Thematic series

Contemporary Epics: Robert Rich – Somnium

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In the previous few articles, it may seem as though i’ve been avoiding the very obvious elephant in the room. So let’s confront it now: large-scale musical ‘epics’ of the kind i’ve been exploring present formidable problems to the listener. Assuming one can find the time to devote to it, there’s the issue of focus, of trying to maintain some semblance of concentration for a very much longer-than-usual period of time; furthermore, attempting to hear each passing event within the wider context of the whole (rather than just listening superficially) becomes a strenuous and potentially unwieldy activity. i accept that these are very real challenges with such music, and while i can speak from experience and state that it’s something that becomes much less of a problem the more one becomes acquainted with large-scale music, the fourth ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to examine is a work that could be said to tackle the reality of this situation head-on—or, at least, take a fundamentally different approach to it.

The composer Robert Rich established his reputation in the early 1980s, as a composer whose live performances took place through the night. In part they were concerts, yet more importantly to Rich they were experiments, investigating the ways in which sound can stimulate periods of REM sleep. At these events, the audience would take its place on the floor, actively encouraged—and this may sound paradoxical—to interact with Rich’s performance through the act of sleep, engaging with the music through the gauze of a semi-conscious mind. These “sleep concerts” directly influenced the albums Rich released around this time; his debut album Sunyata (1982) pared down its content to a minimum—echoing the title, which is a Buddhist concept approximating to ’emptiness’ or ‘void’—while at the same time greatly expanding its duration to better facilitate a meditative listening state (originally released on cassette, the album was unusual at lasting almost 86 minutes). The titles of his next two albums, Trances and Drones (both 1983), made explicit the kind of deeply subliminal interrelationship Rich wanted his music to have with its audience, whether experienced live or at home.

The most telling example of this is his magnum opus Somnium, released in 2001. Having alluded to the nature of the “sleep concerts” through a prolific series of albums, on Somnium Rich sought to return to the source and directly replicate that experience. The only way to do that faithfully was for the music to be heard right through the night; hence the reason for Somnium‘s massive duration, lasting a little over seven hours. So Somnium presents the listener with the ultimate challenge, a work of unprecedented length, but it also presents its own solution, stated clearly in the title, inviting its audience to experience it through sleep. In the accompanying notes, Rich helpfully elucidates on the nature of that interaction:

The term “Sleep Concert” can be a bit misleading, as it implies that this music is intended to help you sleep deeply. On the contrary, when you play Somnium at night, you may find that you sleep less deeply, and wake up more often. The idea is to let the music incorporate itself into your perceptual framework during the night, to create a sonic surround, an environment for unique states of consciousness. The music is aimed at the nebulous territory that exists in your mind when you are hovering between awake and asleep, when you are still aware of your environment, yet detached, when your half-sleeping mind wanders into the realm of hypnogogic images and dreamlike non-linearity. You might find that this music can act as a trigger for these flowing thoughts, and the activation of the environment around you can help you to skate around the edges of sleep, with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the room where you are sleeping. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: The Hafler Trio – Trilogy in Three Parts

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It’s impossible to speak of ‘contemporary epics’ without given especial mention to The Hafler Trio (the nom de guerre of Andrew McKenzie). While Kenneth Kirschner and Pat Maherr, discussed previously, usually restrict themselves to relatively modest durations, it’s rare for music by The Hafler Trio not to exceed an hour or more. This characteristic dates back as far as 1991, with the release of Kill the King, its single span lasting 73 minutes; the companion albums Mastery of Money (1992) and How to Reform Mankind (1994), ran to 75 and 78 minutes respectively. Those three albums form a trilogy, and large-scale trilogies have continued to be a feature of the Hafler Trio œuvre. Exactly As I Say (2004), Exactly As I Am (2005) and Exactly As I Do (2005), each double albums, together form a trilogy lasting almost 5½ hours. How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (2003) and sister work How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (Lengthwise) (2004) are each trilogies in their own right; together they too last nearly 5½ hours. Most recently, McKenzie’s occasional collaboration with Autechre has finally become a trilogy with the release in August of ae3o3 (which on its own has a duration of 3¾ hours); together with æ³o and h³æ (2003) and æo³ and ³hæ (2005), this trilogy is now the longest of all, stretching to a massive 5¾ hours. Even the albums not part of trilogies occupy long durations: Hljóðmynd (2000; 1 hour), Normally (2003; 2 hours), Where Are You? (2004; 1 hour) and Scissors Cut Arrow (2004; 1¾ hours). On all of these albums, individual tracks occupy a complete CD; faced with music on such a scale, it’s understandable why, quite apart from the multitudinous disjecta membra that red herringly encompass each release—not to mention the eternally bellicose attitude of McKenzie himself—The Hafler Trio can seem off-putting, unapproachable and daunting. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Indignant Senility – Blemished Breasts

