// by George Steijger //
Floating Points, aka Sam Shepherd, seems to defy all expectations.
With a PhD in neuroscience you would expect his music to bear all the hallmarks of meticulous, scientific planning, yet his new track ‘Ratio’, which borders on 19 minutes, is a remarkable, at times playful, sonic experiment. A synthesis of heady, ambient beats and minimal-techno, ‘Ratio’ is an innovative project bursting with energy and character. Far from the sterile laboratories of UCL, this track indubitably belongs in the dark head-nodding depths of the dance floor.
Not long ago Shepherd’s world revolved around the microscopes and test tubes of the laboratory as he worked to complete his PhD at University College London. But even then there was a wealth of creative expression that he channelled into the musical projects that dominated his spare time. He told RA that during this time he “was living with these two girls in King’s Cross… My bedroom was a wall of records, a mixer, a desk and a load of synths. I had to crawl under the mixer to get to my bed. It was absolutely hilarious. You couldn’t walk in it”. It is this controlled chaos that characterises much of his recent work.
His debut album, Elaenia, propelled him to underground acclaim. With its delightful concoction of synth, delicate strings and a whole range of live instrumentation, including piano and guitars, he established himself as an extraordinary producer. These days Shepherd appears regularly alongside the likes of Four Tet (Kieran Hebden) and Daphni (Dan Snaith), mesmerising crowds with dizzying melodies and intoxicating beats. It was in these sets that his most recent mix began to take shape.
‘Ratio’ has a nostalgic quality, meandering between ambient, iridescent melodies and scintillating bass which gains momentum only to sink back into the comforting, airy static hisses. This is punctuated by digital shrills and brutalist drums; Shepherd’s track teeters on the edge of what we have defined as ‘dance-floor’ music. The ever-shifting tempo and tension, coupled with oscillating synth gives the impression of a run-away train, careering out of control. Yet these moments of seemingly explosive energy are starkly contrasted by effervescent chimes and, as the track winds to a close, near-silence. By the end of the ‘Ratio’, the ethereal drone makes it feel almost as if the sound were slowly disappearing into the murky depths.
‘Ratio’ has a nostalgic quality, meandering between ambient, iridescent melodies and scintillating bass which gains momentum only to sink back into the comforting, airy static hisses.
The track itself manifests a carefully balanced ratio: exploiting and manipulating the often unstable relationship between minimal-techno and glistening shrills of synth which percolate through the tranquil breakdowns. At times this ostensible stability seems destined to unravel, with the techno-inspired bass and futuristic twangs threatening to over-power the silence. But as ‘Ratio’ approaches the 17-minute mark it all but evaporates. In this sense, Shepherd’s track can be visualised as a plume of smoke rising out the ferocity of the fire, only to dissipate into the clear sky.
The essence of ‘Ratio’ is then this intermingling of sonic textures that form a rich tapestry of sound. The track gestures towards several genres, but in doing so forges its own identity, one that straddles boundaries: halfway between techno and ambient house, roaring energy and disquieting silence, as well as material ecstasy and ineffable airiness.
Shepherd says, “the worst question I get asked is the one where people try and draw a parallel between science and music. It is possible that the two exist exclusively of each other, but apparently that’s not a good enough answer”. But in the case of ‘Ratio’ this explanation seems entirely plausible – its liminality seems to thwart scientific explanation, evading all definitions and hovering just out of reach of our understanding.