There’s much to recommend Winter Birds, the new album from Steve Ashby. It came out about a month ago, long after winter had faded, but it draws you into that climate with ease. Or more to the point, with unease. Industrial ambience mixes with birdsong and other elemental noises to conjure up a dense, anxious sonic space. The highlight may be the track “Window,” which manages to appear still and yet have an intense, pulse-quickening momentum hidden in its seeming stasis.
Ashby explains the work’s origin in a liner note:
If you’ve ever spent a winter in Virginia, you know the weather can be a bit topsy-turvy. Snow storms one day, 70 degrees and sunny the next. Not only does it play tricks with our human body chemistry, but the wildlife outside our doors as well.
The impetus for this project took place in the winter of 2015, as I heard birds singing in the middle of a snowstorm. Pretty heavy winds, snow, sleet, and the songs of birds. The backbone of this work hinges on field recording made during that winter. Each piece builds upon these field recordings by exploring the resonant frequencies embedded within to present their musical qualities in a minimalist soundscape.
Field recordings can capture the documentarian reality of a moment. However, it can take post-production work to fully capture the emotional experience of that same moment. The field recording may trigger a memory in someone who was there when the recording was made, but that sound at its original time in its original place was filtered through the ears, the memory, the life of the person who first heard it. It can be the composer’s role to then refashion the sounds in a manner that brings experience to bear on the source audio. That’s what Ashby set out to do on Winter Birds, and the roiling, ecstatic drones and found elements that result are a testament both to the season and to his talent. The sound is also, no doubt, a testament to the efforts of Taylor Deupree, who is credited with having mastered the recording in all its widescreen-headphone glory.