Ice cracking and melting; a forest by the coast; a dream; breath lingering in the cold air—these are some of the images that come to mind when listening to Vancouver composer Craig Aalders’ el8dEra 3m, the first-prize-winning composition in Musicworks’ 2016 annual Electronic Music Composition contest.
An absorbing, ethereal work of shimmering organic tones and shifting synthetic textures, el8dEra 3m straddles the lines between sensuality and abstraction and between spontaneity and construction. The meditative soundscape it creates retains the immediacy of its concrete sources, even as its varied processed timbres and its sophisticated, arrhythmic repetition are quintessential computer music. The piece seems to develop vertically rather than horizontally, swelling its pretty, vaguely Lydian theme with synthesized wind, waves, raindrops, and footsteps. It has a rare breathy openness. Neither as minimal as the work of contemporary ambient musicians such as Kyle Bobby Dunn or Sarah Davachi, nor as intense as that of Tim Hecker, Aalders’ piece is gently immersive, obliquely updating the calm pastoralism of the ambient genre’s origins in the music of Brian Eno with twenty-first-century technology and processes.
The ultimate effect is not so much epiphany as enriched stasis: contemplative immersion in a CGI landscape that emerges as a result of the piece’s process of creation.
Aalders began with two takes of improvised acoustic guitar, processed in real time with [visual programming language] MaxMSP, and liked how they sounded together. From that foundation, he built up the piece with fragments composed on various synthesizers and with field recordings made around his hometown of Vancouver. Says Aalders, “When I’m composing pieces like this, which are fusions of improvisation and composition, I really try to listen to the piece, and build my ideas off of that, so that they work well together.”
Aalders confirms that there’s a dichotomy between his imagistic and abstract inclinations. He says of the title that it “is an alphanumeric anagram. There is meaning hidden in there but I chose [this kind of title] for this piece, and other pieces I was working on at the same time, to let the music speak for itself, rather than to frame it for the listener.”
Aalders’ aesthetic influences range beween the classical and ambient spheres, and include the late work of Morton Feldman, Brian Eno’s late-’70s work, William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops—whose archetypal melancholy is tangible in el8dEra 3m—and the work of Austrian guitarist and electronic musician Christian Fennesz, whose glitchy, blissed-out Endless Summer (2001) is an audible reference.
Aalders speaks passionately and in great detail about these sources, as well as about the electronic-music systems they all helped to pioneer, and which he learned while attending the Sonic Design program at Carleton University in Ottawa. It was there that he learned MaxMSP, digital and analogue synthesis, and MIDI, as well as basic composition and the twentieth-century avant-garde icons: Cage, Feldman, Glass, Varèse, Stockhausen, and the rest.
His own environment is also an influence. Aalders lives near a train yard, which provides a rich array of “alien sounds” for him to manipulate, decontextualize, and render anew in his soundscape compositions. But in spite of that technological predilection, Aalders prizes the organic as well. Where much contemporary discourse subsumes the organic into the technological, reading their fusion as the corruption of the former by the latter, Aalders’ piece seems governed by the opposite impulse, harnessing synthesized means to naturalistic ends.
The bulk of Aalders’ solo work is under his own name, which is how he has collaborated with Vancouver cellist Marina Hasselberg. He also plays guitar in a contemporary psych-folk band, and plays more jazz-oriented material in other settings. Additionally, he cultivates his love of more conventional popular-song structures under the moniker Sun Sets West.
FYI: Craig Aalders has two albums coming out this year, one under his own name, on which el8dEra 3m will appear, and one as the pseudonymous Sun Sets West.

Audio:  el8dEra 3m, composed and performed by Craig Aalders (acoustic guitar, analog and digital synthesizers, analog effects, MaxMSP, field recordings). Recorded at Pacific 70 Studios, Vancouver, B.C., August–October 2015. Mixed at Pacific 70 Studios, July–August 2016.