Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith‘s work at the intersection of New Age, Contemporary classical, and experimental has helped her carve out a niche as an artist who can provide music for the Calm app while also appealing to the academics who would’ve populated her Berklee College of Music past. Brushing shoulders with the “Diva of the Diode” Suzanne Ciani was an audibly influential process. Smith’s pieces are as informed by the New Age serenity of Ciani as they are the chin-stroking but frolicsome compositions of noted inspiration Terry Riley.
Smith’s new work, Let’s Turn It Into Sound, is built on the idea that music can express our ineffable inner worlds. “‘Let’s turn it into sound’ is about taking feelings that aren’t able to be expressed through words … and turning it into sound,” says Smith. However, there are lyrics here. She delivers her words in highly charged and processed vocals that stick out of the mix and have turned the non-representational quality of her abstract music into something more explicit than the mission statement suggests.
Five of the ten tracks here have lyrics, often tame expressions of love and hope (“I love the love we share / I still deeply care for your special thoughts on all I do”), but that’s the point. These words have been manipulated beyond recognition, and without a lyrics sheet, most are near intelligible. Let’s Turn It Into Sound is about using music to express ourselves without relying on clunky words; it just so happens that using some clunky words is imperative to the process. To know what’s there, you must know what’s not there.
The ten songs here forgo structure to create musical pieces that never sit still for too long. The shock-to-the-system transitions are a far cry from Smith’s ambient work. However, there’s still an ethereal quality to everything, held together by a drive to push the capabilities of electronic music to their breaking points. Where her last two albums, 2017’s The Kid and 2020’s The Mosaic of Transformation, were experimental but happy with coloring between the lines, Let’s Turn It Into Sound is her oeuvre’s jacked-up agent provocateur. What could’ve inspired such a leap into the unknown? Perhaps it was her response to the post-lockdown brain fog that lingers in our culture like a bad smell. Maybe she’s attempting to wake all of us up from our perennial digital daydreams.
Like a retro video game opening theme, “Have You Felt Lately?” starts things off with a chipper and bonkers musical spew. Smith’s vocals here and across the album are layered and processed, delivered with equal measures of weight and flippancy, and always intensely explorative. “Locate” begins with reposeful tones before polyphonic keys and voices frantically run up and down the scale. “Let It Fall” adds multiple layers of incongruous singing and vocalizes to disorient the listener, a consistent synth running in the background is the only thing onto which you can hold.
“Is it Me or Is It You?” is perhaps the most accessible track here; spurting drums and cascading harmonies combine to narcotize before Smith mutates the flow with acidic glitches. On “Pivotal Signal” and the 8-bit pulse of “Check Your Translation”, the compositions allude to unpredictability before falling back to repetition.
Smith flexes her compositional and production muscles throughout Let’s Turn It Into Sound, though purely for utility and rarely for showboating. The choral push of “Unbraid: The Merge” arrives at euphoric club music, while the drum programming on “There Is Something” would impress Aphex Twin. “Then the Wind Came” is the zenith of the collection, with its arpeggiated sequencing and transition into laid-back IDM pulled off in style.
Let’s Turn It Into Sound successfully builds a highly personalized and insular world that anyone interested in contemporary classical and experimental electronic can drop into and enjoy. While everything here is skillfully executed and grand, there’s a sneaking sense the compositions have little to say beyond the reimagining of vocal traditions and the benefits of pushing boundaries. Nevertheless, Smith has created a mirror of our tumultuous modern world, one in which we can see our faults, fickleness, and boundless possibilities.