A thrilling immersion into FM synthesis and a puzzle of MIDI data, the Los Angeles based multi-instrumentalist Gregg Kowalsky returns to Mexican Summer with Eso Es, his sophomore outing for the label and first new music since 2017’s L’Orange L’Orange. Representing a significant creative leap for the veteran composer, Eso Es unfolds as a hypnotic journey into Kowalsky’s inner world, laced with a depth of emotiveness and vulnerability that’s rarely encountered in the electronic music realm.
Raised in South Florida and trained at Mills College under Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros, Kowalsky first came to prominence during the mid-2000s as a member of the thriving experimental music scene in the Bay Area, issuing a series of stunning albums on imprints like Kranky and Root Strata and contributing to a reinvigoration of American made Minimalist and electroacoustic music. In an addition to composing solo works, pieces for large ensembles, film soundtracks, dance performances, and site-specific installations over the past twenty years, during the 2010s Kowalsky concentrated his energies as one half of the critically acclaimed duo Date Palms, performing extensively and releasing three hypnotic albums, including 2011’s Honey Devash on Mexican Summer.
Historically, Kowalsky’s solo efforts have favored durational tonality and harmonic tension, culminating as immersive compositions of textural ambiences, but by 2017’s L’Orange L’Orange, subtle shifts were underfoot. Delicate melodies threaded the album’s compositions, while the harmonic relationships hummed with intoxicating warmth. Six years on, what began as subtle interventions have flowered into the monumental creative leap represented by Eso Es.
Eso Es is an album that might not have been; a phoenix from the ashes, born of restlessness and fatigue, that doubles as a poignant reminder that experimental music doesn’t have a fixed aesthetic or “sound.” Returning to Kowalsky’s childhood fascination with synthesizers and plunging headlong into the joys of the unknown that drew him toward experimentalism decades ago, the album was composed and recorded almost entirely on a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and sequencer both guided by overdriven MIDI data. The album’s seven compositions are the result of an entirely new process for the artist, embracing chance and the organic dialogue between an artist and the limitations and possibilities naturally presented by an unfamiliar instrument. While unquestionably led by a clear sense of process and structure, both were developed responsively, in real time, emphasizing listening as a key element within the act of composing. The resulting lines of shimmering synthesizer and intoxicating rhythms bubble with a gleeful naiveté that often informs the early years of an artist’s practice.
Begun as a simple series of rhythmic sequences overlaid as interlocking cycles, Eso Es unfolds as a hypnotic journey into Kowalsky’s inner world as he emerged from the chrysalis of silence. With the dancing, arpeggiating tones of the album’s opener, “Fragile Water,” we are reminded of early New Age and ambient music’s close ties to Minimalism, as expansive melodies fold back into themselves in seductively repetitive patterns It’s at the tail end of “Fragile Water” that we can listen deeply for Oliveros’s imprint on Kowalsky; a meditative field recording from his time spent recording Eso Es in the Everglades of Florida manifests, before entering a state of hypnotic ecstasy across the length of “Fontainebleau.”
Each of Eso Es’s compositions follows its own inner logic and path, while establishing startling, unexpected conversations and an energetic, forward momentum across its entire duration, feeling akin to states of evolving meditation. Passing through the playful sway of “A Chorus of Trees” and the complex tonal tension of “Cold Open Cascade” before entering the constrained elegance of “Nights Move,” the spellbinding rhythmical tonalities of “Throwing Shapes,” and the gauzy dreaminess of “Brass Dolphins,” elegance and simplicity prevails, each note falling exactly where it should and requiring nothing more or less.
Issued by Mexican Summer as a limited edition vinyl LP, Eso Es marks the return of Gregg Kowalsky as a gentle force in electronic and electroacoustic music and represents another high-water mark in an already remarkable career.