Michael Bratt is a D.C.-based composer with an impressive CV, having studied music extensively, conducted orchestras, scored films, and co-founded ensembles like Cleveland’s FiveOne Experimental Orchestra. His is a life enveloped in modern music, both as an enthusiast and a practitioner. The approach is academic — a lot of thought goes into his music, as you’ll discover below — but doesn’t ignore the visceral pleasure of a beautiful, meaningful recording.
Michael sent his new album The Darkroom, a set containing one solo song and four collaborations. It’s “a collection of ambient electroacoustic works,” he tells me. “Many of the tracks are extremely personal in nature, and some of these collaborations have been three or four years in development.” The solo track opening The Darkroom, “Visions,” planted the seed for the project six years ago.
This patience is refreshing in an age when we’re told to release nonstop music. It also results in an attention to detail, as heard throughout The Darkroom. Take the title cut as an example, where strings and flutes play off each other elegantly while a more abrasive electronic section sneakily rises from silence to dominance. Or the plucked piano notes of “As the Earth Grew Still,” spaced together with implied distance before gradually coalescing in harmonic layers. In other words, nothing here sounds hashed out.
Each of the collaborative songs features a different artist or ensemble. There’s Azerbaijani-American flutist Jeiran Hasan, the harp-viola-flute ensemble The Lynx Trio, guitarist Bruce Middle, and the double-u duo. With explicit intention, Bratt considers these compositions true collaborations rather than ‘guest spots.’ “When I work with someone, there is a lot of back and forth,” Bratt explains. “I rarely write something, hand it off, and that’s the end of it.”
Based on the weight of talent and intellect on The Darkroom, you might expect an album that’s heavy and impenetrable. But it’s a soulful listen, very human and reflective, with many moments that are gently disarming. “You Belong Here” comes to mind, with processed guitars and subtly droning electronics conveying a comfortable loneliness.
When Michael Bratt sent me The Darkroom, I asked for a few more details in my reply. He responded with a track-by-track tour of the album, outlining the methods and inspirations for each song. These notes are terrific and illuminate the thought that went into this project. It would be a shame to excerpt these explanations, so I’ll let Michael take it from here as I publish his comments in full:
“Visions” → “The inspiration for this piece came from the Bach cello suites (G Major Minuet 1). In that piece, Bach utilizes registers to create three independent lines of music to give the impression of polyphony. I wondered how I could accomplish the same idea utilizing technology. Instead of working with register, I chose to use the pan position. The majority of the piece is a simple square wave that’s panned fast enough to create a Gestalt effect in the brain, which gives the impression, or vision of polyphony.”
“Fire From Within” → “The title comes from Pablo Neruda‘s poem, “As if you were on fire from within, the moon lives in the lining of your skin.” Both Jeiran Hasan and I have known each other for years. We were part of the Cleveland new music ensemble, FiveOne Experimental Orchestra. The poem references this inner fire or desire in people, to the point where our skin glows and everyone can see it. That’s the imagery that I was after.”
“The Darkroom” → “Growing up, my father (an amateur photographer) had a darkroom in our basement. This work evokes those feelings of freedom through organic form. The piece gradually works on an idea that continually develops over and over. The music is minimalist and is monochromatic, much like the black and white photographs my father took as a child. While it’s compartmentalized, focusing on one idea, it doesn’t contain a form or separate sections. It’s meant to be taken as a whole idea.”
“You Belong Here” → “One of the teenagers at my church committed suicide two days before service. I ran the mixing board at the church that Sunday, and the pastor had everyone disperse into small prayer sessions around the church as the band serenaded. Everyone was devastated, trying to hold it together. I captured that recording of the band from the mixer and slowed it down 2000%. That became the basis for the guitar solo with Bruce Middle. The sermon from that day was titled ‘You Belong Here.'”
“As the Earth Grew Still” → “My original concept for ‘As the Earth Grew Still’ was a piece about intimacy (human connection). I knew that I would be collaborating with Robert and Melissa Wells and was looking forward to working with a couple who knew each other intimately. Unfortunately, much changed in our world during 2020, and it irrevocably disrupted my writing process. The piece grew to be a reflection of my isolation locked in social distancing with my family. It employs a visual cueing system I developed that allows me to synchronize pianos together in non-related meters and tempi. This is done through a computer application I wrote which creates a website that the performers visit on their mobile devices — replicating my experience in isolation when we were doing things separately — together.”