For claire rousay, ambient composition is not just a studio practice; it concerns real bodies in physical space. As a percussionist turned sound artist, the San Antonio-based musician has put out a whopping 19 releases since 2019, many featuring dizzying noise and free jazz that demonstrate her focus on live performance. Her work has increasingly incorporated a broad variety of sounds from unlikely sources; records like 2020’s a heavenly touch wrung haunting beauty from processed field recordings and tender piano arrangements, while both and it was always worth it used rich, textural electronics to induce ASMR-like effects at the lowest threshold of audible perception. On a softer focus, she captures a newfound intimacy, one that’s grounded and personal while still feeling otherworldly.
Like much of her work, the album is at its core a collection of field recordings, which she manipulates in ways that bring out latent emotions bound up within the audio. Its first track, “preston ave,” features sliding and clicking sounds from what appears to be a typewriter or cash register, with gentle brushes against the microphone that establish a soft, equanimous feeling. These non-tonal elements spill over onto “discrete (the market),” where rousay introduces organ chords, bowed harmonics, and threadbare piano phrases that feel carefully, expertly composed. Each line enters with a clarity of intention once foreign to rousay’s music, with a net effect that’s among the most striking moments of her career so far.
rousay often uses the voice as a compositional tool, and here, her processed vocals provide a stark point of contrast to the meditative elements of the album. A short, climactic pause in “peak chroma” gives way to warbling, pitch-shifted vocals as rousay sings about loss and the fallout of a relationship. The track invites immediate comparisons to the alien vocals of Daniel Lopatin, Andrew Weathers, and other ambient musicians using Auto-Tune, even as rousay seems to resist drawing attention to the lyrics themselves. On “stoned gesture,” the vocalist’s breathy singing rubs up against abstract clatter as the track sinks downward into a melancholy stupor. Warm, reflective, and dreamlike, the piece taps into an expressive dimension refreshingly at odds with stone-faced sound-art orthodoxy.
Few of the sounds on a softer focus are exactly new; rousay simply captures aspects of 21st-century auditory culture that others see as blemishes, foregrounding what might otherwise be discarded. On “diluted dreams,” powerful winds flicker over what sounds like an earbuds microphone to create a kind bristling, low-volume noise, one with immediate emotional valence for anyone who’s taken an outdoor phone call on a particularly brisk afternoon. Other sounds are more difficult to place, leaving space for speculation in the gaps between more clearly defined recordings. Around three minutes into “peak chroma,” a series of churning metallic tones coincides with a particularly cathartic synthesizer passage, and the entire track eases into meditative drift. Even the most chaotic moments lend structure and feeling in ways that suggest a true step forward within her catalog. Nothing is off limits, yet everything works within the context of the album, as rousay unearths modes of expression that make it hard to remember a time when ambient music sounded any differently. Through it all, rousay somehow makes this progression feel completely natural.
Buy: Rough Trade
Catch up every Saturday with 10 of our best-reviewed albums of the week. Sign up for the 10 to Hear newsletter here.