On William Brittelle’s “Alive in the Electric Snow Dream,” Nostalgia Meets Sci-Fi Dystopia

There are no overt samples or references to other works in William Brittelle’s Alive in the Electric Snow Dream, but there is a feverish sense of familiarity just at the edge of conscious observation. The unwritten narrative behind this kaleidoscopic piece was inspired by the composer’s encounter with a snowy shipwreck near New York City’s Fort Tilden. He had been given access to a studio space in the former barracks there, which engrossed him in a landscape of moldering bunkers, vine covered hangars, and desolate beaches. For Brittelle, these elements of controlled urban decay hold a sense of fascination and “mangled nostalgia” for his science-fiction obsessed youth during the 1980s, all of which informs his unrestrained compositional language.

Alive in the Electric Snow Dream is the seven-movement title work on Brittelle’s new “mini-album,” out Feb. 23 on New Amsterdam Records. It is described as a companion piece to Psychedelics, which was written concurrently for Roomful of Teeth and received a 2024 GRAMMY nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Informed by Brittelle’s fixation on sci-fi dystopia, listening to his music, for me, is like reading the complex prose in William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer” (where we find the origin of the word “cyberpunk”). “Neuromancer” is packed with complex, circular references to terminology and concepts that only exist in the savage, futuristic world of the book and are rarely explained. Similarly, in Brittelle’s music, a seemingly entropic world-building effort takes place within a highly ordered frenzy.

William Brittelle -- Photo by David A. Gray

William Brittelle — Photo by David A. Gray

Developed and recorded during the pandemic with Metropolis Ensemble, the recording boasts an impressive host of collaborators, including Jenn Wasner, Holland Andrews, and Eliza Bagg on vocals, Immanuel Wilkins on sax, Ben Cassorla on guitar, Paul Wiancko on strings, Brad Balliett on distorted bassoon, and Brittelle on synthesizers, percussion, and electronics.

For me, the instruments themselves trigger associations and memories: a saxophone, an overdriven electric guitar, symphonic strings, and a shimmering “ahhhh!” sung by a heavenly choir that’s then swallowed up by cascades of white noise and electronic distortion. My mind is frantically transported from shadowy, neon-soaked city streets in ‘80s television shows like “Miami Vice,” to the feeling of trying to recall a distant radio broadcast heard while driving across some lost highway.

The movements are fleeting and brief, like constantly shifting perspectives in dreams that dissolve into one another with a logic all their own. “#oDeath” introduces the piece with a slo-mo voiceover ensconced in an angelic choir with wings of distorted electric guitars and deep, crunchy synthesizer tones. “Puking Rainbows” continues along this line with patches of white noise, before yielding to the more delicate ambiance of clean electric guitar, chamber strings, and sighing vocals in “This Fortress.”

“Asphodel Meadows” slashes through the slow vibe of the previous track with distorted, angular arpeggiations and swanky saxophone licks. “My Memorex” zips by in less than a minute with more otherworldly vocals and a collage of upbeat phrases on strings, saxophone, and synthesizers, while “Pure Sacrifice” and “Los Angeles 2091” close the work with similarly confounding if not lyrically pleasing efficacy.

The work as a whole is fresh and present, with shades of electronic collage-music master Carl Stone, and stylistic vibes in parallel with emerging contemporary microgenres like hyperpop and vaporwave. As such, Brittelle’s work is not for the faint of heart, but holds a feverish beauty rooted in the sentimentality of half-remembered late nights watching sci-fi movies on broadcast television.

William Brittelle -- Photo by David A. Gray

William Brittelle — Photo by David A. Gray

The album’s B-side features Brittelle’s reimagining of “When I am laid in earth” from Henry Purcell’s 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas. Brittelle’s version, Dido’s Lament (Revisited), is described as a “feminist retelling of the Dido and Aeneas myth.” The piece was originally premiered in January of 2019 at the Ecstatic Music Festival by Wild Up and Zola Jesus, and is recorded here by Metropolis Ensemble with Balliet on bassoon and Wasner and Andrews providing vocals.

Brittelle’s sonic world-building here offers an even grander dichotomy between his high-tech, hallucinogenic dreamworld of electronic sounds and processed instruments, and the austere purity of the 17th century opera aria. Andrews weaves in and out of Brittelle’s electro-acoustic tapestry singing Purcell’s original in juxtaposition with Wasner’s pop-vocal performance, which brings an ever-present Kate Bush vibe to this ten-minute masterpiece. The final track, Dido’s Lament (Revisited) – Single Edit is an equally haunting and beautiful three-minute reduction of the piece.

Alive in the Electric Snow Dream and Dido’s Lament (Revisited) inspire great amounts of repeated listening. I’m not sure there’s anything in particular to decode, but there are many revelations to be had as the listener descends further and further into Brittelle’s fantastic aural universe.


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