On her third album, Berlin-based Dutch-Italian composer and sound designer Aimée Portioli, aka Grand River, asks what guiding forces might be driving, enticing, and affecting us. “All Above” is rooted in her deeply personal philosophy as an artist, blurring the boundaries between electronic music and acoustic music and sculpting familiar ambient forms into personal themes painted with rich emotional colours. Written painstakingly over the last two years, the album is the most ambitious and divergent set of music Portioli has assembled so far, with a wide variety of instrumentation (including voices, strings, organs, guitars, and synthesisers) focused around the piano. She‘s keen to assure listeners that while that instrument isn‘t always heard, it‘s constantly at the forefront of the album, shepherding its emotions and anchoring its mood. It makes sense then that on the opening track ‘Quasicristallo’, the acoustic piano is the first element we hear, recorded closely, so its characteristic rattle and creak can speak as loudly as the familiar tones themselves. When the music blooms into abstraction and processed electronics, it‘s almost imperceptible: reverb mutates into ghostly vapour trails, and distortion forms the keys into another instrument entirely.
“All Above“ follows 2020‘s acclaimed “Blink A Few Times To Clear Your Eyes“ and 2018‘s “Pineapple” released on Donato Dozzy and Neel‘s Spazio Disponibile imprint. Having garnered praise from outlets like Resident Advisor, XLR8R, The Quietus, Inverted Audio, and The Verge, Portioli operates in a unique space within the electronic music scene, straddling the art world and the wider electronic music scene. She‘s developed sound art installations for Rome‘s La Galleria Nazionale and the Terraforma Festival-related Il Pianeta, and has appeared at Barbican, Mutek, Le Guess Who?, Kraftwerk, and other internationally renowned venues and festivals, often collaborating with Marco Ciceri on A/V presentations. Ciceri also maintains the visual identity of Portioli‘s label One Instrument, a concept imprint that asks artists to create music only using a single device. All this experience is poured into “All Above”, a richly visual album that‘s far more than just an imaginary film score. While on ‘Human’, her piano punctuates a rhythmic synthesised bassline and smudged choirs that can‘t help but trace out the silver screen. The composer is keen to clarify that she doesn‘t think of her music (or sound in general) in visual terms.
Portioli studied as a linguist and used her art to develop an emotional language that‘s not bound by expected cultural constraints. When she adds a different instrument or process, it‘s not to reference a visual cue but to mark a journey through different states of being. Each element embodies a different emotion or mood: the electric guitar represents strength or violence, synthesisers shuttle us into the dream world, and the acoustic instruments highlight intimacy and warmth – even heart. Read like this, the tracks are like meditative poems rather than cinematic vignettes: ‘The World At Number XX’ is seemingly centred around a chugging synthesised arpeggio, but the cosmic, Klaus Schulze-esque pads, strangled guitar and evocative organ tones hint at the open-hearted, literate psychedelia of the 1970s; ‘In The Present As The Future’ meanwhile is breathy and windswept, juxtaposing urgent rhythmic phrases with light, flute-like gusts of harmony.
Dedicated to Editions Mego founder Peter Rehberg, who died suddenly last year, “All Above” demands engagement and refuses to evaporate into the background. The album asks listeners not just to absorb the album as a whole but notice the cracks in the structure and discern the tension they cause. That‘s never more evident than on the closing track ‘Cost What It May’, a piece of music almost jarring when Portioli chops into noisy waves of electric guitar. In the wrong hands, this might sound like a power move – some rock posturing to act as a finale. But Portioli‘s expression is different. She‘s forcing a level of engagement that perceives the negative space as just as necessary as the saturated positive, and what could be more haunting and emotionally resonant than that?