For a good number of years—good in both senses of the word—the Sonic Circuits organization, through its annual experimental music festival and monthly concert series, helped nurture the DC area’s experimental and electronic music communities. Sonic Circuits may have ceased operations in 2018, but the music underground here continues to maintain an active presence. Three new releases bring us up to date on the work of a troika of the scene’s veteran artists.
Jeff Surak was the curator behind Sonic Circuits; he’s also a sound artist with an eclectic and extensive catalogue of work. On naming the trees, release as both a digital download and a limited edition cassette, he pursues the not-terribly-gentle art of noise in two ten-minute-long slabs. In his live performances as well as on record, Surak tends to favor brutalist strata of raw sound, and there’s much of that to be had here. On left hanging he deftly layers the abrasive sounds of prepared autoharp and the clicks, scratches, and pops of prepared turntable against a background of electronic washes and bell-like drones; on the title track he crafts a tension-filled, dark ambient atmosphere out of throbbing synthesizer tones. Bracing, uneasy listening.
Contrasting with the predominantly harsh sounds of naming the trees is guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Beau Finley’s Processing . Although some of his live performances have involved walls of densely abstract, electronic sounds, Finley’s specialty is euphonic, tonally centered ambient music with well-defined melodic content. Processing  is the eleventh installment of a year-long project in which he set out to create 365 minutes of music in twelve monthly sections, with each section having the same number of minutes as days in its month. Starting with the key of C in January, he moved through the circle of fifths at the rate of one key per month. Processing  brings him up to November, and if it’s November, it must be B flat. After a very brief prelude outlining the key, the music moves into a hymn-like passage whose chords float slowly over a rich bassline before dissolving into an upbeat, quasi-Baroque chord cycle complete with synthesized arpeggios and counterpoint. And that’s only on the first piece; the remaining four weave together drones, upper chord extensions, unconventional cadences, and off-center sequencing into a suite of music that is really quite beautiful and affecting.
Refractory is the new release from TL0741, the solo synthesizer project of Patrick Gillis. In addition to being a performing artist, Gillis was a key, if largely behind the scenes, part of the Sonic Circuits organization. Refractory follows 2014’s Circulation and is worth the five-year wait. The basic tracks were laid down at live performances in DC-area venues between 2014 and 2017 and subsequently altered, amended and added to in the studio. A colorist with a particularly keen ear for juxtaposition, Gillis draws from a rich palette of timbres recalling the vocabulary of classic electronic and tape music, which he twists and creatively distorts into something uniquely his own. Gillis’ is music that naturally lends itself to synesthesia–a soundtrack for a strangely appealing dream world full of flashing lights of unknown provenance and enigmatic metallic objects receding over the horizon.