by 5:4

i’m going to start 2018 exploring an area that seems particularly appropriate and indeed desirable in January, in the wake of the financial blow-outs many of us will have made in the run-up and perhaps also aftermath of Christmas: free internet music. This sort of thing used to be primarily located within the purview of netlabels, and while these labels presumably fostered a sense of community, the narrow curatorial outlook demonstrated by the majority of them coupled with – in many cases – the poor standard of much of the music was perhaps responsible above all else for the downfall and/or abandonment of so many of them. Today, few really good netlabels still exist, something i hope to return to later in this series. Initially, and primarily, i’m going to focus on individual composers who have opted to make their work available online free of charge. Apropos: the term ‘free’ can be a contentious one, and in the case of Bandcamp – surely the predominant platform at present for offering music in this way – many artists avoid this terminology in favour of their “Name your price” option (which can, of course, be zero). Maybe it’s just me, but as far as i’m concerned, if someone allows me to name my own price, that price will always be zero. So, with that in mind, everything i’ll be featuring here is either simply free or offered under this more equivocal ‘name your price’ option.

i’ve decided to start with a composer who creates ambient music due to the fact that ambient is itself going to be a recurring theme on 5:4 throughout 2018. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, which effectively provided a ‘manifesto’ of sorts for ambient (which already existed in a variety of nascent forms), so at various points in the year i’ll be exploring the history and development of ambient music over the last 40 years.

Returning to free internet music, the issue of quality control (from the composer’s or label’s perspective) and its concomitant necessity for careful discernment (from the listener’s) persists today, and is one that will feature in some of the music i’ll be discussing in this series. It certainly applies in the case of Canadian composer Mike Carss, who under the name Altus has been creating ambient music for around 15 years. In that time he’s produced a great deal of music, almost all of it available free online, though in more recent times he’s charged a small amount for lossless downloads, while the lossy version has remained free. There’s two things i think one needs to bear in mind at the outset when approaching Altus. His enthusiasm and, at its best, talent for ambient music are considerable, and i regard some of his work as among the best ambient i’ve heard. However, the compositional quality overall is quite wildly variable – a seemingly quintessential trait for ambient composers, it seems – though interestingly, in Altus’ case this isn’t manifested as poorer earlier work being trounced by more sophisticated later music. It’s more complicated and unpredictable than that, so i’m going to offer here a guide to the most outstanding examples of his output.

i’ll start with the piece that first really got my attention, The Sidereal Cycle, a four-part work released on the equinoxes and solstices from June 2012 to March 2013. Parts 3 (Orion) and 4 (Virgo) are perfectly fine and pleasant, while Part 1 (Cygnus) is more involving, but Part 2, Andromeda, is stunning. One of the things i love about it most is its sense of patience and timing. The 55-minute duration falls broadly into two sections, the first focused on a harmonic palette that wafts gently within a narrow range, but wafting such that it sounds rooted yet not dronal: there’s not so much a ‘tonic’ as a number of related possibilities, all given equal emphasis. Within this narrow harmonic palette, various diatonic chords drift while individual pitches are extruded, some as simple extensions of the soft timbres that underpin everything, others as light twangs (possibly treated plucked string sounds) and, later, flute-like sounds. Altus allows this behaviour to continue – essentially unchanged, yet its results feeling continually different and new, yet another example of what i’ve called ‘steady statism’, which permeates almost all of Altus’ work – for a long time, only after around 24 minutes beginning to feel that something else might be happening, that the music has something else yet to do. This is done in the most uncomplicated way, a slight simplifying or clarifying of the musical texture, paring it back to the most basic timbral components (no more twangs or flutes) until, a little over 28 minutes in, when the music seemingly starts to retreat and turn inward, emphasising lower registers and softer dynamics, with a subtle introduction of brass timbres. For a moment (around the 31-minute mark), the piece is suspended, reduced to a single drone pitch, whereupon the second section erupts, like a shaft of late afternoon sunlight penetrating gloom. Altus bases it on a simple repeating pattern of falling pitches, though with its fundamental harmony shifting at various points, each time making the pattern feel invigorated. As in the first section, this behaviour is also a steady state that persists for much of the latter half of the piece, only altering in the final few minutes, separating out into parallel octave lines of pitch that finally evaporate. It’s an exquisitely-handled and -executed piece of music, and i love it both for being a superb and subtle demonstration of ambient principles as well as for being a blissfully beautiful, totally enveloping listening experience. It’s available in FLAC directly from Altus, and in all formats (as part of the complete cycle) from Free Floating Music.

