Emily A. Sprague – Water Memory (Review)

Emily A. Sprague is a modular synthesist and sound designer who, as a solo artist, is known for creating impressionistic soundscapes that evoke the natural world. Over the past few years, Sprague – also known for her work as guitarist and vocalist in indie-folk band Florist – has released a string of ambient projects notable for their delicacy and ethereality. Despite the consistency of her small back-catalogue, the highlight of the young artist’s solo career remains her 2017 debut, Water Memory, a sonic exploration of stillness and flow, thematically centred around the unifying motif of water.

Water is ungraspable, physically and conceptually, a material object that exists in perpetual movement, transcending seemingly binary oppositions. Water is necessary for creation, essential for sustaining growth, and yet it is also a weapon of torture, an extinguisher of life, and a powerfully destructive force in its own right. As a conceptual work, Water Memory tries to reflect these dichotomous characteristics through sound. The first track, ‘A Lake’, is suitably expansive and panoramic, mirroring the grandiose stillness of the scene its title suggests. A low-end drone swells across the track like an ebbing tide lapping against the shoreline; dense chords drift lazily across the mix like morning mist, and sparkling synths shimmer like dawn sunlight dancing across the water’s surface.

The album’s following tracks intersperse hazy textures and ominous drones with looped motifs that meander endlessly like lost mountain streams. ‘Water Memory 1’ is a gorgeous example of the latter; built around a revolving loop of gentle horns, the track feels quietly melancholic yet undeniably peaceful. In contrast, the undercurrent drones running through ‘Water Memory 2’ create a more insistent, even forceful presence. Still, the music here is never in-your-face, relying on minute textural shifts to create a feeling of almost imperceptible motion. Only after multiple listens do certain subtle details reveal themselves, individual droplets quickly swallowed in vaster oceans of ambient noise.

The overall effect of this makes for an undeniably peaceful listening experience; and yet, to call Sprague’s music ‘relaxing’ does it a disservice. Music created for the sole purpose of relaxation recalls bland garden centre compilations of whale noises, meditation bells and Mongolian throat singing, neatly packaged commodities for the alienated and urbanized. The aim of such offensively inoffensive music is, like Muzak, to create a momentarily ‘pleasant’ escape from the drudgery of the quotidian, a brief period during which we too can imagine ourselves as carefree as dolphins or as detached from material desires as Tibetan Lamas. In contrast, Sprague’s Water Memory succeeds in calming its listener without resorting to the twee characteristics of ‘relaxation’ music. Despite their subtleties, the tracks have a self-assuredness which captures your attention even as you find yourself drifting lethargically in and out of consciousness. The music possesses a Zen-like quality that, far from encouraging an escape from life, ennobles us to seek transcendence within the material world, not beyond it. Unlike the laughably saccharine sounds of so-called ‘transcendent’ new-age music, Water Memory is injected with a touch of melancholia, a recognition of life’s sadnesses. This wabi-sabi aesthetic can be heard in the slightly irregular loop of ‘Dock’, as well as in the quietly contemplative glitches of the album’s closer ‘Your Pond’. Both tracks are equally soothing, touchingly understated; and yet they display an undeniable wistfulness, an embrace of that curious beauty found solely in imperfect forms.

In short, Water Memory is a slippery, hard-to-define album that encapsulates the seemingly oppositional qualities of gentility and immediacy, tranquillity and mournfulness. In reflecting the fluidity of water through sound, Emily A. Sprague invites us to lose ourselves in the movement of momentary experience, to find transcendence not in some higher state of consciousness but within the everyday flux of the material world. Water Memory does not offer an escape from life’s endless motions – it asks us only to notice them, to reflect on the fluidity of nature, and to celebrate our own transitoriness in that ever-flowing stream we call existence.

N.B. Check out this sublime unofficial video for ‘Water Memory 1’ that I think perfectly captures the melancholia and nostalgia of the piece. The internet is a treat when you chance upon gems like this.

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