Album Review: Lia Kohl – The Ceiling Reposes

[American Dreams; 2023]

On The Ceiling Reposes, Lia Kohl makes use of the invisible world around us. Building on her previous album Too Small to be a Plain and her extended piece from last year, “Untitled Radio (futile, fertile)”, Kohl’s new album forms itself around the “found sounds” of various radio broadcasts. Whittling down hours of radio recorded primarily on Vashon Island in Washington State, the Chicago-based cellist and composer improvises around a created patchwork of weather reports, ads, and snippets of songs and talk radio. It’s an album of recontextualization, finding new meaning for scattered noises you might pick up as you find the station you want. (Even the track titles read like words taken from the middle of long sentences.)

While The Ceiling Reposes might be peppered with many curious sounds and details that both lay hidden in the background and flash before your eyes in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it suddenness, this is an ambient album through and through. Like all good albums in that genre, it has a way of almost forming around you, swallowing you whole before you realise you are in the midst of it all. The eight minute “when glass is there, and water”, builds washes of cello from a bed of plucked strings, choral voices, and an air conditioned hum in the background; come the back end of the track you’re in a swirl of bowed cello and birdsong. On “the moment a zipper”, Kohl does away with most of the radio chatter and samples, instead melting together collaged synth bleeps and liquid-like cello. By the time the track arrives you hardly realise how deep in the album’s stomach you are.

Those aforementioned sounds are plentiful and amusingly peculiar (an excerpt of Bobby Vinton’s “Roses are Red (My Love)”, the chattering Baltic rave music on “became daily today”), and while sometimes they sound like Kohl turning the tuning dial over an improvised composition, sometimes they feel like tiny fragments of inspiration. For instance, “or things maybe dropping” features a tiny sample of what sounds like squeaky, noodly jazz in the background, and it almost seems to be a springboard for the loose jazzy feel of the track with its smattering of drums and flourish of sax at one point. Likewise, the chopped up weather updates on “sit on the floor and wait for storms” is married well against the circling cello tracks that create a cloudy dew. 

The Ceiling Reposes (the title comes from a William Jay Smith poem entitled “Touch the Air Softly”) is not an album worth a huge amount of analysis though. It’s an active listening experience that is equally easy to sink into as it is to get caught up in the details at each turn. Listing all the various noises (gongs, kazoos, harpsichord, rain and thunderstorms to name but a few) might pique interest, but it’s like listing the measured ingredients of a soup or a broth: the joyful experience comes from consuming it. Here Kohl takes a world that’s swimming about our heads every day, captures various details, and makes a new and wonderful world from it. Giving new meaning to clips and scraps of noise, the radio never sounded quite like this, nor quite as good.