In what can often seem like a crowded field, Dollboy’s Tuning Loops arrives with a unique point of interest, before even listening to the music. The album is based on recordings of The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment tuning up for Handel’s Messiah, which are sampled, looped and used as the basis for improvisations on a variety of instruments and electronics. What’s so interesting about this is not just the luscious, deep drones that are teased out of the recordings, but the idea of tuning up. Experimental music has often been concerned with the musical qualities of supposedly non-musical things – silence, found objects, founds sounds and field recordings, even disharmony would once have been seen that way. Tuning up, similarly, is hardly thought of as music, instead it is more of a functional moment before music is produced. Tuning Loops extends this liminal moment and finds its own artistic value.
The album teeters on the brink in a number of ways. “With Orchestra” has a plodding tension to it that suits the source material well, like a great beast limbering up. It’s steady, sometimes almost comforting in its enveloping vastness (the drones really do benefit from the weight of all the instruments), but as they begin to move there is the threat that comes with all that power, a few higher, unsettling notes breaking from the fold. There also comes the possibility of the source material breaking out, flourishing into a whole orchestra again – but also of going the other way, of collapsing into a deep, manipulated darkness that shows no signs of its analogue, acoustic origins.
It’s this kind of flux that keeps the album going, and yet the tension is never resolved. If anything, it slowly fades away. By the final track, “With Flute”, the prevailing sound is light and pleasant, as suggested by the eponymous focus instrument. Some of the layers of the drones seem to have been lifted, space created where notes can breath and linger calmly. There is, however, still a tension created by that very lack of resolution, a fear that something must surely happen at some point, and, of course, Handel’s Messiah is just around the corner. But Dollboy is not interested in Handel’s Messiah. So the music remains liminal, because it is in these spaces that experimental music often finds its power, whether light and pleasant or deep and threatening. It is also where some individuality can be found, somewhere rarely considered in this way by any music, the consideration of which offers Dollboy some rich rewards.
Because, after all, interesting source material and concept wouldn’t matter so much if the music didn’t sound good, and Tuning Loops emphatically does. The two trumpet tracks are especially beautiful; the improvisations (a million miles from what you might usually imagine an experimental trumpet improvisation to sound like) weave themselves into the drones effortlessly, occasional phrases coming forward with a soft, drawn-out melody to counterbalance the rumbling lower-end or, in the case of “With Dark Trumpet” providing the tension with unstable intervals whilst the drones follow the general trend towards airiness. The two middle pieces pleasingly blur the line between “Toy Piano” and “Piano”, the former often sounding more solid and heavy than the latter. Both meander teasingly un-melodically and carry some beautiful reverberation.
Dollboy makes a convincing argument for the value of in-between spaces on their own merit, not as functional points between two better things. Tuning Loops draws a rich and varied sound out of one such. As many experimental composers may have known for a while, sometimes the tuning up is as good as the ‘music’ afterwards.