Apsaras (2001)

"Italian singer Amelia Cuni has a voice like a drink of mountain stream water, a voice that you might expect to find operating in popular song. But her area of expertise is that most ancient and rigorous of Indian styles, dhrupad singing. Cuni's vocal clarity and dusky sweetness sit oddly but perfectly in this austere context. Recent enthusiastic collaborators have included Paul Schütze, Terry Riley, Werner Durand and David Toop. This is not music that borrows a few Indian flavours, but a serious attempt to make something new and expressive from within Indian art music. It's both extraordinarily beautiful and very easy to listen to." 

Clibe Bell, The Wire Magazine April 2001

With 15 different collaborations and 7 solo albums to his name, Italian ambient soundscape constructor Alio Die presents his most stunning release to date. His work with Robert Rich and Vidna Obmana have set the stage for the unusual beauty of this dramatic work, celebrating nature and the magic of the human voice. In Hindu mythology, the Apsaras are female spirits of nature, usually water nymphs. Flowing in the waters, these celestial nymphs come out of the waves like the first seed of the mind: desire. Talented artistically, the Apsaras are very beautiful; charming musicians and dancers for the pleasure of the Gods. An “apsaras” is a singing water nymph from Indian folklore, a celestial mermaid. In this album, the voice of the Apsara is Amelia Cuni, an Italian singer who sings in the “dhrupad” style of North Indian traditional music. “Alio Die” or Stefano Musso provides accompaniment with layers of synthesizer drones, sound-loops, watery special effects, and environmental recordings. Some years ago (1995) Robert Rich came out with an album, Yearning, which featured Rich on electronics and flutes and Lisa Moskow on an Indian stringed instrument, the sarod. Apsaras is very much like the earlier Rich album, except that the strings have been replaced by the voice ­ and indeed, Cuni’s vocalizations often follow the same notes as a stringed instrument. Like Rich’s album, Apsaras is slow, nocturnal, contemplative to the point of trance. In fact, Musso has worked with Rich on a collaborative album, Fissures in 1997. But Musso, despite using many of the same sound-textures, is not a clone of Robert Rich. His vision is more abstract, his harmonies more dissonant. Despite the splashing and the calls of tropical birds, this album seems chilly, at least for the first four tracks. A Western listener (like me) will not know the original context of the Indian singing, and thus in these four tracks, the constant “bending” of the vocal notes can become monotonous and even whiny. But this whole ensemble lightens up in tracks 5 and 6. After 4 mournful tracks, numbers 5 and 6 use more cheerful harmonies, and the singing has more variety. These last two tracks add a welcome sensuality and warmth to the watery song of the oriental siren. 

Hannah M.G. Shapero 05/02/02

A review from StarVox.net 

This first thing that hit me when I got this CD was the absolutely stunning art work. Shells, seeds, bark, and other natural objects arranged together very neatly. The brown and yellow earth tones mixed with a touch of purple from the shell with a soft gray background is breathtaking. It's evident immediately that this release will be earthy and easy, not at all harsh. I think it's hard to write a lot about this album; it speaks for itself. It's very much an ambient creation, with natural sounds that Alio Die incorporates so well. If you've heard other works, like Under an Holy Ritual, you'll be familiar with the style, although I think this album is more consistent from beginning to end, and more cohesive. Also there are the very stretched and slow drones fading in and out, but I think it is the appropriate placement of the natural sounds and loops like water, birds, and crickets that cover the canvas. Running water, chimes, and crickets all whisper in and out. The drones could almost be an ethereal organ, an organ played softly and quietly deep in a cloud. What makes this CD different and exceptional is the voice of Amelia Cuni. She employs "dhrupad singing- traditional music from North India" as noted in the sleeve. Her voice, like the ambiance, is slow and weaves in and out; overall this duality between voice and ambiance is what forms the consistency of the release. And while she uses vibrato and other wavering techniques in some places and droning in others, it is done very much in the spirit of the album. Her voice works with the water and with the crickets and with every other drone that works its way in and out. Or perhaps it is the ambiance that works with her voice to support it as much as it can. This CD would appeal to fans of traditional Indian music as well as those who appreciate the ambient genre. I think particularly fans of Steve Roach and Robert Rich would appreciate this particular work. Also worth noting is that the album artworks are original compositions of Stefano Musso (Alio Die) from a series of works arranging natural objects directly on a scanner, skipping the camera all together. Very interesting stuff. 

Michael Otley   

A review from Outburn Magazine

5 out of 5 | ATMOSPHERIC AMBIENCE WITH FEMALE VOCALS: There aren't enough words in the English language to describe the imagery and moods that are created on Apsaras. Simply put, Alio Die combined with the incredible vocal talents of Amelia Cuni transcends all boundaries of peace and tranquility that we are consciously aware of Milan, Italy's own student of compositional art and music, Stefano Musso, weaves sweeping wound structures based on the simplicity of electronic drone, cemented on a foundation of naturally occurring environmental sounds, while Amelia Cuni adds an enchanting human element. The music is multi-dimensional and awe inspiring. The theme of running water, whether it is the ocean, an approaching rain, or a tiny secluded stream, drives the peacefulness of Apsaras. As with all Alio Die works, the music is devoid of common structure and about as intimate as any music of its kind can get. Amelia Cuni, well known for her North Indian studies in dance and oral transmission, uses her masterfully trained voice to surround the ambient textures with her warm Druhpad style of singing. Cuni's vocals aren't always straightforward. Clever production and vocal treatments lend greatly to the experimental nature that Alio Die is so fond of producing. Only the title track, the final cut, defies the continued mood created throughout the album by pushing electronic drone to it sonic limits without becoming annoying. Fitting for a quiet evening or a long chaotic day requiring alternative forms of relaxation, Alio Die and Amelia Cuni will provide the perfect backdrop for such an occasion.

