London-based composer, electronic musician and producer Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points) is one of a current wave of solo musicians integrating jazz, electronic and classical influences into highly-individual stylings. Names like Berlin’s Nils Frahm and Edinburgh’s Anna Meredith come to mind: serious-minded, schooled instrumentalists, high-concept at times, often embracing the energy and free-form harmonic colours of jazz. And in Floating Points’ case, the insistent rhythms of electronic dance, moving in the same direction that luminaries such Aphex Twin, Orbital and Underworld have steered in the last two decades – a post-millennial concoction of ambient soundscape, combining electronic synthesis and acoustic samples and instruments, and thumping beats.
Not a household name, except maybe to listeners of Gilles Peterson’s BBC 6Music radio programme, one characteristic of Floating Points is that his output is so wide-ranging that his capacity to surprise is, paradoxically, lessened – with little, except maybe a lead vocal, ruled out-of-bounds. March’s album Promises was a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and veteran saxophonist Pharoah Saunders, but his live set on this occasion – perfect for Edinburgh International Festival‘s capacious, Covid-compliant out-of-town hangar at Edinburgh Park – was the full-on electronic dance abstraction that characterised parts of his 2015 debut Elaenia, and 2019’s Crush.
A single journey-piece of ever-evolving, shifting other-world soundscapes, punctuated by bleeps and details, and veering from delicate lightweight arpeggios that tip-toe in the air, to full-on floor-shaking maximum 120bpm propulsion, which naturally got the crowd jumping and arms flapping. The fact that people are eager for beats to twitch and groove to is a sign of our current times, and it’s a credit to the Festival that they have planned a Covid-safe gathering without enforced sterility, that can be enjoyed by many, for the first time in over a year.
Shepherd’s is not a case of the rave DJ who looks up from his desk to punch the air and yell ‘Make some noise!’ at the crowd: taking his place behind the darkened console almost unnoticed, he works constantly and intently, head-down, silhouetted, introducing each new wave of sonic colour, fading-out sounds once outlived, endlessly adjusting and altering textures and sonic weight. This is synchronised with shifting backdrop visuals that range from geometric monochromatic line patterns through psychedelic Mandelbrot swirls (pictured front) to saturated, sped-up plant growth close-ups, and, with suspended spotlights, a final blaze of dazzling white.
Though difficult to discern visually quite what the Neuroscience graduate is doing with all that control-knob manipulation, as he remains unlit throughout, the results are obvious to hear; key to his electronic output is the baffling-looking Buchla system of synthesis, manipulating oscillated waveforms involving a tortuous array of patch-cables and sophisticated filtering (Shepherd explains how he gets to grip with the system in a video here). The sounds are sequenced, synchronised to a pulse, and artfully manipulated live, and it would be great to see in overview what he’s doing over the course of the one-and-a-half hours.
Bereft of conventional melody and narrative, not to mention showmanship or inter-song banter, this kind of music involves through what it presents, rather than through watching the artist create it directly; but authentic character and personality are there to be found in the work’s sonic journey itself, and Floating Points is an imaginative pair of artistic hands to drive us there.