Written for the Washington Square News (NYU)
Jon DeRosa, a graduate Music Technology student at NYU, has recently released the latest in a series of albums under the guise Aarktica. The project consists of a constantly revolving lineup of collaborators, yet is anchored by the atmospheric guitar soundscapes DeRosa creates. The newest record, Pure Tone Audiometry (Silber Records) is a cohesive piece of music from start to finish, with a distinct and subdued atmosphere, punctuated by occasional moments of upbeat post-rock, and set amidst an almost glacial ambient backdrop. It’s a sonic contradiction that leaves the listener roaming between frigidity and warmth. Perhaps most striking is the level of production, enabling the listener to discover deeper layers of textures and pulses with each listen.
As an undergraduate at NYU, DeRosa was a music technology major, focusing on electronic music synthesis and composition with Dr. Kenneth Valitsky. As a graduate, DeRosa has enjoyed studying composition with Nick Didkovsky and psychology of music with Dr. Robert Rowe. He also studies North Indian classical music with microtonal composer Michael Harrison and minimalist pioneer La Monte Young.
DeRosa’s last Aarktica album, …Or you could go through your whole life and be happy anyway (Darla Records), was well received in both the independent music community and major media outlets. Jon Pareles, pop music editor of The New York Times noted, “Guitars, voices and electronic pulses are layered together in stately, gradually changing, mostly instrumental songs that could come from a less neurotic version of the Cure.” Even the notoriously highbrow Pitchforkmedia.com, home to some of the most intelligent record reviews around, called it “an essential release in the Darla bliss-out series,” and that, “The consistency of the music here creates a world unto its own. It'll churn in any season, like a snow globe.”
In addition to Aarktica, DeRosa’s other project, the country-esque Pale Horse and Rider, has also released a new record this month on Darla Records. The album is titled These Are The New Good Times, and can be compared musically to the sounds of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, in stark contrast to the blissful and distortion drenched Aarktica. Instead of lush, thick, production, PHR is comprised predominantly of steel string acoustic guitar and vocals. Jon recently joined me to discuss Aarktica, his other musical endeavors and what can be expected from him in the future.
What sort of progression do you feel has occurred from the previous Aarktica records to Pure Tone Audiometry?
For one, there was a clearer focus on what I was doing than on past albums. The finished product this time around was very close to what I had set out to do. Now this probably doesn’t sound like that big a deal, but if you’ve ever recorded in a well-equipped studio, you’ll know what I mean. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny toys and blinking lights. And since I get very easily distracted in the studio (whether it be by the new issue of Maxim in the control room or the new tube compressor), the idea that I was able to produce an album directly from what I had in my mind to begin with and not get sidetracked was significant.
I think the issue I had been dealing with all the while with Aarktica was “How do you make a drone album with pop nuances, in such a way where both elements work together and compliment each other?” And I feel that while there’s still progress to make on that angle, the new album really gets closer to that than any of the previous albums.
Also, I had several friends perform on this record, which is very new to me since Aarktica’s usually pretty solitary. Lorraine (of Mahogany) had sung on the previous album, and she joined me again, along with Andrew of Mahogany on cello, Ernie of Plexus on bass, Molly Sheridan on violin, Hadley of Escapade on drums, and Charles of Flare on harmonium. Charles also co-produced the record and offered a lot of good ideas, which I feel worked out really well.
Would you consider the Pale Horse and Rider project essentially a way to connect more directly with songwriting, and not become distracted with the nuances and production of Aarktica?
Even though Aarktica is allegedly my “main” project, I had been playing folk music long before it ever occurred to me to start doing anything ambient or experimental with guitars. So that’s sort of where my roots are. I started Aarktica after losing hearing in my right ear, with the intention of creating drones that recreated my now damaged stereo image and which utilized frequencies I could still hear clearly in both ears. At the time, the project was anything but “produced.” The first Aarktica album No Solace in Sleep was recorded in Carlyle Court on a 4-track cassette recorder.
Both projects exist very separately from each other. Maybe I’m schizophrenic or ridiculous that way, but when I’m working on one, the other is very far removed from my mind. Almost like it’s someone else’s thing.
You’ve mentioned perhaps combining some of your studies in classical Indian music with Aarktica, have you written anything in this vein to date?
I think that influence has seeped into Aarktica in its own subtle way already. I have a very large-scale idea for the next album involving raga, but it’s too early to really say if it’ll work or not.
What direction do you want to head with Aarktica? Any more “rocking out?” as you put it in reference to track two on the new record?
Well, “rocking out” is always the fun choice, though it doesn’t always make for good music. Restraint and precision is usually the way to go, being able to channel that rage into something beautiful. But I don’t know. Each Aarktica album has had a very different sound from the one it follows, and I think as long as I can keep myself on my toes (not to mention others as well), I’m doing a good job.