Josh Semans’ electroacoustic sound mirrors nature’s sublime qualities

Josh Semans describes his debut album, titled ...And the Birds will Sing at Sunrise, as a meditation on the environment. The album’s excellent sleeve artwork illustrates this point by presenting the black pebble shoreline of Iceland’s Reynisfjara Beach, manipulated with intense contrast and line drawing. The artwork highlights the naturalism of his sound and expresses the ambition of his music. Josh Semans’ contemplative compositions showcase the human instinct to comprehend the awesome through art.

The physical album features the following writing by Francis Smallwood: 

A world run down, ruined and plundered, pumped and choked. But resilient, together still. Cities emptied, cars abandoned, ships drifting on rainbow tides—so much detritus of human thoughtlessness, too little done too late. For minded of nature we were—of its wonders and depths, its power and its majesty—some of us, some of the time. Others, a few, were full in their consciousness, reminding the rest what we preferred to forget—that the earth would not suffer us indefinitely. A price would be exacted, our expectations of unlimited growth would be checked. Nations and empires would fall, networks collapse, cultures dissolve, our rarest achievements be reduced to nothing, our ties to our homes and to each other would be broken. Still, we would not listen. And the end came. Our end, that is. For the world will get on without us—not forever, but for now. Our blue-and-green planet wrapped in rags of cloud will circle on about the sun, the seas will inundate our lands, the trees reclaim the ravaged tracts, and the birds will sing at sunrise…”

...And the Birds will Sing at Sunrise by Josh Semans showcases the ondes Martenot, an electroacoustic instrument.

It’s an excellent vehicle for Josh Semans’ meditations because it sounds both synthetic and organic. The instrument’s unusual sound is created when a performer uses one hand to control a keyboard and string, “the ribbon”.  The other hand rests on a lower drawer of switches and controls. The sound of the instrument is the result of the oscillators, unique speakers, and gestures of the performer. The electrified yet gestural way of playing the instrument creates a sound that presents both man-made and of nature. Moreover, Josh Semans combines the ondes Martenot with piano and a palette of electronic effects. The parity of acoustic and synthetic sound is akin to the balance of nature. However, like nature the sound also contains an embodied energy. The final moments of the entropic “Omnicicde Pts. I +II” see it released.

Omnicide Pts. I +II (track 8) & …And the Birds Will Sing at Sunrise (track 9) very clearly illustrates Francis Smallwood’s writing. What inspired some of the preceding seven tracks?

Those other seven pieces are a mix of things. Some of them are impressionistic descriptions of natural forms like clouds, mountains, and the sea. Other pieces deal with various elements of the human experience, like weakness, trust, and compromise. I tend to take my inspiration from all sorts of other things - often the sound itself. Sometimes two notes in succession will set off a chain reaction in my head and a piece of music will reveal itself. It is often the case that I am moved to create music and sounds that express, in some way, things I am thinking and feeling at any given time. A lot of ideas usually go into my music, and sometimes deeper meanings will emerge quite late into the composition process. This album is very much summed up by Francis’ writings, but it definitely isn’t a ‘we are the virus’ thing. I think it may come across like that at a cursory glance, but a deeper reading of the writing and the music would, hopefully, reveal more of a balance.

I imagine most listeners are unfamiliar with the ondes Martenot. Do you compose differently because of its perceived newness?

I do make a conscious effort to keep the ondes as the focus of each piece, but it never feels like a chore; it’s never forced. I try to balance this with a ‘serve the song’ approach, too. I’m not trying to make technical demonstrations of every function and sound of the ondes Martenot when I make music, and I’m not trying to peddle it as a novelty. Striking a balance of bringing the ondes to as many people as possible, while also working on music that interests me is important. I have exercised some restraint in this album, but that felt right for this first step. I wanted to start off with something accessible, and now I feel able to move forward with a slightly broader colour palette.

Music – Josh Semans

Photography – Josh Semans

Hand Drawings  – Jonathan Lamin

Additional Artwork  – Miriam Bean

Rear Cover Writing (Physical Release) – Francis Smallwood

Additional ondes Martenot on “…And the Birds Will Sing at Sunrise” by Takashi Harada

Additional ondes Martenot on “…And the Birds Will Sing at Sunrise” by Tomomi Kubo