In the title track, water drips into a metal tub. (Is that what it is?) And there’s something in the foreground that sounds a bit like road noise. As “Archaic Signal” rolls along, it undulates and wawas a la The Twilight Zone. And running a path through it all are shortwave radio signals that you can almost understand. (Is that Russian?) Santa Fe resident Brian McWilliams, who records under the name Aperus, will tell you that when he artfully combines these sounds he creates what’s called “ambient music.”
“The word ‘ambient’ gets tossed around a lot. For some people, it means being at the massage therapist, and they hear the sound of the waves in a recording. For other people, it’s like ’90s electronica,” says Jason Goodyear, sound artist and instructor at Santa Fe Community College.s Goodyear sees himself as a sounding board for McWilliams. They talk about the possibilities of sound. “I think his talent really lies in unlocking sonic doors. He’ll hear something, and he’ll explore it and understand it.”
Armed with a portable recorder, McWilliams captures the world’s noise and then uses a synthesizer and keyboard to layer the elements and transform them into songs — although probably not in a form that most would recognize. At times, McWilliams also makes the sounds from scratch, using found objects as instruments. The result is a soundtrack for — and of — the world.
Archaic Signal, McWilliams’ fifth album, was inspired by a walk in La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs. There, McWilliams was astounded by the elaborate rock carvings among the boulders. These petroglyphs, made by the Keresan-speaking people hundreds of years ago, spoke to him. He took thousands of photographs and used them for album art and as a theme. Archaic Signal is not only an amalgam of sound, it’s a meditation on communication. Bird song, ancient rock art, and grasshopper conversations are all integrated into the album: They’re also all forms of communication.
In college, McWilliams, 53, made alternative music in a band called In Autumn. “I played bass guitar and cowrote songs using keyboards, bass, and drum machines with the singer who was a writer and guitar player,” McWilliams says. “We sounded like a combination of The Cure, The Church, and early Duran Duran.”
Raised and educated in Michigan, McWilliams hoped the band would punch his ticket to stardom, and he sometimes neglected his responsibilities in favor of music. “I remember taking a midterm test for a computer class. I hadn’t studied enough and instead of answering the question, I wrote an essay on following your dreams. The teacher liked it, but I didn’t pass the class,” he says.
The band didn’t make it either.
“As the ashes settled on being in a band, I started to realize that I could do this on my own. Ambient music was a great avenue for that,” McWilliams says. In particular, he had experience in gathering sounds and in composition with a synthesizer and keyboard. Both skills were useful in creating the sort of ambient music that McWilliams enjoyed.
In particular, McWilliams was impressed with the work of Brian Eno, who made early ambient recordings and then went on to work with U2 and Coldplay, among other musical acts. “He was probably the first person to coin the term, and his work started showing up in the late-’70s and early ’80s in this style,” McWilliams says. Others worked in the same genre as well. “People experimented with just recording sound and making collages.”
McWilliams joined another ambient musician in the 1990s to form a duo called Remanence.
“‘Remanence’ is the magnetization left behind in a medium after an external magnetic field is removed,” McWilliams says. “There was no deeper meaning other than this except that we liked the way it sounded, it compared well to other band names in the genre, and it had scientific meaning.” The group explored parapsychology, he says, and tried their best to sound filmic and neoclassical.
They released several albums and even attracted the attention of the British music label Cold Spring Records, which signed them. In a review of one of their albums, Hans Dinkelberg of now-defunct Funprox says, “the overall effect is dreamlike, making you drift away.” The duo, though, came to an end when McWilliams’ partner moved out of town.
Beginning in the early 2000s, McWilliams, then in his 30s, recorded on his own as Aperus. “I chose the name Aperus [loosely based on the word ‘aperçu’] because it means ‘to perceive with a quick impression, insight, sense’ and because the name looks and sounds a little like ‘aperture,’” McWilliams says. “The name is fitting, since all of the artwork I’ve created for my releases starts with the camera.”
McWilliams has learned to follow his own inspiration. “I’m probably less concerned with who is influencing me and more about the exploration of sound and experimentation,” he says. “I found myself wondering, How do I not get bored? What can I do that really interests me, even if people don’t like it?”
In Archaic Signal, the shortwave samplings provided a microcosm of how humans speak to one another in different languages and bits of music. (The album is available to preview and purchase at aperus.bandcamp.com.) It was constructed, not just through composition, but through tweaking the recordings to add a layer of complexity. For instance, McWilliams transferred the birdsong to tape and then physically scratched that tape and then exposed it to magnets to give the recording natural dropouts. To McWilliams, it sounds like a heartbeat.
Listen to a track: aperus.bandcamp.com/album/archaic-signal
McWilliams, who makes a living doing website work for companies in Michigan and New Mexico, has a singular dedication to experimentation in his tracks. In “Birdsong as Mantra,” he stretches recorded bird vocalizations for more than 10 minutes. “The epic ‘Canopy of Stars,’ on the other hand, is the album’s deepest foray into the ‘sci-fi tribal’ aesthetic, as massive drones heave over a stomping and clicking percussion motif en route to a wonderfully churning and blackened finale,” writes Anthony D’Amico of the website Brainwashed (brainwashed.com) about another track on the album.
Archaic Signal, though, was also a visual project for McWilliams. Inspired by the work of the independent record label 4AD, McWilliams has released many of his albums in collectible packaging. Archaic Signal is available as a CD that comes with postcard images of petroglyphs as well as spectrograms derived from the bird song. The artwork is not only a compliment to the music, but it is intended to be a part of the experience.
The postcards, and all the tracks on the album, are best absorbed with a soft focus. Concentrate too deeply on the collection of sounds on any of the tracks and it’s easy to miss the overall eloquence of the track. McWilliams doesn’t really expect people to hear each of the layers and complexities in his collage of sounds, and that’s somewhat in line with the notion that ambient music isn’t just field recordings; it’s the potential soundtrack for a listener’s life. McWilliams surrounded himself with images of petroglyphs to record the album, and with the included postcards, his fans can do the same thing as they listen to the final product.
“Rather than attempting to replicate the sheer power and scale of massive geological or cosmological events, McWilliams has instead managed to evoke the sense of wonder that they inspire on a human scale. The difference is significant, as it is extremely satisfying to feel like I am lying on my back beneath a vast, twinkling panorama of stars, drinking in all the rich sensory details of my surroundings,” D’Amico writes of Archaic Signal.
Who are his fans? McWilliams offers a data-driven response based on his website traffic. Most of his followers are men between the ages of 34 and 45. Since Sept. 26, more than 2,000 people have listened to tracks on the album. McWilliams also hints that his fans are a lot like him. “I’ve been to quite a few ambient, electronic shows and typically find that fans are somewhat introverted, passionate about music, love sound, and are very deeply connected to the music they listen to and collect,” McWilliams says. “It’s a vital aspect of their lives in some way and augments their daily routines.
“I like playing around with shedding space and atmosphere, but I also like dark colors,” McWilliams says. “I view music as a way to work with my nervous system. When I struggle to cope with the world, especially now, the process of working with sound and composing puts me into an imaginary space and a place where I can calm down even if I’m exploring dark colors.” ◀