Ghost World

Oren Ambarchi’s music of assemblage and erasure

Oren Ambarchi. Photo: Ujin Matsuo.

IMPROVISATION, says ordinary wisdom, happens in a particular time and place. A player lays down a melody, a rhythm. Another responds. The isolation of the pandemic, coupled with our digital age in which musicians can share files with each other instantly, has forced even stubborn traditionalists to expand their rigid understandings and embrace improvised music layered with overdubs and other studio tricks. Australian guitarist, drummer, and pioneering composer Oren Ambarchi predicted this shift by two decades. The fifty-three-year-old tours relentlessly, accompanied by a who’s who of contemporary improvisation that has at points included experimental stalwart Jim O’Rourke, noise icon Keiji Haino, and electronic adventurer Christian Fennesz. But offstage, his albums, while not exactly tech-forward, slice up collaboration on a conceptual level, pasting its scraps into seamless collage.

Ambarchi embeds an impromptu heart into the body of musique concrète, harnessing spontaneous performance as raw material. Layering and tweaking moments plucked from their contexts, he composes by assemblage—and erasure. He built the opening piece of In The Pendulum’s Embrace (2007) around a session he recorded with Haino and drummer Robbie Avenaim. Ultimately, Ambarchi scrapped Haino’s guitar, but the absence of the Japanese luminary looms large at the composition’s core: The ghostly arrangement essentially consists of the other collaborators’ reactions to his playing.

Ambarchi prefers using professional mixers to Pro Tools. While home recording enables so many left-field musicians to indulge their tinkering, Ambarchi books expensive studio time, forcing himself to make choices under pressure. Many of his collaborators are known for their software mastery, including computer musician Mark Fell and techno producer Thomas Brinkmann. Ambarchi encourages them to treat their interfaces like instruments. He’s hardly the first to dress the digital and the analog in each other’s clothes, but tempering his omnivorous tastes is a fussiness that forgoes our technological era’s boon of expediency. For such an exacting composer, perfectionism comes at a cost, which is often the need to accept that imperfection is inevitable.

Like the tips of icebergs, Ambarchi’s records are bolstered by a weight beneath the surface of what he lets us hear. He doesn’t imprint such a strong signature on the sound of his finished products, but instead on their underlying processes, range and sensibility, and his prolificacy makes him seem like a brilliant, peripatetic Zelig rather than a staunch visionary. His best albums explore distant territories on the sprawling map of twenty-first-century experimentalism: the locked-in ambience of Grapes From the Estate (2004); the mesmeric jams of Hubris (2016); the hard rock-adjacent drones of Sagittarian Domain (2012); and the low-key jazz of this year’s Ghosted, which features Ambarchi, bassist Johan Berthling, and drummer Andreas Werliin improvising together at Stockholm’s Studio Rymden. An album of sublime, simple beauty, Ghosted would seem perversely straightforward if its creators’ enthusiasm were less sincere. Too often, critics lump the composer with the aforementioned Jim O’Rourke. Prankish album titles aside (the name of his 2012 masterstroke Audience of One is pretty clearly a joke at his own expense), Ambarchi is earnest, not quite mischievous enough to fully deserve the comparison. His music glides on the purity of its passion. 

His latest, Shebang, begins with some tentative guitar noodling reminiscent of Ghosted’s rudimentary opening bassline. Both albums consist of a composition split into four parts, with a vocabulary that can feel crunchy, full of percussion and palpable picking. But Ghosted, aside from some washes of feedback, is mostly acoustic, while Shebang is a sleek, robust recording with a placid surface and a frantic underbelly. Synths slip seamlessly into guitars, then open to bending, swelling pedal steel. Piano takes over halfway through, rolling the listener toward a climactic, melodic finish. The album captures Ambarchi in a comfortable place, winking at his extemporaneous roots, even if it was precisely engineered in the studio and cobbled together from stems his collaborators recorded separately.

The assembled musicians are a laundry list of pals and fellow travelers: O’Rourke and Berthling; mainstays of Australian experimental music Julia Reidy and Chris Abrahams, co-founder of the Necks; bass clarinetist Sam Dunscombe; engineering guru Joe Talia, who sits in on the drums; and B.J. Cole, whose varied pedigree as a steel guitar maestro is usually overshadowed by the fact that he appeared on Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Ambarchi sent each aleatoric prompts, offering vague ideas of a structure. After, he weaved his guitar into their playing, like an editor splicing B-roll footage into a film. How can plaiting and honing tracks over a large time span carry on the spirit of improvisatory music? Speaking with Aquarium Drunkard, Ambarchi admitted that he wanted to remix Shebang after hearing it in a forty-eight speaker installation in Berlin, where he held a release party earlier this month. His comment frames the record as a living document, not a petrified form. Hardly inert, Shebang is a thirty-five-minute sample that he can manipulate like an instrument, drawing out its hidden dimensions, learning more about his creation as time goes on.

His albums shapeshift at a breakneck pace, yet Ambarchi threads his releases with the deliberation needed to string their parts together, and his latest embodies the central tensions of his practice: between immediate expression and duration, analog and digital technologies, ensembles and individuals, processes and art objects. Such potentially warring notions seem tranquil, because we hear them perfectly equalized and balanced. If Shebang’s peaks are smooth, though, Ambarchi allows us to recognize these clashing sensibilities in their moments of truce, of cohabitation, deep in his music’s valleys.