The Album: Improvisations and Textures 1
Improvisations and Textures 1 is Jonathan Alvin’s debut album. Alvin composed, performed, recorded, and mixed the album himself, and he released it independently in May 2021.
Alvin’s album is both accessible and difficult. It is evocative and polarizing, spacious and claustrophobic. In terms of genre, the words “ambient” and “instrumental” come to mind, but these labels don’t accurately convey the emotional depth of this work.
The songs of Improvisations and Textures 1 are like worlds filled with tonal objects of varying textures. Some are smooth and soft; others are sharp or rigid. They are wildly spontaneous yet thoughtfully curated. In its grandest moments, Alvin’s music elicits a flood of emotion, but in its quieter moments, the feelings evoked are minimal, manageable, even playful.
Though he does not sing or speak on this album, I felt deeply curious about the human being who created these songs. Initially, I thought he might be a musical hermit locked in a cellar with a laptop, a pump organ, and several dilapidated synthesizers; or maybe an art school genius-turned-dropout, pacing around a coastal city, inspired by the sound of traffic intermingling with crashing ocean waves.
But no. My assumptions and imaginings were all wrong.
Actually, Jonathan Alvin is a husband, father, and student who lives and works in the Midwest of the United States. He might seem ordinary (and he is), but once you hear this album, you will realize you’re listening to someone so adept at multilayered emotional expression that he appears almost alien.
Once I began to digest this album, I reached out to Alvin, and he was kind enough to sit down for a brief interview and answer some of my questions about Improvisations and Textures 1.
Daniel: When did you start creating this album?
Jonathan Alvin: I started making the album in February of 2021. I wrote all the material in February and March, and I mixed it and mastered it in the beginning of May.
Daniel: Where did you record this album?
Jonathan Alvin: This was recorded at my house and in my childhood bedroom at my parent’s house. I was staying at my parent’s house because we had water damage in our house, so my wife and I were sleeping in that bedroom, the kids were sleeping in the next room over, and I was also working in the same room that I was recording it in and sleeping in.
Daniel: How do these songs relate to each other?
Jonathan Alvin: I think that they are all particular aspects of my emotional experience, like the degree of panic that I felt, the amount that I was fearing death during the pandemic. In some ways there are those pieces, but I also think that they contain some kind of “working with” or “working through” those emotions. It was like a needed form of expression for me to end my day or have an opening in the morning to go and play the music and write the music.
Daniel: As a listener, that’s how it feels. They’re very emotionally evocative songs. Can you tell me a little bit about the instruments you used?
Jonathan Alvin: For most of the album, I had four effects pedals that I was running everything through, almost at all times, so those really made the sounds come to life—particularly this one called The Microcosm, which is a granular effects processor. I also used the ASM Hydrasynth Synthesizer, which is a keyboard that has polyphonic aftertouch. So, you can push down harder on the keys after you press them, and it adds extra expression to them. There’s also a granular synthesizer called The Mangle, an upright piano, and a pump organ.
I found the pump organ for sale on the internet in Wisconsin. I really wanted to have one of those, as a sound, just in general, and I found one! So, my family and I hopped in the van and drove just over the Wisconsin border and picked it up. I’ve really wondered about the emotional experiences that have been packed into that organ, because it’s from the 19th century, and it’s beautiful, but it also feels like it’s just been through so much.
Daniel: I know you have a background in visual art as well as music. Did you make the cover art?
Jonathan Alvin: No, my friend Brendan Luchik made it. He’s a sculptor and a painter.
Daniel: Did your visual sensibilities factor into the creation of this album in any way?
Jonathan Alvin: What felt really important for me was not necessarily the visual, it was more so looking for a particular feeling when I pressed on whatever instrument. For instance, on some of the pedal organ tracks, there’s not necessarily any sort of time element that’s really consistent. It was just that I wanted to use the instrument to be in line with what I was feeling, and so I would try to find the notes and the spacing of things to be right.
Similarly for the other tracks, I was looking for the chord voicings and the effects to be resonant with whatever I was experiencing. I’ve been dealing with this idea that emotions seem to be the core of my experience. So I think that I was really just trying to put all of my emotion, and to a degree my intuition, but mostly emotion first with everything. And no thought, no evaluations or cognitions about the music.
Daniel: There’s a number 1 in the title of the album. Will there be an Improvisations and Textures 2?
Jonathan Alvin: I think there will be four of them. I’m definitely infatuated with the four ambient albums that Brian Eno released, and I’m just using that as a model.
Through his music, Alvin reminds us that there are aspects of our lived experience for which there are no words. This is even hinted at in the song titles, which are cryptic and fragmented. But they are almost irrelevant because, as Alvin said, these songs were made without thought or evaluation and should be experienced in the same way. In other words, you don’t need to analyze the ocean—just dive in and swim.