Like many pioneers of the modular synthesizer and experimental electronic music, Chester Hawkins is concerned with the natural world. That might seem ironic, as there’s nothing natural about synthesized electronic music. But since Don Buchla manufactured his signature synthesizer for a new generation of musical luminaries in the early 1960s, there’s been a deep fascination with exploring natural surroundings through very unnatural sounds.
Suzanne Ciani did it in her 1982 solo debut Seven Waves, which melds oceanic field recordings with cascading synths. British techno pioneer Anthony Child’s latest albums of free-form modular synthesizer work, recorded in the jungles of Maui, is a deep meditation on the unspoiled environment around him. And on Natural Causes, Hawkins delivers a dense, excellent record that fits nicely into the deep canon of musical conversations between natural and manufactured worlds.
Commissioned and recorded as the soundtrack to Tim Ashby’s feature film Pale Trees, Natural Causes stands on its own as an immersive audio experience (especially considering that the film is still in post-production, so no one, other than the filmmakers, knows how it fits in with the film). It begins, ominously, with field recordings of Rock Creek Park: crows cawing as leaves crunch beneath footsteps. A menacing synth drone slowly fades in, establishing the anxious tone of Hawkins’ soundtrack.
Like all of Hawkins’ experimental and noise works since the mid-1980s, most notably those under the moniker Blue Sausage Infant (which was retired a few years ago), there’s a confluence of influences at play here: sneering psychedelia, deep drone, the experimental elements of krautrock, dark Brian Eno-esque ambient soundscapes, and the synthesized soundtracks of John Carpenter’s most notable horror and sci-fi films. More than anything, though, all of these influences work together to evoke a sense of utter dread that underscores the album’s 44-minute runtime, even when it cascades into more upbeat territories.
After more than three decades of sonic exploration, Hawkins has established himself in the District’s buoyant noise scene as a master of improvisation. But curiously enough, Natural Causes is by Hawkins’ own admission “a strictly composed affair, born in the studio under comparatively sterile laboratory conditions.” That’s significant for two reasons: It showcases the careful nuance and consideration that Hawkins put into every sound that occupies the album; and it shows an artist who’s not just still evolving, but also intent on pushing his musical explorations to greater depths.
Though Natural Causes is a commissioned soundtrack to Ashby’s film, it at times feels like the soundtrack to present-day D.C.: Walls of natural and synthesized sound ebb and flow over a pulsating, warbly groove, creating a somewhat menacing, dreadful vibe that something dark this way comes. With D.C.’s rapid development in the past few years and the incoming administration, it’s hard not to feel like Natural Causes is a conversation between Hawkins and his surroundings—both natural and unnatural.