I don't know that I'll ever be able to exactly replace or recreate the experience of playing with world-music fusion group Ethnos. For a while, we had a regular gig at Marrakesh Mediterranean Grill, and I always looked forward to it. The food was outstanding and having a monthly performance encouraged us to keep being creative in fulfilling ways without totally losing touch with the public.
One of the last times I played with Ethnos, I picked up our flute player on the way to the gig. When he got in the car, he also jumped into Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s EARS album, which had been playing virtually nonstop for nearly a week and a half. Almost immediately, he picked up on its cerebral aspects, and after a very brief explanation on what attracted me to the album, we listened to the entire thing in complete, engaged silence.
I was pleased by his interest. My ears were unexpectedly primed for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith when I discovered her. I had just revisited Jean-Michel Jarre’s Equinoxe, and I was still enjoying Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as a 2015 favorite. EARS doesn’t resemble either of these works exactly, but it does exist in a kind of common ground between them. As an analog synth project, EARS is created out of the sounds that Jarre pioneered in those 70s recordings. Also like those recordings, Smith’s compositions evoke vivid, world-building environments. Her compositional style is radically different, however, due to the unique affordances of her instrument of choice, the Buchla Sound Canvas.
Anyone who knows me knows I'm a sucker for weird instruments, so this was a big sell. I am still unclear as to the technical nuances of the instrument, but the rippling, arpeggiated textures it creates are clearly a key component to EARS, and bring to mind the contemplative characteristics of Reich’s compositional techniques.
EARS is most readily identified as an electronic album, but it is actually a subtle combination of synths, voices, and woodwinds that straddles the distinction between improvisation and composition. It can hang on the edge of the awareness as background music, but it can also be engaging and immersive. In this latter regard, I find it to be surprisingly effective. Even with some tracks clocking in at ten minutes, Smith’s work has the capacity to take the listener on a journey that, once begun, is hard to stray from.
In the months following my discovery of EARS, I felt inspired to investigate other synth music in the hopes that Smith represented an underground genre of which I was unaware. None came close. EARS was, and is, far too unique. I still play it regularly and find it incredibly satisfying.
It would be quite a stretch to consider EARS “world” music, but when we stopped the car, Ethnos’ flute player immediately commented that the band should do something like it. Even though we did not have a synth player in the group, much less a Buchla, his ears were open enough to hear something that he thought that we could reinterpret. This was one of the reasons why I enjoyed playing with and the group so much. Getting to play with with people with that level of creativity and open-mindedness was a gift that I will always cherish.