In a sign of what is to come, Marja Ahti’s album Tender Membranes begins with the striking of a bell, its decay manipulated and stretched to almost two minutes before it is abruptly cut off. The sound of rushing water emerges from the silence first, before another ascending sound of metal and some gentle radio static pans across the stereo space. Despite the ever-shifting combination of sounds, it’s all very still and quiet, in no hurry.
And so it goes across the album’s four electro-acoustic compositions as Ahti plays with space, texture, and expectation. Her sonic palate is diverse— concrete sounds and field recordings mix with static, piercing signals, and steadier drones, sounds buzzing, rustling, creaking, and scraping, the lines between instrumental, electronic, and concrete often obscured. Ahti plays a lot with the envelope of her sounds— stretching them, abruptly cutting them off, and just as abruptly re-introducing them. The primary through-line to her sonic collage is that each element have “a sense of inner stillness.”
When she performs live Ahti disperses her sonic fragments across multiple speakers spread across a space so her sounds emerge unpredictably from different corners of a room. Although spatial sound mixed for headphones cannot achieve quite the same awareness of a physical space, Ahti skillfully mimics the experience of spatial perspective—voices seem far away, obscured under layers of synthesis and signal noise, tones are slowly submerged underneath other sounds.
She also plays suggestively with titles. Tender Membranes suggests the senses, which Ahti does indeed reveal to be tender through her play with textures and expectation. Track titles like “Dust/Light” serve as an apt metaphor for the little particles of sound that start to become apparent to the ear as the frequency of a tone grows higher. Or perhaps it is an allusion to the delicacy of piercingly high signals that threaten to disappear or become inaudible entirely as they ascend. “In all this there is a melody that you can sing” begins with a warping of sonic space that opens on to an array of whistling, creaking, and suggestive droning. Long periods of near silence are interrupted by a solitary signal or tolling of a bell, or are replaced by sustained drones as Ahti encourages her listeners to think more expansively about what sounds or collections of sounds they find satisfying.
Jennie Gottschalk defines experimental music as an exploration of materials not necessarily in the interest of organization but rather in luxuriating in the mere potential of sound. The exploratory openness of Ahti’s compositions, the space she gives each of her sounds to exist in their own fullness rather than being subjected to a a compositional logic, is a beautiful illustration of what sonic potential sounds like. (Jennifer Smart)