Music writers review albums in different ways. Some blast a piece out whilst listening to the record for the first time, documenting first impressions and sketching the moods and images the music conjures. Others listen a few times but listen differently – the first listen is casual, to get a feel for the music without overthinking it. The second listen is closer, an examination of the details and themes of the album and subsequent listens will be ironing out these details whilst taking notes or writing the review. This is the approach I generally take. With Shunyata I approached the task of reviewing the album differently. I decided to live with this music for a couple of weeks, to absorb it and let it become part of my daily life. That has probably changed how I feel about the music and thus will change how I write my review.
In a sense this approach fits with the philosophy of the album as I have come to understand it. To be clear, I’m not a student of Buddhism and my grasp of ideas and theories in philosophy is basic at best. Shunyata is a mode of perception which doesn’t impact or try to add or take away from experience. The mental and physical aspects of the experience (any experience) are what matter and there is no need to explain or analyse those experiences. The emptiness is the void of presuppositions or elaborations on the feelings and initial understandings of the things we experience. Perhaps that doesn’t quite fit with the idea of reviewing an album per say, but the approach of living with the music and experiencing it as it is certainly does.
I’ve listened to this album sat on a rocky coastline, with waves crashing around me. I’ve experienced it in the garden as bird song and planes passing overhead mingled into the soundscapes and added different layers and different qualities to the music. I’ve had the album playing on headphones as I’ve walked alongside a busy dual carriageway, the heavy rumble of passing lorries almost completely drowning out the delicate electronics and thus utterly changing the experience.
This way of listening also fits into a wider, academic history of ambient music and the listening experience. Inside the album cover, Wiltshire thanks various people for their support but one name jumped out – David Toop. Toop is the author of a brilliant book called Ocean of Sound: Ambient sound and radical listening in the age of communication. It is a wide ranging exploration of and meditation on global sound, the history of music and ways of listening. It explores ideas of natural, accidental and intentional ambient sound and how we can listen and traverse the sonic landscape that surrounds us at all times. Listening to Shunyata, or rather living with Shunyata for the last few weeks has offered opportunities to listen radically, to experience sound that is both intentional and accidental and to experience those sounds amalgamate and fuse to create an ambience that is never quite the same from one play to the next. The album contains field-recordings, running water, hints of human whispers as well as synthetic sound. Mixed with the sounds of everyday life I have perhaps listened to as many as ten versions of Shunyata by Toby Wiltshire.
The connection with David Toop is personal for Wiltshire. After reading Ocean of Sound he approached Toop to be his external supervisor when he studied for an MA in Composition in 2013. But there is furthermore a subtle similarity between Ocean of Sound and Shunyata in terms of what they achieve and what they inspire in the reader/listener. In his foreword for the edition of the book that I own, Michael Faber describes Ocean of Sound as providing ‘amused dislocation, a glimpse of uncanny wonder, a sense of being on an exotic journey… His sonic landscape is the alternately disorientating and inspiring openness through which all that is solid melts into aether.’ That would also act as a fairly accurate description of Wiltshire’s Shunyata.
Wiltshire didn’t intend the album to be considered as meditation music, ‘more about meditation as seen from its original contemplative origins, as a method of deep enquiry and the track titles are starting points of enquiry.’ The record works on this level. There is undoubtedly a meditative quality to some of the music on this album – Floating Consciousness and Karuna contain features of meditation music that is now commonplace on streaming sites and on the shelves of wellbeing shops. This music is much deeper than that though. You feel instinctively the delicate interplay between the natural and synthetic sounds on the album and the loose but intelligent compositions are much more of a journey than a static sound to meditate to. Much like the free flowing nature of Ocean of Sound, the music opens up new worlds and invites empty experience as a starting point on a journey of listening and discovery.
Shunyata is definitely an album best heard in its entirety. To truly appreciate the journey and appreciate the void of the listening experience you have to allow yourself to become immersed in these compositions; you need to let the modular sounds and elusive background drones wash over you. That said there are tracks on the album that do stand out.
Mist Clearing On The Mountain is a beautiful way to start the experience, as the sound of dripping water liquesces into an array of restrained sonic radar like sounds, surrounded and swept up by an evolving, swooshing soundscape. This sound texture offers a vivid image of mist drifting through the damp air in a spectacular mountainous landscape, tucked away from the rush and damage of urban life. Glimpse has a darker atmosphere peppered with bleeps and clicks that again create the sonic sensation of slow movement towards a kind of open transcendence. Orange Light is one of the longer pieces on the record and builds delicately to a glorious epiphanic plateau before it descends and disappears, as we move away from the light that drew us to that place.
Toby Wiltshire has been producing and making music for around 20 years. He’s been widely influenced by the visual arts, his explorations in meditation and his experiences working with audio-visual art installations. That knowledge and experience combined with a spiritual sensibility and a deep appreciation of how to listen has led to the creation of a genuinely magnificent listening experience. Shunyata: Emptiness is both a physical and a mental experience. Whether you decide to make it more than that is completely down to you as a listener and how you decide to interactive with and consume the album. Give yourself over to it, even if only for a little while. You never know where the journey might take you.
Shunyata: Emptiness by Toby Wiltshire is released July 2nd 2021 on Cue Dot Records.