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Somberly Relevant Ambient Music From Desdemona and Percussionist Adam Holmes

Most of us tend to think of ambient music as hypnotic and soothing. Composer/percussionist Adam Holmes has written a trio of works, Music For a Small Shelter – streaming at Bandcamp – which have more bite than you typically find in calm, horizontal music. Depicting interminable isolation, in this case the grim early days of the lockdown, is hardly an easy task for any composer, but Holmes’ minimalist approach maximizes a small supply of sonic ingredients. It’s as if to remind us that sometimes we have to make do with what’s available.

Chamber ensemble Desdemona play with stark precision, joined by the composer’s incisive, spacious hammered dulcimer rhythms on the first track, First Names. On the third and final piece, Trust Fall, his rustles and misty press rolls alternate with echoey, astringently overtone-infused string swells and accents. Eventually the string trio – violinists Adrianne Munden-Dixon and Caroline Drexler and violist Carrie Frey – converge and then triangulate acerbically.

Long tones rise and fall away suddenly in the middle piece, Scattering, the strings smoldering with similarly otherworldly harmonics. Anyone terrified at the prospect of New Abnormal totalitarianism taking over the globe can find solace in this spare, somber music.

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A Fun, Playful Solo Percussion Album by Adam Holmes

Percussionist Adam Holmes has a very entertaining short solo album, Compartments, streaming at Bandcamp. To an extent, it’s ambient, but there’s a lot going on here. Holmes’ music has a welcome sense of humor, so often missing from the indie classical scene he comes out of: he validates the argument that drummers by nature tend to be funny people.

The album’s opening, title track is is a very playful, hypnotic seven-minute piece for small metal gongs, Holmes working subtle variations on a racewalking, steady rhythm. If this isn’t loopmusic, Holmes has the steadiest hands on the planet. The dynamics, and the overtones ringing out as he varies his attack, are very cool.

Track two, Deluge, is an electroacoustic piece, an echoey circling-the-drainpipe loop punctuated by what sounds like a crazed plumber trying to get a handle on what’s going on down there. Hypnotic, blippy muted polythythms on what could be a glass marimba spiral around backward masked loops in the third track, Cambium. Holmes winds up the record with All-American, those metal gongs again creating an increasingly complex web akin to a music box approximating the sound of dripping stalactites.

Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes drifty music, wherever your mind might be drifting to.