Joseph Graham

A review from splendidezine.com 

Describing a disc of ambient drones as "oceanic" falls immediately into critical cliché, but there's no other word for Apsaras. The word, from Hindu mythology, is defined in the album's liner notes as "'flowing in the water,' celestial Nymphs, seductive creatures..." The notes go on to say, "Waters flow and reflect, they are plurality itself. The waters of the mind are flowing into those of the world and the waters of the world are flowing into those of the mind to the point where they become undistinguishable one from the other." Veteran Italian ambient producer Alio Die must live on a beach where it never storms: samples of gentle waves and water underlie much of this flowing music, as quietly layered keyboards add depth to six tracks that alternate between shorter and long. Amelia Cuni sings in the dhrupad style, a traditional music from northern India. Her otherworldly voice moves patiently atop a bed of drones and samples that shift as slowly and inexorably as desert sands blown by the wind. Despite its meditative presence, Apsaras demands much from the listener: variety is not the album's strength or purpose, and will reward only those who meet it half-way. Die and Cuni have drawn an indulgent bubble bath of sound, leaving you to light the candles and sink in. 

Ryan Tranquilla

A review from Ink19.com 

Apsaras is named after the female spirits of nature in Hindu myth, who are most often portrayed as water nymphs. Very beautiful, they are also highly skilled artists, serving as dancers and musicians to the gods. Like its namesakes, Apsaras is also breathtakingly beautiful, combining soothing electronic textures, drones, and organic sound samples from Alio Die (Stefano Musso) with the amazing North Indian dhrupad singing of Amelia Cuni. Each of the six tracks on this hour-long CD takes its time to unfold, slowly growing and changing, drawing you in until you become completely immersed in the music, your mind and spirit opening to cleansing visions and dreams. The opening track, "Ambhas," like much of the album, explores the idea of water as uniting our spirits with the soul of the world. Gentle drones and samples of flowing water open the track, together with Cuni's lovely voice. Over the course of "Ambhas," we hear water falling from the sky, flowing to the sea, and surging in our blood, as Cuni's voice waxes and wanes with the tides, floating where the sky and waters meet. Often Cuni hits a perfect note and holds it seemingly endlessly, like a moment of perfect beauty in your life you wish you could remember forever -- and do. On "Aapaha," flowing water laps at the shore while bird calls and insect sounds echo from the forest. The track showcases Alio Die's outstanding ability to integrate natural sound samples into the music; here the repeated lapping of the water is used to create a soothing rhythm with an almost hypnotic quality, while the occasional bird and other sounds keep the water sounds from becoming stale. Cuni's voice begins very quietly on "Aapaha," borne on a breeze with tinkling chimes. Her singing has a bit of a nasal, droning quality to it here, like a chanted morning meditation; sometimes her voice is so very gentle and quiet it takes on almost subliminal quality, calming nerves you didn't even know were frayed. Not every track on Apsaras is sweetness and light. "Water Memories" is a good example. Repeated, rhythmic cricket calls set a night scene, with dark synthscapes humming and glowing eerily behind them. Cuni's voice is also low and dark, stretching out to hold some notes for what seems like an eternity, like long memories extending deep into the past. An instrumental drone and heavy synth atmospheres build the tension, then suddenly clear up, like clouds occasionally occluding the moon, then dissolving as you float on ancient currents through the endless chasms of your subconscious mind. Slowly the drones, synthscapes, and voice fade, bringing you back to the present and leaving you with the chirping crickets that began the track. A truly outstanding album for fans of dark ambient textures or hypnotic, sensuous South Asian singing. 

Dave Aftandilian 

A review from sonic curiosity 

On this 59 minute CD from 2001, renowned Italian ambient synthesist Alio Die (aka Stefano Musso) applies his drones and moody samples in collaboration with the dhrupad singing (the traditional music of North India) of Amelia Cuni. Possessing distinct liquid overtones, this music fuses the unconventional (as far as Western ears are concerned) stylings of the ethnic human voice with the strictly electronic airs of ambient technology. The presence in this music of the environmental sounds of nature lends an earthly edge to this fusion of organic and artificiality. Cuni's vocal qualities are rich yet subdued, pursuing foreign scales with her lyricless chant. While the electronics are peaceful and epicurean, all the while accompanied by aquatic gurgling. Elongated tones conspire with haunting atmospherics to generate mild melodies that sway like ancient surfs warmed by the summer sun. The music is soft and unintrusive, but intended to uplift rather than sedate.