voice and structure heaves under atmospheric weight. In a simultaneous sounding of tones a feeling of rest, of no need for further resolution is produced. Yet on some realizations clashing frequencies produce mildly moody results. A balance of opposing tensions, the connection between disparate sounds may lead us to better connect with unfamiliar ideas. In a slowing that sinks us back in time each piece is an exploitation of carefully chosen and contrasted tonal qualities. Under a building torrent of reverberating electronics this tech-tinged hybrid work seems from a primitive past, somehow beamed to the present day. With its masterful emotive shading Ancient Machines will be good for listeners, and even better for dreamers. Synthetic sonorities are combined with groupings of acoustic sounds and instruments in a specifically composed manner – and form a unity so as to convey the message of the artist. In a blend of art and technology he arranges timbres, pitches, and rhythms in a way so well that it stirs the emotions of the listener. All musical activity by Forrest Fang is the reproduction of the world that surrounds him, by means of the world that is within him – recreated in a personal form and an original manner. As for the listener, meaning is elusive… out where this music’s thousand dreams softly burn. -Chuck van Zyl

  3. Reviews Editor

    A review from Avant Music News
    Forrest Fang’s music exists in a singular space between the traditionalists (if there is such a thing) of electro-ambient music and a combination of Western and non-Western acoustically-based classical. As such, Ancient Machines – his latest in a run of 18 albums – incorporates the influences of minimalists such as Glass, Riley, and Reich, who were themselves influenced by music from multiple hemispheres.

    The album is based on floating synth washes and drones that include gamelan-infected stringed passages and/or percussion in polyrhythmic patterns and interlocking motifs. Fang also offers gentle piano-led pieces that combine with his atmospherics. A sense of optimism and hope exudes from these efforts, emotions that are perhaps more needed now that ever before in Fang’s four-decade-long career.

    Indeed, Fang’s work is very much in contrast to the dark-ambient works often discussed on these pages that have grown to evoke the menacing sounds of age-old technology and industry. His title appears not to refer to mechanical devices, but instead to the building blocks of life – DNA, RNA, proteins, and organs – that have carried out their repetitive functions for millions of years. And like those biological mechanisms, these countless iterations over time give rise to newly-evolved forms and structures.

  4. reviews editor

    A review from Exposé Online:

    Early on, which for Forrest Fang would be the 80s, much of his music was textural and minimalist, all things moving slowly through an ever-evolving listening space. Albums like Some Brighter Stars, Migration, and his first CD, The Wolf at the Ruins, all create a variety of ambient sonic fabrics over which sounds and feelings evolve, sometimes within powerful atmospherics, using all of the instruments he had at his disposal including violin, synthesizers, percussion, and numerous stringed instruments from around the world. In the liner notes to his latest release, Ancient Machines, Fang acknowledges those early sounds and influences: Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley, and attempts to revisit them here, though now, thirty plus years on, the sounds are subject to his expanded imagination and equally enriched and enhanced arsenal of sound sources. Bands of sonic color and muted shades weave throughout the shimmering fabric that flows forward creating an immersive space for the listener, a meditative soundworld that changes and evolves just enough to remain interesting throughout the journey. There are eleven tracks, most primarily synth oriented to varying degrees, although some, like “Smoke Rings” are almost entirely based on bamboo percussion with some studio enhancements. “A Recursive Tale” features a bold melodic piano thread enshrouded in a fog of heavenly electronic voices that grow in strength as the piece goes forward. The three-part suite, “The Celestial Diver,” dedicated to the late minimalist composer Piero Milesi, spans almost nineteen minutes, and uses an exotic blend of massed zither, gongs, violins, percussion, and synths to open a panoramic soundworld, with what sounds like ghost voices under the surface trying to break through, while the second movement captures more serene percussive elements and features the same stringed instrument (some kind of lute) used on those early recordings, all swimming in a beautiful liquid ocean of sounds. The closing movement gets going with another familiar stringed sound that grooves along while powerful ambient electronics build slowly as the piece goes forward, adding some world percussion to add to the magic. There’s plenty more here that longtime listeners of Fang’s work will find intriguing, a deep sonic dive mixing old concepts with new.

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