THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is the second album from Vancouver multi-instrumentalist Tim Gerwing. It is a diverse mix of many styles, textures, and moods, which seem to have no unifying feature at first. You will find prog-rock electric guitar and garage-band songs, Vangelis-style synthesizer lushness, electronic drones, Middle Eastern oud lute and percussion, overtone singing, neoclassical piano, nature sounds, and spoken words – all on the same album! Gerwing used spoken words in different languages such as Greek and Chinese, as sound-material in his previous album, BEING TO BEING (2002) in which the translations were only available on his website. Here, he stays mostly with English (with a bit of Japanese layered in on track 10).
The unifying factor in this album, as with his previous one, is not necessarily musical, but intellectual. Gerwing is an adherent of a philosophy sometimes called the “Fourth Way,” which was created (or perhaps “brought to the West”) by the esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff in the early 20th century and elaborated by inheritors such as the English philosopher J.G. Bennett (whose voice can be heard on BEING TO BEING). A bit of knowledge about this philosophical practice can explain otherwise cryptic lyrics and titles on this album. In the “Fourth Way,” simple words such as “sleep,” “waking,” “work,” or “available” are given spiritual meanings specific to the “Way,” whose Zen-like spiritual practice is not easy to categorize. For instance, the “Fourth Way” assumes that all people are “asleep” and unaware of the inner dimensions of life until they begin “working” on themselves to eventually become “awake.”
This may account for the highly meditative quality of many of the cuts, such as track 5, “effect04” which combines very soft, eerie electronics with the sound of crickets. The lyrics of the songs on track 8, “Working with you,” and track 12, “Stream of Consciousness,” also use Fourth Way language. The Gurdjieff heritage is also musical, and Gerwing’s piano “etude” in track 9 is influenced by piano music composed by one of Gurdjieff’s collaborators, composer Thomas de Hartmann.
Another theme in this Gerwing collection is science, that is, the view of the world that science gives us.
In that meditative track 8, Gerwing includes a spoken word element which features a male voice (Canadian biologist and science writer David Suzuki) reciting simple numerical facts about the mass of the sun and the earth, the weight of the atmosphere, and other bits of environmental knowledge. Gerwing’s use of nature and water sounds (as on the beautiful Track 6) give a quiet sound-picture reminding me of a Zen garden, as well as a vision of an unspoiled environment. He uses “scientific” terminology in his titles: “Biota,” “Cumulonimbus.” And his album title refers to the famous idea, first promoted by “chaos theory,” that the effect of a single butterfly’s wing could be multiplied in the earth’s atmosphere to create a storm somewhere across the globe.
All this philosophy wouldn’t be much good if the music weren’t up to it. As long as you’re all right with the wide diversity of musical styles on the album, this album is well worth the (spiritual and listening) “work.” On most of the tracks, Gerwing sustains an austere, contemplative, detached, cool aesthetic, keeping his harmonies simple and modal, kind of “Western-oriental,” with hardly any dissonance. I sometimes wonder whether the detached self-observation of Fourth Way practice might have something to do with this. But then you get the prog-rock songs as well, which I admit I am less fond of. Even those, though, have a certain coolness about them; he’s not shouting his way through it or pumping up the hot action, but singing in a rather philosophical way, tinged with more than a bit of romanticism. Altogether, this is one of the most interesting and complex albums to come my way in a long time, in which music, spirituality, and a “scientific” attitude interact in a rewarding and enjoyable way.
Hannah M.G. Shapero
by Hannah M. G. Shapero for Ambient Visions