There’s a great deal by Altus worthy of recommendation, and as i indicated above, this includes some of his very earliest ambient work. From 2003 to 2005 he created an album exploring each of the four elements, of which the first two, Fire and Water, are the best. The seven movements of Fire consist of more behavioural stases, some (‘Spark’, ‘Scintillation (Part 2)’) of a spritely disposition, the rest typically the product of warm string pads. All of these are archetypally ambient, by turns pulling at or being indifferent to our attention. But the ‘Finale’ is something else, progressing from surges of noise in the preceding track (‘White Light’) through a lengthy varied restatement of opening track ‘Overture For Fire’. Musically speaking it’s all incredibly simple, but the gently filmic nature of its cycling chord sequence plus the whiff of melancholy that pervades it (doubly unexpected in a movement titled ‘Finale’, and in a work inspired by fire) is surprisingly affecting, particularly when it gains extra weight in its latter half.

Water, fittingly, is a more meandering affair, though its best bits are again rooted in similar behavioural stases, treating them to variations of density, warmth and colour. Third movement ‘Glacier’ subjects a delicate three-chord sequence to gradations of chill, in the process demonstrating the kind of mileage obtainable from such basic materials, while ‘Mesopelagic’ partially breaks up its sequence into a mixture of smooth washes and energetic pulsations, resulting in a modest obscuring of the harmony that proves nicely disorienting. But it’s penultimate track ‘Hadopelagic’ (the title referring to the ‘Hadal zone’, the deepest part of the oceans) that i find most potent, due to the way Altus retains a static behaviour while keeping it harmonically remote. Made up of a network of small swells, its use of pitch is largely polarised to high and low registers, which in conjunction with bands of pitch that don’t so much complement as gently jar against each other, results in a soundworld of distant, rather alien beauty.

As the music i’ve discussed so far suggests, Altus is fond of composing thematic cycles, and one of his more recent examples contain some of his best music to date. In 2011 he began a ‘Sleep Theory’ series, which he describes as “tonally active yet hypnotic soundscapes”. Again, the emphasis is on extended steady states, here exhibiting a restrained, restful demeanour that clearly invites a slipping in and out, somnolent engagement, akin to both Robert Rich’s Somnium and Nordvargr’s Sleep Therapy cycle but, unlike them, restricted to track durations of around 20 minutes (titled simply as a numbered sequence of “sessions”). The first two volumes, from 2011 and 2013 respectively, are both excellent.

On Volume 1, ‘Session 1’ harks back to Eno, with a small, surface level melodic idea cycling round and round over a hovering, middlegrounded cloud-chord. It’s left to its own devices only for around eight minutes, but as is often the way in ambient music, this feels like so much longer (“hypnotic” is exactly the right word for it), whereupon Altus engages in gentle melodic variations, like absent-mindedly dragging a stick ever-so-slowly through water, producing minimal ripples. ‘Session 3’ evokes mid-70s Vangelis (circa Albedo 0.39), employing restrained but gnarly analogue synth timbres to weave another cycling harmonic design that appears to be slowly rotating in front of us. As in Andromeda, it turns inward at its centre, opening out again after in a slightly revised form. Both of these are pure loveliness – inviting interest and ignoring in equal measure (but more the former) – but ‘Session 2’ is the piece i’ve returned to most. More vaporous than the others, it operates like an abstracted seashore, communicating in softly crashing waves and surges, each one a glittering chord that’s unique yet tonally related to all the others. Varying in weight between light splashes and robust billows, this has the effect of continually casting the otherwise static harmony into ever new lights and permutations.

