Off Land – Commute

Resting Bell (RB062), 2009

No one likes their commute. Not really. Especially if it’s lengthy. Tim Dwyer, who records electronic experimental music as Off Land, hated his commute. In 2006, he had what he called a “dead-end brainless” job, and endured a two-hour commute every day. Looking for a way to cope with the monotony, he recorded the sound of his journey, and then converted the various sounds into musical elements. Three years later, he released this conceptual work with the simple title Commute.

It’s not a new concept, but the way Dwyer went about assembling and portraying his journey sets it apart from works focused on lightly enhanced field recordings. For Commute, Dwyer turns crowd noise into piano notes, the subway sound into light percussion, and assorted vehicles and weather into drones and keyboards. This might sound dense and busy, but it’s quite the opposite; Dwyer spaces the different sounds carefully, intertwining minimal melody with tapping drums and wandering whistles.

As a finished product, Commute is an hour-long album split into three tracks, each representing a part of Dwyer’s journey: reaching the subway, the ride downtown, and a trip on a second subway line. There’s a definite sense of progression, as the combination of sounds begins very sparsely, with the activity increasing as the city center is reached. There are field recordings as well, but they’re scattered and restricted to the urban stage of the trip: a distorted voice announces what may be train schedules, a passing siren, the shrillness of an alarm bell. These elements give variety and character to the album; while Dwyer does a fantastic job keeping things from dragging despite the relatively small number of pieces making up his sonic collage, the basic identity of the album is the same from start to finish. These samples provide depth, and while they’re largely confined to the latter sections of the album, they’re something of a reward for the patient listener, and they’re given deeper meaning when heard in context.

Commute is certainly an ambient work, and its singular nature nudges it towards longform. Its slow pace and repeating sounds are calming, intended to make the drudgery of the commute more bearable, and the music has a way of lulling the listener into its odd stripped-down structure without becoming soporific. Conceptually, Dwyer has given us an interpretation of the sounds of his daily journey: Commute is about commuting, but it’s also the sound of the commute itself. It’s soothing to listen to, but is also interesting to hear how its component parts fit together, aping the ebb and flow of modern travel, combining its numbing predictability and its daily uniqueness. While one might take an identical route, day after day, the trip itself is never really the same.

Off Land is an interesting project, wherein Dwyer flexes his experimental sensibilities across a wide range of styles. With Commute, however, he’s managed to capture something elusive: an album that works on multiple levels, smoothly fusing concept and execution in the same package, something highly listenable and deeply engaging. This isn’t experimentation merely for its own sake. Rising above the dullness of routine and refusing to let it drown his creative spirit, Dwyer has taken one of the most universally annoying things about our modern civilized world and turned it into something beautiful.

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