Oren Ambarchi is a prolific vanguard composer and multi-instrumentalist with longstanding interests in transcending conventional instrumental approaches. His work focuses mainly on the exploration of the guitar. His solo works are hesitant and tense, with his music existing in the cracks between modern electronics and processing; improvisation and minimalism; hushed, pensive songwriting; and visceral rock music that has been slowed down and stripped to its bare bones, then abstracted and replaced with pure signal. From the late '90s, his experiments with guitar abstraction and extended improv and compositional technique have led to the creation of a unique, idiosyncratic soundworld that incorporates a broader range of instruments as well as a range of tonal dynamics and sensibilities. On Grapes from the Estate and In the Pendulum's Embrace, Ambarchi employed glass harmonica, strings, bells, piano, drums, and percussion, creating fragile textures that tenuously coexist with deep, wall-shaking bass tones from his detuned electric guitars. Ambarchi has not only recorded numerous solo albums, but has a multitude of collaborative releases with artists such as Richard Pinhas, Stephen O'Malley, Jim O'Rourke, Fire!, and Keiji Haino, to name a scant few.
Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Ambarchi started as a free jazz drummer, went through a Japanoise phase, and ended up cutting himself a place under the avant-garde sun as a lowercase guitarist in the early 2000s, pushing his instrument into territories similar to the ones explored by contemporaries Rafael Toral and Kevin Drumm. His releases on Tzadik, Touch, and Staubgold attracted international interest, but he remained in his home country, working hard at developing a local scene with his What Is Music? festival.
Ambarchi was born in 1969 in Sydney, in a family of Sephardic Jews from Iraq. He spent his teenage years learning to play the drums, favoring free jazz at first. Listening to John and Alice Coltrane and other spiritual jazz allowed for his Jewish roots to crystallize for him. He went to New York to study at an orthodox Jewish school in Brooklyn, immersing himself in mysticism by day and experimental music by night. The music of composers Morton Feldman and Alvin Lucier, the avant-garde jazz of John Zorn, and the noise of Keiji Haino prompted him to pick up a guitar and find something to do with it.
The first answer was noise. Back in Australia, and strongly influenced by the Japanoise scene, he put together the noise/punk group Phlegm with drummer Robbie Avenaim, and later the Sisters of Menstruation. He got an invitation from John Zorn, whom he had met while in New York, to perform at the 1993 Radical Jewish Culture Festival with the likes of Fred Frith and Ikue Mori — Ambarchi would eventually record a duo CD with Robbie Avenaim, The Alter Rebbe's Nigun, in 1999, for Zorn's Tzadik label. Australia quickly reclaimed Ambarchi, as he was more prone to trying to develop something back home. With Avenaim, he organized the event What Is Music? in 1994, which quickly turned into an annual festival. This activity helped the guitarist develop contacts with the local free improv scene (Jim Denley, Stevie Wishart, Martin Ng, etc.), along with international artists.
The guitarist only began his solo career proper in 1998. As occasions to perform live were becoming rare, he found himself with more time on his hands. Influenced by both the burgeoning Austrian/German scene of digital audio (Mego, Touch, Staubgold) and his love for the music of Feldman and Lucier, Ambarchi retreated into calmer, more meditative and textural sounds. He recorded his first solo LP, Stacte (Jerker Productions, 1998), at home in one take without looking back. That, and Stacte.2 (1999), attracted the attention of the British experimental electro label Touch, for whom he subsequently recorded Insulation (2000) and Suspension (2001), both beautiful examples of his new approach. Around the same time, Ambarchi began teaching improvisation at the University of Western Sydney.
He made his first European tour in the summer of 2001. Solo work continued to develop rapidly, with Suspension (2002) and the release of three solo albums on separate labels in 2003: Sun, Triste, and a collaboration with Johan Berthling called My Days Are Darker Than Your Nights. The year 2004 saw the release of the opulent double album Grapes from the Estate. Ambarchi contributed to drone doom band Sunn 0)))'s Black One album in 2005, and often joined them in live performance and sporadically on recordings afterwards. Collaboration became more routine in his growing discography, recording albums and doing live collaborations with Greg Anderson, Attila Csihar, Z'EV, and many others along with annual recording summits and subsequent albums of collaborations with Keiji Haino and Jim O'Rourke, which were mostly released on Ambarchi's own Black Truffle label.
In 2011 he collaborated with experimental electronic artist Robin Fox on the score for an Australian dance company's performance. The resultant soundtrack recordings, Connected, were released the next year, along with other 2012 solo albums Audience of One, Sagittarian Domain, and Raga Ooty, though they were only three of the ten recordings he participated in during that year. Others included such collaborative offerings as In the Mouth - A Hand with Fire! and Imikuzushi with Haino and Jim O'Rourke. He also collaborated with Crys Cole and Keith Rowe on Black Plume, and with Thomas Brinkmann on The Mortimer Trap.
While 2013 was not as prolific, it proved to be equally provocative. A second album with Haino and O'Rourke, entitled Now While It's Still Warm Let Us Pour in All the Mystery, was followed by The Just Reproach, a notable collaboration with classical composer John Tilbury. In mid-2014, after Ambarchi's extended collaborative effort with Stephen O'Malley and Randall Dunn resulted in a score for Alexis Destoop's short film Kairos in Belgium, the trio furthered its exploration and issued the album Shade Themes from Kairos for Drag City in early May, followed by Tikkun, an audio and video document with Heldon guitarist Richard Pinhas. Constantly prolific, Ambarchi released Quixotism before the end of that year, a lengthy five-part statement that included collaborations with such contemporaries as O'Rourke and Brinkmann.