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What makes Kenneth Kirschner’s “July 17, 2010” so significant—and, in my view, qualifies it as an ‘epic’—is the fact that its 2-hour duration is not subdivided into sections, or even particularly episodic (although its timbral qualities could be said to have a periodicity of roughly 20 minutes, but that’s just the way i hear it). This is what separates it from the plethora of large-scale albums that have been around for over 60 years, since the double album first came into existence. The prospect of an album lasting two hours or more is less problematic when its duration is broken down into individual songs of no more than a few minutes apiece; it’s still a lot to listen to, granted, but the time is compartmentalised, which does at least make things psychologically simpler. Of course, there will always be the concept album that seeks to be homogeneous, its constituent parts seamlessly working towards the creation of a larger whole, but the qualitative shifts en route—the movement from track to track, with their own internal structures—inevitably mean that the overarching narrative is partitioned, if not entirely broken. At the end of last year, in my summary of the best albums of 2010, one of the key things that impressed me about the winner—Chubby Wolf’s Ornitheology—was its large-scale epic structure; despite being merely a double album (and as such, shorter than many other such albums), it articulated itself in just two 40-minute tracks. The second ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to highlight is very similar to this, and arguably more impressive. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Kenneth Kirschner – July 17, 2010

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Imagine yourself in a situation where you’ve agreed to listen to a piece of music, but have no idea what it is. You get yourself comfortable, and shortly before the music starts, you’re informed that the piece will last three minutes. Now imagine that situation again, but this time you’re told the duration will be 30 minutes; and now a third time, what if you were told the piece was going to last three hours? Each of those scenarios elicits an entirely different psychological response, and this unbidden, preemptive reaction to the prospect of increasingly long durations has fascinated me for years. In all probability, three minutes wouldn’t make anyone bat an eyelid, whereas 30 minutes might well create a bit of tension, sending less focused minds swiftly out the door. But three hours, i imagine, would exceed most people’s tenacity, resulting in only a small collection of listeners prepared to confront something on such an epic scale. Despite the apparent trend in recent times of attention shifting towards short, individual tracks (an inevitable by-product of download culture), it’s encouraging to see composers continuing to allow their creativity to occupy large-scale sonic canvasses. Admittedly, a couple of years ago i pointedly remarked that, durationally speaking, “size isn’t everything”; of course it isn’t, but nonetheless, works occupying very long periods of time bring about a unique kind of listening experience, one that, at its best, makes the apparent demands on the listener pale beside the rewards it offers. i’m going to explore some of the more interesting recent ‘contemporary epics’ in the next few articles. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Cello Concerto No. 2 & Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)

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Today’s featured Alfred Schnittke concert was broadcast on 14 January 2001, and comprised two monumental pieces, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with Torleif Thedéen taking the solo role, and the dual-named Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4); Vassily Sinaisky directs the BBC Philharmonic. More than the others, this recording has suffered the effects of time (and, possibly, previous attempts at cleanup); there’s some crackle audible in the performances as well as the speech, and to add insult to injury, on the original recording (made on cassette) i neglected to use Dolby. So—despite my best efforts—my apologies for the sound quality, although the performances are so good that (for the most part) they transcend these problems.

Completed in 1990, Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is a work that dives into high lyricism at the outset, the cello’s opening gambit pitched towards the top of its compass, followed by an extensive meditation at the opposite end of the pitch spectrum, ushering in a loud declamatory statement from the orchestra; throughout this short opening movement (Moderato), the orchestra’s role is restricted to punctuating the ends of the cello’s lengthy meanderings. While it seems as though the soloist is going to stay ponderous for some time, the second movement (Allegro) abruptly establishes a tempo, and a fairly brisk one at that. The orchestra gets excited once again, but falls back almost as quickly as before; only the brass engage with the cello, although from a distance. Things continue in this vein for a while, until a more pointillistic idea initiates more assertion in the orchestra, seemingly placing their notes in the momentary gaps left by the soloist. They construct a curious waltz that fizzles immediately into a strangely sparse string chorale, in which a flexatone can just be heard. Aggression breaks out; it’s clear this is an orchestra profoundly irritated at being sidelined, and they seem to form packs that assault the soloist from all directions; for the cello’s part, its material, ever in flux, is thus instantly forgettable and yet projects itself as though each and every leaping note was agonisingly important. At the movement’s crashing final beat, one is left breathless and wondering where things stand; in this performance, there’s a significant pause at this point, which adds to the drama. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

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Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focusing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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Schnittke Week – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, Piano Quintet

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The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most outstanding composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his music, focusing on works that were included in the Barbican’s ‘Seeking the Soul’ festival, in January 2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isn’t too bad considering.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled with melodic intentions, the quartet’s gestures all concerned with making something from small fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovich’s D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an emotionally neutral term as ‘Andante’ suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the movement, made yet more telling through Schnittke’s frequent rendering of the players in the guise of a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring, although it’s lost within moments; despite being labelled ‘Agitato’, no little time is spent occupied with dark, brooding material. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto – cross-cultural peace and quiet