Volume 2 is yet more impressive. ‘Session 4’ is a kind of souped-up iteration of ‘Session 2’ but with wider harmonic scope, and its swells interconnected and altogether more ecstatic. As far as sleep is concerned, for me ‘Session 4′ has become my go-to waking-up music, a perfect piece of music to begin the day. When i wrote earlier about some of Altus’ work being among the best ambient i’ve heard, this track was uppermost in my mind; the way it is so clearly focused on a repeating underlying sequence yet feels so new – and renewed – with each iteration is spellbinding. ‘Session 5’ acts as a nicely-judged ‘come down’, of a darker sonic hue, before the other highlight of Volume 2, ‘Session 6’ which, again as far as sleep is concerned, has become my go-to settling down music, an ideal way to bring the day to an end. Like a darker sibling to ‘Session 4’, there’s a lovely sense of tiredness written into the music, emphasising melodic and harmonic descents and exhibiting a greater sense of restraint, though its cycling surges eventually become heavier as a weighty layer of bass is added. The second half of the piece loses this and infinitesimally starts to diminish, ultimately – in every sense of the term – drifting off. Both volumes are exquisite in their entirety, but the even-numbered ‘Sessions’ are real ambient masterpieces.

As for the rest of Altus’ output, i would also recommend the two parts of The Time Collection, both of which date from 2015. The highlights of part 1, Ghost of Time, are ‘Illusionary Progression’ and ‘Live for the Now’, the former another Vangelis-like exercise in stirring a rich, analogue harmonic broth, diatonic but dense, the latter a gorgeous sequence of bass-driven surges coated in glittering froth and foam. ‘Absolve the Past’ is also worth mentioning, its repeating ruminations bearing a more introspective quality. Part 2, Time Forgotten, is less striking overall, but second track ‘Memory Thief’ is mesmerising, a return to the impressive patience displayed in Andromeda. Indeed, Altus almost seems to have created it in an entirely ‘hands off’ way, allowing his palette of sound elements to move on their own, colliding and blending entirely freely. The introduction of a soft, distant bassline turns it into one of the most lovely, unfussy modern chaconnes you’re ever likely to hear, moving forward while seemingly forever fighting an urge simply to stop and hold position, transfixed by itself.

Beyond these treasures, i’d also flag up 2010’s Black Tree Among Amber Skies (especially ‘Dormant Skeletons’ – one of Altus’ most sombre creations – and ‘Sodium Glow’) and 2015’s Komorebi, the highlight of which, ‘Waver’, is just delicious. And for something a little different, his 2008 album Macro is a fascinatingly contrasting experience, consisting of 22 tracks confined to just two or three minutes’ duration. There are too many highlights to discuss them all, but ‘Leaf in the Wind’, ‘Wood Grain’ and above all ‘Wave Rotation’ are all wonderfully tantalising (the latter redolent of Future Sound of London), offering miniature windows into vast alien worlds.

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Steve Smith

Thanks for this, Simon. I’m sure it’s occurred to you, but there IS one important distinction on Bandcamp between “free” and “name your price” — “free” releases are not included on a purchaser’s collection page, and thus the whole social-influence angle baked into Bandcamp is defeated. Even if you designate zero for “name your price,” the release you’ve acquired will take its place in your collection, and will be reflected to your followers via those handy e-mail updates. That’s important, I think.

Gilles P. Brillon

I’ve been following Mike Carss (Altus) for some years now and I truly believe he is one of the best if not THE best ambient music composer today. Bandcamp offers a multitude of artists and composers in the ambient genre, be it dark, atmospheric, drone etc…, but in my 16k+ collection, Altus is the only artist whose discography is permanently in my player.
His latest offering, Winter Embrace (15th Anniversary Edition) is a pure masterpiece. The music is exquisite and the sonic research is perfection. I posted on Facebook that Winter Embrace 15th is the album of the year. I wish him a long and fruitful life, so he could bless us with more of his beautiful music.

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