Hearing Auras

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In the mid-1960s, an unknown musician played single notes on a flute at IBC Studios in London. Each single, sustained note was recorded separately onto analog tape for use in a new instrument called the Mellotron, a strange invention that was part organ and part primitive sampling machine. Rather than faithfully reproducing the sounds of the flute tones, the Mellotron added coloration and imperfections such that each pressing of the key sounded a bit different. Using the Mellotron, songwriters could compose music without being limited to those instruments they could play.

The ghostly sounds of the Mellotron found their way onto recordings of the Beatles, Bowie, and The Rolling Stones, and a variety of 1970s prog rock records before disappearing in the synth-laden 80s and resurfacing in the 90s with Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins. As digital recording became the new standard, post-millennium, high-quality digital samples of the original Mellotron tones became more widely available, even to home studio tinkerers, like me.

Almost 60 years after those initial London recording sessions, the ethereal flute tones of the Mellotron were used to create the ambient drone compositions on my new album, Auras.  When I heard the compositions in final, layered form, I tried to find some way to describe it, some metaphorical mapping that could capture the haunting, yet calming quality. I kept thinking of the concept of auras and of the images of Kirlian photography. The music sounded to me like an aura. It’s not the face, not the body, but the invisible light emitting from it.

Despite the stretching and tone shaping, I could still sense the human breath in these ambient compositions. It still sounded, distantly, like a wind instrument. After electronic manipulation and editing, and even after traveling across different recording media for 60 years, the tones of those unknown flautists have found another incarnation in these soundscapes.

Lie down. Listen. Breathe along.