What does it mean to stand on solid ground? I was texting a friend the other day; we were talking about wanting and trying to find a stable life when he said, “I so [much] want to be solid [that] I am adroit at convincing myself I am.” That is to say, our projection and will to realize stable footing may be enough to convince us that stability is a reality even when it is not. In a slightly different sense, this is the best way to describe the feelings I have toward Conor C. Ellis’s debut album Soft Earth—a record that convinces us of its solidity until it begins to gape open. To me this notion is intimated even in the title: Earth/earth definitely always appears to be solid and stable and reliable, but in actuality it is much more malleable and precarious than we can possibly imagine.
How else do we explain tracks like “Iridescent Collapse”—which I can only describe as a rainscape whose bottom falls out from under it. Cinematically it is as if we are viewing a falling drop of water, then many such drops, then several thousand such drops, as they appear to approach a forest below, but (at the 1:30 mark) the ground drops too, and opens up revealing… nothing. Technically speaking, the track is simply crafted, textually straightforward, and tonally minimal. It begins with a sample of rain under a lone, plaintive, vibrating (or is it glitching? Or is it time-stretched beyond recognition? Or is it simply… wavering?) pair of notes, arrhythmic but repeating. Deeper, darker samples enter (another water source? Or a dragged stone? Or a growl?), then a washing synth chord. Each part increases its intensity until 1:30, when the atmospheric samples cut out and the wash synth’s filter is suddenly removed. It’s as if the landscape we once saw were a mere curtain that has been brushed aside. A skittering, heavy beat betrays the gravity of this change. We are left wondering how we could have believed what came before. In other words, what begins as a track seated in evoking real, concrete images (perhaps this is indeed musical Imagism, if we consider the sparsity and technique), undoes itself into a piece of formality: just several different synths in a room making… something. The what has been lost, but maybe we come closer to knowing the how and why through that loss.
This battle between the concrete, real, oftentimes environmentally charged images evoked by Ellis’s luscious synths and textural samples and the indefinite, cacophonous non-images he sometimes decides to conjure—this battle pervades the whole record, if not within every track, then between contiguous tracks. Consider “Stone Water Light,” which begins with what one might conjecture to be a delayed-out sample of tread, which then shifts into a soft sweeping drone—a lake in early winter, perhaps—and then (at 1:00) changes again into… delayed-out samples of metal rods? Or something else just utterly industrial in its eschewal of musicality. And then of course this transitions into the bucolic pastoral, “Sun Pull.”
But even if we stand, mouth agape, staring at this wondrous conceptual discord, we are driven to ask what we as listeners are supposed to take from this–what do we enjoy about music that plays with us so capriciously? If Ellis is playing an “Old God,” creating an Earth only to flood it, is the locus of our musical pleasure in the antediluvian, Edenic melodies or in the aftermathematical wasteland? Or is it in the act of destruction itself, the moment of obliteration? I get the sense that Ellis is more fond of these liquifying interstices than any tangible space or state of being. And frankly I am too.
Then the soft earth is the ground at the moment it gives way. It is the moment in which every pretense of belief and any knowledge of faith collapses into something—perhaps not truer—but something heretofore unperceived. That said, maybe when a “reality” gives way to the formality of uncreation, something greater occurs: with the knowledge of a form, we can, upon reevaluation (or in this case, relistening), perceive what we once saw as reality more holistically, with a wider mind. This insight is to me at the core of Ellis’s work.
By Isak McCune