On local ambient artist Patricia Wolf’s Twitter page is one of the last photographs of her mother-in-law, Kathleen Karle, before she passed away in 2019.
Wolf and Karle stand together at the foot of a hill as the long shadows of dusk start to fall. In the background are dozens of curious structures, superficially resembling flowers, but clearly artificial: lights installed by the artist Bruce Munro in Paso Robles in central California.
“All the little lights made me think of people’s spirits and energy,” says Wolf, who audibly grows emotional as we speak over the phone. “I made such a major spiritual connection to it.”
The same installation adorns the cover of her new album, I’ll Look for You in Others, released this month on the Indianapolis ambient label Past Inside the Present. It’s quiet, patient and instrumental, composed mostly of wordless vocals, field recordings and synths.
Yet its contrast of gorgeous ambient sweep and minor-key introspection reflects the emotional rhythms Wolf experienced after her mother-in-law’s death, and she hopes it will connect with listeners dealing with loss in the same way Munro’s lights connected with her.
“I like to communicate something that I think will connect with other people, even if it’s just a small group,” Wolf says. “I was hoping that maybe other people who are in that same place can find some sort of refuge there, or understanding.”
Though this is technically Wolf’s debut album, she’s hardly a new face in Portland’s avant-garde. She first became known in the local music scene as a DJ, and from 2017 to 2019, she ran and lived above the Variform gallery at the border of Old Town and the Pearl District, hosting shows by both local and international experimental artists.
Yet even aside from Karle’s diagnosis with breast cancer in 2017, the last few years have been tumultuous for Wolf. She closed Variform in 2019 due to concerns over crime in the neighborhood (“I would feel really terrible if someone came down for an event and ended up getting shot or something”), and when the pandemic came to Portland, she found herself hardly able to work at all. Much music during this time didn’t feel “right” to listen to, and her tastes started to skew toward ambient music.
“We shifted our lives more toward being there for family and away from social activities,” she says of herself and her husband, Max Wolf, who masters her music and designs some of her artwork. “So the music just got a little bit more introspective and reflective and slowed down and thoughtful. When you’re going through a lot of grief, you don’t feel like dancing around in a club.”
During this period, Wolf found herself touching up old recordings, abandoning her previous aversion to digital processing and running her synths through plug-ins. “It was good for taking me out of my own head a little bit,” she said of this material, which forms the bulk of I’ll Look for You in Others.
Wolf isn’t touring behind the album, but she’ll perform her first public DJ set since the beginning of the pandemic on March 28 at Holocene, opening for German guitarist Fennesz and rising Kenyan ambient artist KMRU. Just don’t expect a party: “I haven’t done a dancey DJ set since like 2018.”
She’s also recorded a new album, which doesn’t have a name or release date yet, but will be released on the Balmat label run by Portland-born DJ and electronic-music scholar Philip Sherburne. She describes it as lighthearted compared to I’ll Look for You in Others.
“I feel really proud and happy about that, because it took me a lot of time and processing to get to that point,” she says. “Things do get better. You’ll still carry this loss and sadness in you, but you can get yourself back to a place of not feeling so heavy about things and feeling light and playful again.”
SEE IT: Patricia Wolf performs at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., 503-239-7639, holocene.org. 8 pm Monday, March 28. $27. I’ll Look for You in Others is available now at pastinsidethepresent.com.