John Roebuck took an old guitar, that was untuned and in a state of disrepair, and recorded it being “played” with a broken violin bow. He then combined this raw material, processed and overlapped in various ways, into the 12 short tracks that appear on this album. As implied by the title, Roebuck’s goal was to make something out of nothing – or more precisely, listenable music from an instrument that would otherwise be considered defective.
Even without this background, Ex Nihilo would be an interesting sonic effort. It initially comes across as a piece of multi-tracked chamber music, albeit with staticky elements. For the most part, these pieces have well-developed melodic and harmonic components that vary from near-ambient to rapid and energetic.
But the album also exhibits an array of sounds including plucked notes and drones. Throughout, there is a gritty, lo-fi feel. The actual playing of the guitar is not as important as how Roebuck folded and spliced these sounds together to form something completely different. To that point, it seems like a violin, harp, organ, or keyboard is being played in various places. Additionally, some of the voices include a metallic scraping that adds a modern edginess.
Roebuck’s construction of a compelling musical document from an imperfect source comes at a welcome time, perhaps challenging all of us to formulate a sense of decency and creativity from our own imperfections. Well done.