Meditations on Music: Jason Koth’s Senior Composition Recital

On Oct. 29 at 8 p.m., my ears and mind were softened, massaged and kneaded into a relaxed shape. It is not often that one has the chance to experience ambient music in a live setting, but senior Jason Koth provided just that for his recital attendees. As the doors opened to Harper Hall and we found our seats, subtle electronics resonated throughout the hall, providing a warm blanket of sound and setting the tone for the rest of the concert. The piece was “Improvisation 11,” a recording Koth made prior to the concert. Although ambient music is primarily a recorded art—and he certainly has a distinct voice with this medium—the rest of his recital featured compositional techniques more uncommon in the style. Much of this phenomenon can be attributed to Koth’s melding of the acoustic and electronic, using his favorite aspects of both kinds of sounds and instruments to create music that exists in both realms, opening up possibilities with timbres and textures not available just with electronics.

After “Improvisation 11” and a short introduction, the concert began its hour of continuous music, each of the first four pieces seamlessly fading into the next and the last fading into minutes of silence. Koth’s construction of his program was a highlight of my experience, as the concert felt like a larger, unified work rather than five unconnected pieces. Beginning with “Fino al Paradiso,” a solo marimba piece played by senior Adam Friedman, the composer’s often subtle use of tension and release was emphasized. Although devoid of electronic components, “Fino al Paradiso” was an alluring look at Koth’s attention to detail in multiple layers, with Friedman playing calming and constant textures underneath contrasting and more assertive harmonies. As the warm marimba decrescendoed, a cool breeze of guitar with reverb and delay rang out, directing the audience to slowly pan their eyes and ears from the right of the stage to the left for “so far Above,” played by senior Luis Gonzalez. With the ethereal reverberation, Gonzalez effortlessly leapt to and fro from high to low on his guitar, pulling harmonies from the overtones and undertones made prevalent by the electronics. The sustained array of tones perfectly turned into the electronic layer that began “What Peace There May Be In Silence,” the first of two pieces that featured Slipstream—a quartet of saxophone, electric guitar, piano and percussion.

The piece was commissioned for Slipstream and showcases Koth’s talent at working with live, acoustic instruments while also working as a musician himself, stretching the limits that the role understated electronic layering can have when the acoustic often has a more explicit feature. For most of the piece, the electronics filled the silence minimally, a beautiful backdrop for the quartet that did not call too much attention to itself. As the piece progressed to a new movement, the electronics found their way to the forefront, creating a soundscape with the four others that, while highly active, defied density and propelled forward with ease. The penultimate “My Soul Shall Be Healed” segued right from it, continuing Slipstream’s feature but adding the composer himself on alto saxophone. The piece was entirely improvised around the key of E minor and throughout it, and I sometimes lost track of what sounds were coming from where since the five musicians soothingly and smoothly blended their parts together. For much of the concert, especially the final third or so, I was simply content—pleased by the goodness that emanated from the music.

The final piece, “Different Worlds,” was another improvisation by Koth, accompanied only by a tranquil darkness in Harper. While it was not my favorite piece from the program sonically, the experience was a trip, putting me in a deep, relaxing mental state where it was almost impossible to command my eyes to open or close and to move my hand to take notes. The experience vividly reminded me of times I have had a fever and lie in bed to rest, and due to the much-needed relaxation, I do not feel ill but rather at peace. For about 20 minutes, I stayed in this state, and as the couple minutes of silence that followed the ending of the hour were permeated by applause, I came back to this world, mainly to show my appreciation. Koth provided something rare to Lawrence—music that is, as described by ambient innovator Brian Eno, “as ignorable as it is interesting.” While deeply rooted in its origins and influences, Koth’s ambient music also pushes the boundaries, and further innovates.
Keep on the lookout for releases from Jason Koth later this year. I know I will.