When guitarist Tom Hamilton and pianist Holly Bowling get together to improvise, they don’t talk about the music. That conversation happens with their instruments once they start playing. Indeed, on Lacuna, their first duo recording together, Hamilton and Bowling explore the outer limits of improvisation through a series of ambient excursions that showcase their powerful musical connection.
“We've never talked about our playing, like, ever,” Hamilton says. “It's never something that we've had to speak about,” Bowling adds.
The two Ghost Light bandmates met at a small festival in Maryland in 2016 when Hamilton invited Bowling to sit in on keys with his then-band American Babies. “It's always really fun when you play with someone for the first time and you feel like you're instantly speaking the same language,” Bowling says.
The pair would trade sit-ins — occasionally playing as a duo — before forming Ghost Light in late 2017, touring heavily, and releasing the band’s debut album Best Kept Secrets in 2019. When the pandemic shut down the world in March 2020 and put Ghost Light on pause, Bowling isolated in her home in Northern California and Hamilton essentially lived in his Philadelphia studio, The Ballroom.
That summer, Bowling was pregnant with her first child and embarked on a cross-country road trip with her husband to visit her family in Maine. On her way back home in September, she took a detour to visit Hamilton at The Ballroom. The pair caught up, sat down at their instruments, and hit record. “It was all very organic,” Hamilton recalls. “We hit save, she left, and we didn’t talk about it.” In fact, the music sat on a hard drive unheard until Hamilton, bored one day last February, listened back and realized they had something special. The resulting 46 minutes of ambient instrumental improvisation became Lacuna. Recorded in one take with no overdubs, the pair had to reverse engineer the album, splitting the improvisation into eight tracks with names.
“We were just playing to play,” Bowling notes. “I was so intensely missing that spark and connection of playing music with someone else and having that back and forth. It was the happiest I had been in ages, even though the music sounds pretty dark in places, and it was definitely a very dark time. Tapping into that and then getting it out was cathartic.”
Lacuna is patient, brooding, and meditative. It’s a chance to listen in on the ongoing musical conversation that makes Hamilton and Bowling’s relationship so special. You can hear that back and forth on “Isosolost,” which begins with Hamilton interpolating the riff from Ghost Light’s “Isosceles.” Bowling plays along before the music intensifies and veers off course — building to the album’s most cathartic peak. “It's like reaching out in the dark for something familiar for just a minute,” Bowling says.
The pair also took new sonic approaches on Lacuna. “We're both using acoustic instruments, but we're using them in weird ways,” Bowling notes. “We're using pedals, there's a lot of percussive stuff, and almost unpitched noises and sounds.” Those techniques are apparent on the eerie “Pavement Grass,” which bleeds into the melodic “Your Shadow Looms Large,” one of several tracks that could be mistaken for a fleshed-out composition, not a spontaneous improvisation. For both Hamilton and Bowling, Lacuna marks a return to their classical roots. Bowling has been playing classical piano since she was 5 and trained at San Francisco State University. Hamilton began playing drums at 5 as well, later becoming the youngest member of Philadelphia’s All City High School Orchestra as a fourth grade percussionist and stayed in that role until he switched his focus to guitar in high school. On Lacuna, the pair embrace their classical past by putting a fresh, experimental spin on the genre.
The title Lacuna came from one of the many books Bowling read during quarantine. She didn’t know what the word meant so she looked it up and found that the definition — a gap, an unfilled space, or an intentional, extended passage in a musical work during which no notes are played — perfectly encapsulated the pandemic era and the sounds the pair had made while living through it.
It’s also appropriate, considering that Bowling and Hamilton are both renowned for the music they spontaneously create onstage, filling the gaps within composed songs. “I've felt more and more comfortable in those in-between spaces,” Bowling says. “That's really where I've been wanting to spend my time, and with this project, that's the entire thing.”