Joel St. Julien - Empathy

  • An album of improvised and often beautiful ambient sketches meant to ground the listener in the here and now.
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  • Mushin, shortened from "Mushin no shin," is a Zen term that refers to "no-mindness," the creative state where time flies and fundamentals like resting and eating become mere afterthoughts. This state of flow only exists in the present moment. San Francisco based and Haitian-American sound artist Joel St. Julien is a big believer in harnessing this tranquility. "The art of being creative is being present," he told Fault Radio. "And for me, I see it as a spiritual practice." St. Julien's older music used manipulated vocals and processed guitar as the foundation for a complex, intimate sound that explored the unexplored nooks and crannies of ambient music. During the pandemic, he bought himself a Eurorack system and became immersed in the world of modular synths. Modular synthesis, with its high maintenance nature and potential for endless tinkering, is a surefire way to enter the flow state. His latest album Empathy is mushin in audio form, a series of sonic meditations that shut out the outside world. Empathy creates a sense of stillness even with its busy arrangements. The consistently filtered high-end makes it all feel distant, but at the same time the bustling, almost microscopic details conjures an ASMR-tingling level of closeness. It's like being in a protective bubble in the middle of a big city pedestrian scramble. In the album's more volatile moments, the atmosphere is thick with a dense, staticky smokescreen. Take "Empathy III," where neurotic swarms of synth tumble out like shards of glass, before "Empathy IV" follows with calm, gliding tones, a sweepingly gorgeous resolution to the tide of noise. Here we see St. Julien's signature knack for conjuring and then subduing chaos as a method of composition. He cites the "mysticism of the present tense" as his primary catalyst. To St. Julien, the present moment is a place where improvisation thrives. He describes his work a "spiritual practice," but one that is "not attached to any sort of thing" except his current state of being in that moment. Imperfections are intentionally left in the music as displays of honesty and authenticity. There's a feeling of human touch (and error) as the off-kilter kicks and jittery synth stabs stumble drunkenly throughout "Empathy I." It really does feel like every sound is improvised, made purely in that moment. “It’s my hope that this album gives you a place to be," St. Julien says in that Fault Radio interview. On Empathy, lush soundscapes transport the listener to a realm where the only place to look is inwards. Played all the way through, the tracks on Empathy sound like external battles giving way to inner tranquility—or, more specifically, giving way to empathy, the middle point between hardship and understanding. It's a testament to the often unlimited-seeming potential of modular synthesis, the healing abilities of music and the power of harnessing the here and now.
  • Tracklist
      01. Empathy I 02. Empathy II 03. Empathy III 04. Empathy IV 05. Full Moon 06. Where I Am 07. Morning Light 08. The World Is Ending (Again 09. Released