There’s an evident buzz above the surface of “Department of the Interior,” the first track off Steve Swartz’s album, Desert Meditations, that sounds like a fly circling the ointment, like your stereo has a bum speaker cone, like there is dust on your needle — like a musician has had enough of digital production techniques that emphasize frictionless grace and, in turn, inadvertently sever listening from the physical experience of sound in everyday life.
The drone that arrives is not mere drone — not that any great drone is mere drone, or a casual one for that matter, but the drone here is more than just reverberating ambience, even more than reverberating ambience with a dollop of rasty sonic discomfort. There’s an abundant, if willfully slow-moving, generosity to the shifting layers. There’s a flute (or flute-like instrument) somewhere in the mix, and not so deep to be pure texture. It brings to mind the more sublime efforts of R. Carlos Nakai as much as it does the 1970s ambient of Brian Eno.
Swartz apparently recorded the album while in the southern Utah desert. The full album, like this track, certainly correlates with the arid, the remote, but it also doesn’t stick with easy illustrations of desolate natural landscapes. This is not just dust and decay. It very much down in the dirt. The music emanates the impact of heat and isolation. A lot of music that is conceptually tied to a territory is said to “map” the landscape. This doesn’t merely map the landscape; it inhabits the landscape. It’s heady and spacious and meditative, certainly, but also of the body, through and through.