Essential New Music: Thomas Ankersmit’s “Perceptual Geography”

Outer and inner space converge in the music of Thomas Ankersmit. His early work took its cues from figures like Phill Niblock, which is to say that Ankersmit played the room. Whether he was blowing a saxophone at a wall hard enough for the sound to bounce back or playing electronics through directional speakers, he used a place’s peculiar acoustic properties to complete his music.

More recently, inspired by late composer Maryanne Amacher, Ankersmit has become equally adept at getting quite literally inside a listener’s head. The Berlin-based musician uses his Serge Modular analogue synthesizer to generate otoacoustic emissions, which are sounds that are triggered by loud, external tones, but aren’t actually present in the music; they only occur inside your ears. This might sound like trickery, but the resulting music is anything but a gimmick. It transcends boundaries, encompassing electrical transmissions, quasi-natural events and the productions of a listener’s personal physiology, which the composer can initiate but never really control. 

The Serge is capable of an immense array of sounds, and Ankersmit avails himself of the full range, from high, pure tones to scraps of fuzz to bassy thumps that tap at your sternum like a big, ill-intentioned woodpecker. The early minutes of Perceptual Geography, which is a single 40-minute piece, feel like a dialogue between the night sky and a swamp. Thin, electrical filaments and distant, explosive reports commune over a surface of cricket-like ambience and shortwave asides. It’s the sort of music that invites you to close your eyes and see what kind of show your mind can conjure on the inside of your eyelids.

But as the piece progresses, it triggers other parts of your body. Sequences of Morse Code-like blips and pulsing sound beams start to activate your ears, resulting in a deeply perception-altering experience that doesn’t just mess with your mind, but extends from the inside of your skull to the air around it. Perceptual Geography, however, doesn’t traffic in the escapism commonly associated with mind-altering music; rather, it makes you more aware of the connections between the space around you and whatever’s inside your head.

—Bill Meyer