Michael Northam is one of a growing number of composers working around the turn of the millenium whose interests lie in organically developing, environmental pieces, centered on location recordings or installations, and connecting to the drones that turn up in spiritual music in many of the world's different cultures. Recording almost exclusively as Mnortham, he has collaborated with many similar artists, such as Francisco López, Seth Nehil, Ora (Darren Tate and Colin Potter), and John Grzinich. Northam is not an instrumentalist, but a careful listener and painstaking studio craftsman, whose work can range from combining hundreds of layers of material into a complex drone, or finding the particular moments in field recordings for his intricate and detailed compositions. With influences ranging from meteorological processes and the complex folding of protein molecules to the deep spiritual traditions of Tibet and the mythologies of the world, he tends away from a music that calls attention to itself, and toward an open dialogue with deep consciousness and greater mysteries.
Northam's early work, up until around 1996 and glimpsed on the solo Povertech single and the Alial Straa group effort, shows him performing on various untuned percussive instruments, long wires, whatever protean materials came to hand, then putting the piece together in the studio. These pieces are fairly raw compared to the drone material, but show an interest in primal, organic energy that remains a theme through much of his work. His first releases that focus more on drones were his two collaborations with John Grzinich, a set of pieces that also show his growing interest in meteorological and geological topics and a focusing inward of his sound. Collaborations using field recordings reached a pinnacle with his Ora release Amalgam, a superb two-LP set built entirely from field recordings from such disparate locations as Puget Sound, the Gulf of Finland, and Nepal.
:coyot:, his first full-length solo compact disc, came in 2000, but was over a year in the making. In the fall of 1998, Northam went to an island in the Gulf of Finland and created a weekend-long sound installation comprising seven Aeolian harps, a massive cannon barrel, and assorted smaller sounds from around the island, mixed and amplified in the interior chamber of a fortified, sod-roofed, gunpowder bunker. He transformed the original recordings of the harps and the turbulent wind into a multi-layered piece where each layer operates independently, but contributes to a beautifully patterned organic whole. The same year saw the release of the EP Breathing Towers, which takes the other extreme of a single field recording from two 40-foot steel towers on blustery night in January 1996. His 2001 release From Within the Solar Cave again shows his long compositional gestation period, consisting in part from the 1996 improvisations similar to the sources for his early works. But in the process of layering this material up to 512 times, the published pieces are much less about the raw improvisations and more in the line of his deeply spiritual drones.