It’s hard to know where to begin to describe the work of Alex Thomas. Coming from a fine arts background, he is a violinist with an interest in Bach and east European folk music, but he is also engaged in a variety of spoken word, theatre, music and sound art projects. URU-ANA, for instance, is an absurdist, violin + spoken-word collaboration with actor/writer Alex Walker.
Thomas’ musical endeavours embrace electro-acoustics and tape delay, violin loops, and experiments with chance and indeterminacy in computer music. He’s an instrument builder too. His “Electric Baryton” has thirteen strings tuned in semitone intervals; its body, he says, was constructed from wood “already eaten into shape by woodworm”, though it looks more robust than that makes it sound.
Examples of Thomas’ work in all of these fields can be sampled via his website, alexthomasaleatoric.com. There you’ll find a page devoted to the suite of recordings named “Coax 1-7”, a fine example of his computer music, which is also available from the artist as a 22 minute CDR.
Thomas’ notes to “Coax 1-7” describe its creation using “two audio mixers and a computer connected in seven different configurations arrived at by a process of trial and error. In each case…sensitive and unstable feedback … was manipulated using the tone/panning/volume faders of the mixers, whilst the computer served as a filtering and distortion device, controlled by midi. The resulting feedback textures and noise were sampled in real time…permitting real time midi manipulation…and re-introduced into the electronic ‘labyrinth’.”
“All the sounds”, Thomas says, “emerged unpredictably from the near-silent noisefloor.” They don’t sound like that though, being uniformly concise (ranging from just over 30 seconds duration to just over five minutes) and, for all their indeterminate complexity, highly refined.
The shimmering loops of “Levitator” sound elemental, gaseous or, more often, aqueous, coursing like digitised water. Similarly, “Protected Species” evokes the deep-sea sonar of aquatic mammals.
On “3.07 am 14th October 1927” (a reference perhaps to Bond actor Roger Moore’s birthdate?), insect electronic chittering is folded into an envelope of warmly humming feedback.
After the fleeting 31 seconds of “Making an Entrance Wearing Mirrored Veil”, a sequence of chimes reminiscent of Raymond Scott’s pioneering electronic music of at its most glacial, “Coax” tracks 5-7 are less developmentally static and sonically obscure.
“First Days of the Alps” is the most linear, a marriage of complementary layers of drone, static shimmer and gleaming synth tonalities.
But the best is yet to come. On “Follow the Sub-divider” Thomas blends sonic shards and reverberations – gong tones and wine glass shimmer – in a widescreen sound field, which he then coaxes into musical form. It is the most immersive and seductive track here.
There’s more drama and eventfulness encompassed by the bold sonics of “See This” than its five-minute running time would suggest possible. This, the collection’s most complex and unsettling piece, is astonishingly rich in audio that ranges from the purest digital shimmering to machine music agitated by portentous low rumbles.
You can hear the marshalled indeterminacy of these songs’ construction, but their final form is richly nuanced and absolutely compelling as music.