The mental image is an interesting phenomenon. From its variance in clarity to the mental process from which it is constructed, there is a certain ambiguity that surrounds mental imagery. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is the varying possibilities of that which it stems from. Whether it is conjured up from memories of past events or realised more spontaneously through that which reaches our senses, this visualisation within the mind can often defy ordinary perception.
While perhaps not commonly associated with the act of listening to music, the mental image can become a key part of one’s listening experience, particularly when the music is as evocative as that of ambient artist Mathias Grassow. Grassow’s ambient drones and soundscapes are designed not only to engross the listener in the atmosphere they create but also to bring to the fore the listener's own feelings and emotions.
Grassow’s 2007 album, Transpersonal, manages to bring out the thoughts of one’s own imagination and simultaneously conjure up imagery that whilst unique to each individual listener, is shaped to a certain degree by the album itself. The field recordings that accompany much of the album give Transpersonal a loose theme based around nature that seemingly focusses on the atmosphere and stillness of lonely, undisturbed outdoor spaces. This theme is further enhanced by the album’s artwork, a seemingly simple photograph of a still, motionless river that when looked at with further contemplation, reveals itself as a very intriguing and symbolic image. The main body of the photograph appears to depict the surface of a still, undisturbed river but in actuality the image looks beyond the water’s surface (figuratively speaking) and focusses on what is being reflected, thus providing a representation of what lies exterior to the image. The artwork further intensifies the reflective and ambiguous nature of the music within, whilst, perhaps most importantly, shaping the imagery that the music evokes.
Transpersonal is comprised of three lengthy compositions, all of which surpass the twenty minute mark. All three of these pieces evoke different feelings and emotions within the listener and possess a distinct character of their own, splitting Transpersonal into three very distinguished chapters. First track, Breathing of the Heart is the longest of the three pieces and is perhaps the album's most successful piece in terms of providing an expressive platform for one’s own thoughts and visualisations. Its combination of dark minimal soundscapes and layers of background sounds and field recordings creates a feeling of melancholic contemplation, whilst conjuring up imagery of dark, secluded spaces. The subtle sounds of birds twittering are exemplary of the theme of nature that runs through Transpersonal, evoking the kind of atmosphere one might feel when taking a long walk through dense woodland with nothing but one’s own contemplative thoughts for company.
The album’s centrepiece, the appropriately named Evoking the Stillness, is the lightest of the album’s three pieces, possessing a much more uplifting and positive atmosphere than the two tracks either side of it. The spacious nature of this particular piece inspires imagery of perfectly still, undisturbed water presenting the clearest of reflections, or perhaps a faintly defined cloud formation in a pale grey sky. The openness of these slow, evocative waves of sound provides a complete contrast to the claustrophobic and dense sounds of the album’s closing piece Inner Temple. Whereas Evoking the Stillness had been void of any of the nature-themed field recordings heard in Breathing of the Heart, Inner Temple is laden with sounds of rushing water and wildlife, the latter dominated by the almost overbearing and somewhat unsettling sound of crickets in the grass. These sound effects create imagery of long, thick grassland and dense undergrowth obscuring all but the occasional glimpse a river as a soft light fights its way through and reflects off the water’s surface. While this is by far the album’s least accessible piece, it is in some ways its most effective in terms creating a specific visual setting within the mind of the listener.
As a whole Transpersonal is everything an ambient album should be and much more. It expresses a variety of intense moods and emotions that take the listener on an audio and
visual journey through their own mind as well as providing an insight into that of its creator. The way in which the album manages to summon and shape one’s mental imagery, through its use of field recordings and carefully composed soundscapes, makes for an almost cinematic experience, an experience that relies very much on the creativity of the listener’s mind and their willingness to embrace the atmosphere of the music.
Grassow has dedicated Transpersonal to the memory of musician Klaus Weiss who at the time of the album’s release had recently passed away. The melancholic nature of the music undoubtedly reflects Grassow’s own feelings relating to the passing of his friend, but, by the very definition of its title, Transpersonal is an album that goes far beyond the personal thoughts of one individual.