Room40’s new tape series is off to a banner start with releases from Alan Licht and this gem from Alexandra Spence. A Necessary Softness is a heady journey into distilled landscapes and an exploration of the ways in which sound brings those spaces to life. The pieces on A Necessary Softness (such a great, apt title too) have a tactility to them, physical objects emanating sound.
“Tidewater” pairs shifting electronic drones, field recordings, and a variety of spoken word and vocal effects into a menagerie of sound and performance. Spence’s discussion of glaciers and their properties is educational on some level, but the way in which she pans and processes them, looping them in unexpected ways adds heft. There’s something more to those parts than just the words. Tones continue building up layers while natural sounds and other sources burst into snarling, crunching sonic walls. For music described as soft, this has a sharp edge.
Ringing round waves are distilled on the other main piece, “Bell, Fern,” following into similar terrain as “Tidewater,” though far more earthen in character. The sound of tape fast-forwarding and rewinding is jarring and sounds futuristic in the context of Spence’s field recordings and synthetic howl. Electronics pop and grate into wordless vocal loops and guttural crunch, another world falling out of the synthesized fog. It’s beautiful and terrifying as she repeats words like cicadas, rocking boats, and waves lapping into the abyss.
Alexandra Spence’s A Necessary Softness is difficult to process, but rewarding when the effort is put in. The raw field recordings that are also included do soften the edges a bit, but this is anything but music that will cushion your brain or help you drift away. It commands attention and deserves high praise. Room40’s new tape series is certainly off to an excellent start.