Photo: Marzena Abrahamik / Courtesy of Drag City

Matchess Creates Ambient Landscapes from Meditation and Memory on ‘Sonescent’

Experimental musician and composer Whitney Johnson (aka Matchess) builds long-form musical pieces inspired by a meditation session on Sonescent.

Drag City
25 February 2022

Inspiration can not only emerge from the most random places; documenting it can be a frustrating experience if the opportunity doesn’t present itself. Take Whitney Johnson. The experimental musician who records under the moniker Matchess was attending a course of Vipassana meditation at the Dhamma Vaddhana Meditation Center just north of Joshua Tree, California, when the practice of Noble Silence – the silence of body, speech, and mind – forced her to hear things she would not usually hear. It inspired her to transform what she heard into compositions, but since the course didn’t allow such a practice, she was forced to wait until she returned home to transcribe what she had encountered from memory.

These revelations became Sonescent, the latest Matchess album, comprised of two 18-minute compositions. The album essentially combines the soothing groan of a sustained drone with additional instrumentation that peeks in and out of the haze. Unlike previous Matchess releases, where Johnson plays everything herself, Sonescent employs a variety of musicians, playing acoustic 12-string guitar, clarinet, flute, bass, and glazed ceramic. Johnson performs with strings, organs, and her voice. The two pieces, “Almost Gone” and “Through the Wall”, have some discernible differences, primarily as the former seems more dependent on the drone. In contrast, the latter seems to focus more on the traditional instrumentation (although it’s no less compelling or mysterious).

“Almost Gone” emerges at a glacial pace, as the droning initially sputters to life and takes on slightly more soothing tones. Meanwhile, what can only be described as a Steve Reich-like minimalist ensemble soon overtakes the piece. This overall feeling of a beast awakening soon reverts to more sedate droning sounds, peppered with the wheezing of what sounds like a distant harmonium. “Through the Wall” gives the impression of a modern atonal orchestra tuning up, and the strings and experimental synths provide much-needed texture (with no less tension, however).

The final minutes of “Through the Wall” are curious and oddly unsettling: alongside an insistent tinnitus-like ringing, the sounds of a generic AM pop radio track bubble underneath. This unusual combination is a continuation of the weird vibe of Sonescent – one of a dreamlike haze. The entire album comes across as a sort of half-remembered sleep-induced episode. Johnson has created a truly striking piece of art here, even more ambitious and experimental than her previous Matchess releases. And that’s saying a lot.

RATING 7 / 10
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