Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble III is an album full of shimmering harmonic atmospheres. It’s emblematic of the Chicago-based ensemble, whose music explores the textures and resonances of their string instruments, namely six and 12-string guitar (Elijah McLaughlin), upright bass (Jason Toth), and hammered dulcimer (Joel Styzens). Throughout Elijah McLaughlin III, they expand their usual palette by including analog synths, field recordings, and melodies from guest musicians cellist Katinka Kleijn and pianist Adler Scheidt. The group taps into overtone sequences made from sonic tapestries, following the music where it wants to go. Intuition is a key part of their work: McLaughlin’s music allows room for his collaborators to branch out and bring their own sonic imprint to the compositions. They listen to each other, letting each voice shine, and finding new textures and sounds together.
The field recordings that appear throughout Elijah McLaughlin III come from the driftless region of western Wisconsin, where McLaughlin annually goes fly fishing with his dad on the streams that feed into the Mississippi. He was struck by the bustling sounds of nature that live there, so he decided to document the sound of the area on his Zoom field recorder. He brought his seven-year-old son along with him, watching him explore the environment and make his own recordings of it. His son’s recording appears on “Braided River”—a gush of water that swooshes alongside glowing synths and string vibrations.
In addition to these field recordings, Kleijn’s cello offers its own new textures. Her sound veers away from conventional cello tone, employing the extended possibilities of the instrument. The two connected after McLaughlin saw her perform in Chicago; they spent an afternoon in the studio together improvising off of McLaughlin’s blueprints. Her exploratory style colors each track she’s on: The album’s meditative opener “Intro,” for example, features her echoing cello adrift above pillowy electronics, occasionally slicing through the cloud of sound with razor-edged bowings. On “Parallax,” her cello darts in-between McLaughlin’s fingerpicked guitar, bolstering its sound with swarming tremolos and sweet melodies, and on the serene “Point of Departure,” her cello floats like a sailboat on a gentle sea.
Drones have always been a character within the ensemble’s music, but on “Coloring of the Lake/Sky,” the three-part suite on the album’s second side, they take center stage. McLaughlin loves listening to the work of 20th century minimalists, and Terry Riley’s work particularly captivated him as he worked on this album. The piece grows from a series of short phrases, layering them and intertwining tiny blocks of material to expand and change. Like many of the ensemble’s recording sessions, McLaughlin came with an overall structure and general conception of the 3-part suite, and the ensemble ran with it, looping and interlacing each phrase.
Like a minimalist work or, more metaphorically, the tides, the music of “Coloring of the Lake/Sky” ebbs and flows between ecstatic rhythmic patterns. You can listen to the piece as a whole, following the drastic contours of the music, or zero in on any one instrument: McLaughlin’s rhythmic strums converse with Scheidt’s Charlemagne Palestine-esque piano vibrations, while Toth’s spun-out upright bass riffs on top. It’s energetic music, even in the moments of pause. Tracks like this one feel like a psychedelic celebration, but there’s also a sense of warmth and meditation in the group’s textures. And at its heart, their music captures the feeling of enjoying the vast beauty of the world around you.