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The Engaging Ambience of James Johnson

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JAMES JOHNSON: Surrender (CDR on Zero Music)

This 53 minute release from 1999 offers a solid dose of Johnson's contemplative ambience.

This music is passive and drifting, but also quite moody and earthy. The aspect of soaring through atmospheric clouds is tempered with a strong humanity that grounds the ascents to a spiritual nature. The soundscapes follow a progression of emotional states, documenting the mental disposition of a growing fascination and a surrender to that attraction.

In "She Will Shift You" (the CD's longest track at 28 minutes), angelic tones sway in tandem with sweeping electronic textures that stretch for miles to achieve a limitless sonic geometry. The variations amid this structure are so gradual as to become invisible, leaving the listener unaware of how far the music had literally traveled.

Lazy but pensive piano features prominently in "Rememberance", the CD's shortest track, counterparted by an evening meadow full of insects.

In the 20 minute title track, things return to an atmospheric panorama. Sighing tonalities usher the listener into a region of resignation that becomes beatific acceptance, guiding the audience into unity with existence and fate.

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JAMES JOHNSON: Linger (CD on Limited copies left at Zero Music

This 59 minute release from 2000 features live recordings of Johnson performing at the Ambient Ping in August 2000 in Toronto. For one of the five tracks, he is joined by Scott M. Moore and Jamie Todd.

Blending ambient electronics with environmental samples, Johnson creates vibrant yet quiescent soundscapes rich with calm and wonder. Bell-tones flicker in a mix of ambient textures, decreasing the audience's pulse-rate while capturing the unconscious. Keyboard notes are imperceptible as the sounds ooze out in long pitches that seem to endure forever. But then, another track employs snappy E-perc to establish a quivering mechanoid rhythm for those eternally sustained notes. In another piece, Johnson reverts to piano strains to achieve an achingly longing sound. Generally, though, the music is pleasantly soft and comprised of cloudlike passages that skirt the stratosphere, weaving in and out of the thin vapors that lap at the vacuum's edge.

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JAMES JOHNSON: Entering Twilight (CD on Hypnos)

This release from 2000 features a single track that's 66 and a half minutes long.

Fragile xylophonic keyboard notes guide the listener through a field of phosphorescent tonalities and sighing pulses. Although rhythmless in nature, the piece does exhibit traceries of melodic attributes, quite subdued and sedated. In its minimalism, the music is rich with pacifying quality. There is no accretion of layers, the soundscape never builds to a crescendo. The sonic twilight approaches gradually, unhurried and soporific.

As the liner notes state, this music is "intended for low volume listening." One might call it an excellent soundtrack for waiting.

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MA JA LE & JAMES JOHNSON: Seed (CD on Hypnos)

This 2001 release sees Johnson in collaboration with Ma Ja Le (Christopher Short and Paul Vnuk Jr.), producing 74 minutes of inspirational ambience.

With Ma Ja Le, the sonic palette expands for this release to include guitartronics, E-bow, bass flute, wavedrum, and a variety of unaggressive ethnic percussives, nicely fleshing out Johnson's ethereal electronics and reprocessed sound inversions. The result are lusher soundscapes: denser yet still dreamy, versatile but still focused on the trance-state.

The music is undeniably passive, instilling conviction through subliminal stimulation of the cerebellum. While softly melodic, the structures are minimal and flowing, achieving completion without the use of peaks or rushes. What appears to be aimless drifting is actually carefully and intentionally devised, eliciting psychological impact on the listener through cathartic mesmerization. The music possesses a fullness, though, that is quite entertaining should the audience choose to concentrate on the tuneage instead of utilizing it as a background element.

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JAMES JOHNSON & ROBERT SCOTT THOMPSON: Forgotten Places (CD on Zero Music/Aucourant Records)

This 2001 release finds Johnson in collaboration with Robert Scott Thompson, offering 60 minutes of haunting soundscapes of ambience.

Haunting piano flitters in a synthetic breeze of electronic sighs and unfurling textures. While the piano explores the qualities of a splendid sunset, creeping slowly into tomorrow, the tonalities wash like a languid surf across the listener, saturating everything with their relaxing caress.

There is a solitude exhibited by locations that exist beyond mankind's expansion. Solemn mountain peaks, inhospitable wastelands of sand or ice, isolated coves whose fauna have never seen a human being. This tranquillity is captured with delicate mastery by Johnson and Thompson in the music on this CD.

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VIR UNIS & JAMES JOHNSON: Perimeter (double CD on Zero Music)

While best known for his excursions into extreme ambience, Vir Unis harbors dynamic tendencies that brilliantly shine in this collaboration with ambient synthesist James Johnson. This fusion of talent results in a total of 135 minutes of thoroughly engaging electronic music on this double CDR from 2001.

Employing such "instruments" as radiowave mutations, fractalizations, sequence and rhythm manipulations, and subtle knob movements, this music exhibits all the trademark aspects of pure ambient soundscapes...except that these aspects are enhanced by an injection of groove elements that invigorate the atmospherics.

The result are auralscapes that are alive with repressed agitation churning beneath an ambient surface, generating an agreeable degree of tension. Rhythms emerge to propel the music with their unearthly timbres and resonance. Before the listener realizes it, the soundscape has mutated into a calmly rippling fog of glimmering tuneage, thoroughly enticing and softly commanding.

There are passages in which the E-perc becomes quite demonstrative, striving to dominate the placid electronic clouds...forcing the ambience to display more captivating authority to keep up.

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JAMES JOHNSON & VIR UNIS & CHRIS SHORT: Aqua Culture 1 (CDR on Zero Music)

This release from 2002 finds Johnson working with Unis again, and with Short from Ma Ja Le once more, exploring the softer side of electronics with a single 63 minute-long track.

Expect liquidity to feature prominently in this music. But also expect those watery qualities to be immersed in the electronic wizardry inherent in the talents of these three seasoned musicians. Electronic sounds of particularly cloud-like nature conspire with a constant gurgling to produce a languid auralscape that lulls and sedates while quietly stimulating a positivism in the listener. The whole may be minimal, but its effects run deep.

Although there is little in the way of crescendo here, intensity is present in this ambient excursion. It is not a teeth-rattling assault, but rather a mind-dazzling sense of awe that is delivered through long passages of slowly sweeping electronic tonalities and elongated guitar sustains. Ever so slowly, the sonic drift deceptively becomes more viscous with richer textures that flow together.

Although this is one continuous piece of music, the track does exhibit three distinct "sections": the first being a drone-heavy atmospheric journey; the second displaying measured intensity (almost incandescent at points); while the third sedates that intensity by submerging it in the previous cloudstate. Each "section" lasts roughly twenty minutes, and transitions between these passages are sneakily stretched-out and difficult to pinpoint.

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