Ambient music has been on my mind a lot lately. Monty Adkins and i are nearing completion on our forthcoming book about Ambient that we’re co-editing – following on from the conference we organised last year – and i completed my own lengthy contribution to this just last week. Since i was a teenager, Ambient is a genre, form, idiom, subject, concept, aesthetic and philosophy that’s been close to my heart, yet one with which for many, many years now i’ve grown increasingly frustrated and disenchanted. i’m not going to get into that here, except to say that simplistic throwings-together of superficially pretty chords, fragile plinky plonky pianos and vacant, arbitrary field recordings do not magically conjure up successful Ambient. Far from it, and it’s become increasingly difficult to find anything that doesn’t adhere to such manifestations of what should more properly be termed ‘blandbient’ or ‘wanbient’, the very epitome of what Vangelis once summarised as music providing “the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music”.
One of the few Ambient artists to have consistently held my attention is Canadian composer Kyle Bobby Dunn. i first encountered his work almost ten years ago, with his splendid double album A Young Person’s Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn, which has proved itself to be one of the best Ambient works of the last decade. One of the things that sets Dunn apart from the plethora of Ambient wannabes is his restraint; lesser artists indiscriminately churn out the stuff like they’ve taken a massive dose of creative laxative, while Dunn has contented himself with ten albums and a similar number of EPs over the last two decades.
Following a five-year hiatus, Dunn’s latest album, From Here to Eternity, has recently been released, and while i’m starting to think that Young Person’s Guide might be so good that he’ll never be able to top it, it’s nonetheless way more engaging than any other Ambient i’ve heard in a while. It’s another double album, though these days that doesn’t so much suggest multiple discs as it does the opportunity to become immersed for a significant period of time, in this case almost three hours. The key to the deepest and most meaningful Ambient experience is to position the listener in a liminal place of interest and disengagement, for the music to be moving yet immobile, active and passive if you like – or, in Brian Eno’s now-immortal words, “interesting” and “ignorable”. It’s the most delicate musical balance there is, and at its best it creates something quite extraordinary. Dunn’s opening track, ‘Preludium Aeterna’ is a lengthy example of this, 12 minutes of a perfectly-judged steady state teetering at the cusp of potential movement. What’s so nice about this is that – again, unlike so much nth-rate pseudo-Ambient – there’s absolutely no sense of a music ‘slowed down’. It’s not, in fact, about speed at all – the best Ambient never is – but behaviour, shifting or not-shifting in a way so subtle that you start to wonder whether it’s your own ears and brain that are creating the sensation rather than the music itself. And that title, ‘Preludium Aeterna’, is hardly insignificant either, suggesting the start of something never-ending, introducing and at the same time transcending the concept of time.
This is something Dunn excels at, and there are other examples on the album where he pushes it further in terms of making one question whether the music is doing anything at all. Both ‘Infinite Escalators’ and ‘Years Later Theme’ operate in a similar way, creating a simultaneous sense of moving forward while remaining quasi-frozen. Another significant aspect of this – which, again, distances Dunn from the majority of latter day faux-Ambient – is the way the music in these and other tracks emphasise not repetition but limited, irregular flux: in other words, music that establishes strict limits (behavioural, harmonic, registral) resulting in everything that follows sounding like it’s cycling round similar ideas to what’s gone before but never in exactly the same way. Repetition is the death of Ambient: flux is it what makes it breathe and fills it with life and vitality.
Dunn doesn’t always hit the spot: ‘La Stationnement de Finders’ falls too much into repetition and as a consequence sounds tired and overworked, both on its own terms and in its wider aesthetic context. Here, duration doesn’t feel justified, the music protracted for the sake of it, with not enough ‘interesting’ to balance the ‘ignorable’. But this track is the only one where it becomes a problem, and that’s despite Dunn extending things quite far elsewhere. ‘September & Her Sudden Drones’ and ‘Alpine ’88 (Soundtrack Suite)’ both demonstrate some courage in letting their states of semi-static flux play out over lengthy time periods, but in both cases the liminality works, and we’re held at that critical point of tension and release.
The most successful tracks ramp up the intensity. By which i don’t necessarily mean scale or volume: ‘Boul. Gouin’ is a gorgeous, solemn yet wistful chord progression that sounds like a musical equivalent of a single tear held in the eye due to its own surface tension. It’s poignant yet poised, a single sentiment suspended and lingered over, qualities shared by another, slightly longer and more assertive track, ‘From Over to Wendover’. Elsewhere, Dunn introduces quantities of noise: despite its title, ‘Happiness & Momentum’ is an unsettled study in balanced abrasion, while ‘Dead Calm (Southcentre Suite)’ goes further, the roughness of its exterior making it hard to discern details. This track displays another kind of liminality, being moderately forthright while being kept at something of a distance. Even more powerful are tracks where Dunn slowly creates or reveals large-scale, elaborate sonic objects that he then allows to hover and rotate in front of us. In ‘The Flattening’ it’s a ball of harmonic stuff that swells into view for a time before drifting away; in ‘Videodrones des Questions’ it takes the form of a muted, shining, static chord against which various small-scale surges impinge; and in closing track ‘Eternity, the Stars & You’, a slowly-turning idea has its delicate details extensively eroded and blasted away due to the increasingly harsh and excoriating environment in which it sits.
It’s so wonderful to engage (and, of course, at the same time disengage) with such bold and imaginative Ambient as this, music that directly embodies its title, making one conscious of the immediacy and clarity of “here” alongside the nebulosity and intangibility of “eternity”. And as with all the best Ambient, it deeply rewards repeat listenings: always the same, yet always new.
From Here to Eternity is released by US label Past Inside the Present and is available from their Bandcamp site in a variety of physical and digital formats.