Mark Templeton

Standing on a Hummingbird

(Anticipate; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 23 January 2008

There are a couple of very brief moments on "Amidst Things Uncontrolled," the opener to Mark Templeton's debut Standing On A Hummingbird, where the distant sound of children yelling and playing breaks through the scratches and pops of Templeton's glitch electronics and heavily processed acoustic instruments. Many electronic artists use field recording samples as segues between tracks, movements, or rhythmic shifts; here the sound is woven right into the very fabric of the song, appearing for a few seconds and then retreating again. The sound of children is always going to produce nostalgia and connotations of innocence; however, its use as rhythmic sleight of hand achieves the same feat as much of Boards of Canada's output: Templeton captures sounds in a way which itself reflects the subject matter of his songs. In other words, the ephemeral nature of the sound delves well beyond the forced naïveté of some twee pop groups (or even less visceral ambient artists) to a haunting, melancholy space that hints at vague, distant memories. The clip doesn't simply evoke childhood; using sounds that are not his (as the title suggests) Templeton reminds us of our distance from it.

Templeton supplements these ghostly impressions of real life with a moving current combining the usual stock of glitch artists with acoustic instrumentation. The technique almost seems like a cliché at this point, evoking images of either a laptop artist throwing instruments overtop of the mix to obtain some vague ideal of more "organic" electronic music or a folkie attempting to disguise rote strumming and plucking with clever effects. Standing On A Hummingbird is miles beyond either, the live instruments so firmly entangled in a mesh of painterly abstraction it's often impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. In this respect, he'll probably garner comparisons to Fennesz; however, Fennesz rarely allows the listener glimpses into the source of his sounds. Here, acoustic guitar, violin, and harmonica are present like the objects in a faded photograph: recognizable, but in their newfound context, evoking a completely different set of responses.

Most of the album finds Templeton mining the incidental byproducts of instrumentation: the scratches of fingers across strings, the inconsistency of a bow across a cello. There's a strikingly human element to this strategy; consider how the long harmonica drones on "Roots Growing" recall the slow, deep breathing which creates the sound in the first place. It's hard to ignore that dreaded "organic" tag here, but at least it's well-earned, highlighting how even the most technologically-enhanced music ultimately stems from a process in real time and space; how all art is the interaction between a human being and his or her environment.

Thankfully, Standing On A Hummingbird maintains this element not only in origin but also execution, as the tracks shift according to an internal logic that typically eschews any notion of conventional rhythm. On "From Verse to Verse" the "beats," if they can be called that, skip along in a way which makes the tempo seem to rise and fall until the movement itself becomes the source of the track's pulse. This abstract approach to composition does allow moments of more conventional instrumentation; however, Templeton uses those moments to give tracks like "Pattern for a Pillow" and "Difficult to Light" a chance to develop in ways as unpredictable as his less traditional work. For example: the former track is based around relatively simple guitar picking but Templeton skips, reorders, layers, and otherwise manipulates his source material to reveal hidden counter-melodies and shifting rhythms.

The best part about that track, however, may be the scratching of strings; it sounds like a series of echoes from a hollow chamber and remains prominent even with the other guitar parts present. It's these little details that give Standing On A Hummingbird its strong sense of melancholy, or desolation. If it weren't for these elements, it simply be a well-executed experiment, but as it stands it's one of the more haunting pieces of sound art in recent memory.