Image Language

Even the smallest sound is overflowing with information. Birdsong can give clues as to when and where it was recorded; the grain of someone’s voice can reveal their emotional state. The quieter it is, the deeper we listen. French musician and writer Félicia Atkinson harnesses and subverts this process of interpreting our perceptions, creating surreal sound environments that sit right next to the ear but stretch towards a distant horizon. Her music resists the brain’s desire for spatial continuity and shatters its expectations for a unified perspective, juxtaposing whispers, wisps of atmospheric noise, and digitally rendered instruments that float around the auditory field in uncanny ways.

“Music is about mystery and reconciliation,” Atkinson said in a recent interview. “Music can transform things into a kind of a code. If you take language, you can find this in poetry—the idea that sometimes meaning is not enough. You have to step back and look further than meaning to be in the experience.” Atkinson’s work frequently references a complex web of concepts, histories and philosophies, but the most satisfying way to listen is to let go of any preconceptions and engage with it second by second, taking it in as you might a landscape or a particularly vivid dream.

This peculiar immediacy is a defining feature of Atkinson’s Image Language. The music unfolds slowly, drifting from one point to another, but it never quite settles into a state of tranquility. Despite surface-level similarities to the type of ambient music spoon-fed to acolytes of wellness programs and chill-out playlists, there are frequent wrinkles that resist easy listening: her voice recorded as such close range it encroaches on our sense of personal space; shimmers of tense static; irregular pulses panning back and forth. For each plaintive melody there’s a hidden detail, like a field recording that only reveals itself upon close inspection, or a camouflaged synth tone lurking near the bottom of the mix. Presented with extreme intimacy, the disquieting elements of Image Language are as absorbing as its pastoral expanse. Unsettling details render the texture of sound tangible.

Much of Atkinson’s music revolves around slow, deliberate passages of spoken text recorded at extremely close range, where the tone of her voice is caught in a state between urgency and detachment. This is still a major element of Image Language, but she supplements it with an increasingly diverse array of instrumentation. Fluttering organ drones swaddle her voice on the title track, and on opener “La Brume,” a reverb-soaked saxophone straight out of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracks emerges from a layer of drifting synthesizer. (Like Badalamenti, Atkinson is also fixated on creating the impression of something hidden just beneath the surface of her music.) Rich extended tones form the backbone of most tracks, but they sometimes provide a sense of foreboding, as on “Pieces of Sylvia,” where a single note opens up into the quivering dissonance of a semitone, tenaciously held.