“The color of where you are not.”
So Rebecca Solnit describes blue, a color that suffuses Elori Saxl’s new release The Blue of Distance. Released in January 2021 on Western Vinyl, this album of chamber orchestra and electronics pieces traces the acknowledgement of elsewhere. It’s a record full of iterative gestures and hazy nostalgia and shrouds of drones eddying in and out of focus. It’s lush in timbre and easy to drift off in, but meticulous in construction. It is — sometimes — a bit heavy on reverb and repeating motives.
But this all brings to bear “the blue of distance,” Solnit’s term for the blueness of faraway mountains caused by light particles lost over miles. Saxl is interested in this distance: between technology and nature; between the composition’s beginning in the summery Adirondacks and its icy completion on Lake Superior; between musical memories. “Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in,” Solnit writes. Saxl suggests what that longing might sound like.
Core to the record is the interplay between electronics and a five-piece acoustic ensemble, which Saxl deftly interleaves throughout. This is not just instruments riffing over a sequencer, or a synthesizer chiming in as the sixth ensemble member — she and the ensemble are wholly in command of the aesthetic purpose of each action. The contributions cohere into a consistent soundscape throughout, morphing from drone to minimalism to ambient in a considerate demonstration of orchestration.
This is evident on the ambient “Wave II.” A murky, churning bass (rushing water with a severe envelope?) sets the pulse, gently expanding into a tradeoff of chordal swells and rising melodic fragments. The recognizable instrumental entrances build a dense texture, until synthesizers imperceptibly overtake the soundscape. An oscillator opens just enough in its overtones to assert its presence before withdrawing again to the background; another synth sneaks in amidst the murmurs of a low-frequency oscillator and then crests over the primary instrumental focus while passing across the stereo field. As primary actions draw attention, these details enlarge the space.
Deep listening uncovers gratifying nuances throughout the record. On “Wave I,” filter sweeping meanders underneath distinct clarinet melodies and flanged chords, with twinkling bow tapping on strings so delicately placed you might think it was part of a buried field recording. This song-like piece is one of the strongest; it captures a nostalgia buried in the album while drawing the soundworld in a different direction. “Memory of Blue” smears the material and character of previous tracks into a patient, ambient rotation of sounds. Where “Wave I” excels for its succinctness, “Memory of Blue” captures the many distances at play through mesmerizing layering.
While every track contains these considered details, the material sometimes pushes into a pedestrian post-minimalism. “Blue” begins with a watery field recording, rivulets eventually establishing the pulse for iterating tonal fragments. Incessant rhythms continually accumulate and discard a familiar smattering of instrumental motifs. The color is enticing, but the pitched and rhythmic material don’t meet the sonic moment.
In this way, The Blue of Distance is a familiar record, trading in the broad electronic sounds and iterating rhythms that are prominent in contemporary music. This lets Saxl show off her ear for texture, but leaves other elements sounding comparably weak. Perhaps latching onto expectations for the immediate limits appreciation for her cushioning electronics, her orchestration of timbre, the hiss of water or wind in the background easy to miss without active listening — too much mountain, not enough blue. Nevertheless, the adherence to certain stylistic tropes leaves the mountain fairly recognizable.
After all, Solnit frames distance as an entity constituted by but not limited to the points it separates. It is not something to traverse between known pillars, but to consider. “…something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond.” Saxl’s work is strongest when it finds its distanced position amidst the many styles and sounds serving as reference. Solnit’s “blue of distance” and The Blue of Distance thus become more than just a haze. They are invitations and situations, invitations to situate.