Tender Membranes: offering space, balm and serenity in four tracks of soundscape art

Marja Ahti, Tender Membranes, Australia, Black Truffle Records, BT108 vinyl LP (2023)

Active in the Finnish underground music scene for at least a decade and probably more, Swedish-Finnish sound artist / electro-acoustic composer Marja Ahti actually doesn’t have very many solo or collaborative releases to her name. I reviewed “The Current Inside”, her second solo album, and her first collaboration with her husband Niko-Matti Ahti, “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?” for TSP back in 2020, and since then, until “Tender Membranes” came out, Ahti released just two other works, one a solo album and the second a collaboration with Judith Hamann. So an album from Ahti, especially a first album of hers on Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle label, will always be an event for lovers of electro-acoustic sound art constructions that incorporate musique concrète elements, field recordings and electronics, and which demand some fairly deep listening.

“Tender Membranes” features four works, two of which are very lengthy and the other two not quite so, but all are steady in pace, occasionally abrupt in introducing new sounds and textures, and always offering surprising combinations of sounds, few of which are readily recognisable. The distinction between instrumental music or sound and sounds derived from field recordings or samples is unclear and so regardless of their source all sounds blend in with one another and each and every sound could be said to have both instrumental and musique concrète origins regardless of whether it actually does. Our senses and perceptions, as the “tender membranes” that filter, police and make sense of the sounds passing through them, are compelled to accept the sounds on their own terms, not on ours. Opening track “Shrine (Aether)” illustrates this ambiguity well as various sounds, many clearly recognisable as common everyday sounds, pass you by as if on parade. The sounds do not necessarily invite a reaction but go by without embellishment or comment, and all the listener need do is observe the various sections of the track as they travel by.

“Dust / Light” is a shorter piece but no less mysterious – the track has a meditative quality as sound sequences pass through and only one part earlier in the track where the sounds fairly sizzle can be said to be loud. In its last couple of moments, the song acquires a deeply reflective, spiritual quality, though this is all disrupted in the final few seconds. Track 3, featuring a title almost as long as the track itself, is a solemn atmospheric droning piece that becomes church-bell sonorous in its last half. We finish up with “Oh Fragrant Witness” which appears more robust and self-contained than the others with sound sequences passing from one to the next in a way that builds on the previous sequence or transforms it into something else without a sudden break or irruption. Despite this track being one of the shorter ones, its range and depth are huge; if your senses are completely open, you may find yourself falling through and become lost in its deep valleys and abysses.

Though the soundscapes within this album can be large and deep, at the same time this is an intimate work – you can feel yourself being drawn quite deeply into it – that offers serenity to all who come to it. After a long busy day, with many stresses and perhaps interruptions that stop you from doing or completing all you set out to do, listening to this album offers welcome space and balm from the day’s cares.

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