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Having spent the last four days absorbed in the monastic pattern of life at Burford Priory, i’ve returned home with, among other things, my senses both heightened and sensitised. i’ve needed somewhat gentle stimuli, and so it seems perfect timing to return to my ambient musings, focusing on the the collaborations between Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto. While i know little of Sakamoto’s work beyond these releases, i’m something of a fan of Carsten Nicolai’s work in the guise of Alva Noto; expect a post about his music as and when. Apparently, the nature of the collaboration was rather like that of The Postal Service, the two composers working independently, sending material back and forth, each modifying it further, until both felt that the music was ready. In a way, the polarisation is extreme; Sakamoto confines himself to the piano, around and through which Noto weaves his electronic blips, glitches and patterns. “Weaves” seems entirely the right word; there’s a palpable sense that this music is like an expertly-woven fabric, and this in itself is revealing; so many times have i heard the argument that electronic sounds cannot be integrated properly with acoustic instruments, an argument that seems disproved by the resultant textures of this collaboration. Admittedly, the material is simple and restrained, often to the point of appearing austere (no surprise that i’m drawn back to this music after spending time in a monastery!), and this may account for the success of the blending. Read more

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The ambient tradition: black on black – Lustmord and the dark side of ambient

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At its best, ambient descries a vista that is vast in scope, epic in scale, often ablaze with light. However, light presupposes darkness (check Genesis if you don’t believe me) and likewise all landscapes have their shadows. From the deepest of them (perhaps their very source), comes the voice of Brian “Lustmord” Williams, ascending like a black, primordial plume. If dark ambient can be said to originate with anyone, Lustmord must be one of the prime contenders. But “dark” in more than just the most obvious, superficial sense; from his earliest experimental releases, Lustmord has unswervingly focused his attention on the blacker regions of existence and experience. Titles such as Paradise Disowned, Heresy, The Place Where The Black Stars Hang and The Monstrous Soul are poetic and wildly evocative, conjuring up worlds that are no less infinite, but of a very different hue. This is mirrored in the sources of his material, emanating from crypts to caves to slaughterhouses, from deep within a shelter to deep beneath the sea; in the preparation for his canvasses, Lustmord goes to remarkable and highly symbolic lengths to acquire his pigments. It has to be said, though, that Lustmord’s dark ambient associations occasionally lead him in an unhelpful direction. Akin to the teenage goth, some of his works sound almost like a parody, their darkness taken to ludicrous extremes, in the process losing all semblance of seriousness and intensity. The most glaring example of this is the relatively recent Rising, a document to Lustmord’s performance at a Church of Satan event in 2006. Both this album and its successor, Juggernaut, suggest an unfortunate development, the music sounding like it is trying rather too hard to affect an air of menace. His earlier creations are far more natural and more genuinely unsettling, their textures effortlessly blending in an aural equivalent of the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. Like Reinhardt, one can skim the surface of the work, allowing its essential tone to envelop the senses; or one can examine more closely, and find layers that at first seemed impenetrably hidden—another example of the dual properties of the “ambient tradition”. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Implex Grace – a searing demonstration of ambient noise

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i said before that there’s more to ambient than washes of sound, but of course this kind of texture is, for better or (more often) worse, very closely associated with it. Thankfully, having spent too many years trapped in the saccharine world of (God help us) “chillout” music, ambient’s potential for drift has grown up into something very much more mature and meaningful. In no small part, it has been affected by what some might regard as its nemesis: noise. It might be fairer to call the constructions found in noise walls of sound rather than washes, but these two extremes have been drawn together to forge something utterly new. i suspect, like most ostensible “opposites”, they’ve had more in common than was immediately apparent; both noise and ambient tend to place emphasis on broad gestures within long durational expanses; both tend to occupy dynamic extremes; and, of course, like any extreme, both have fallen prey to the moronic mumblings of the talentless who have purloined the style in the hope it might bestow upon them the illusion of something approximating ability. As a texture, noise is unavoidable, so for it to lend anything of value to ambient, it is going to need to be softened and tenderised, in order to retain some semblance of Brian Eno’s “ignorability” (the inability of the listener to “ignore” noise (in Eno’s sense of the word), perhaps explains why poor music in that genre is so incredibly irritating, whereas poor ambient is a mild irritation at best).

An interesting blend of these worlds can be heard in the music of Michael Perry Goodman, otherwise known as Implex Grace. He caught my attention a couple of months back when his self-styled “debut release”, Through Luminescent Passages I, became available as a free download. i say “self-styled”, because in truth there’s been a number of minor self-releases dating back to 2004 (they can all be streamed via the vibr website; link below); nonetheless, this album is his most ambitious release to date, worthy of being regarded as his “Opus 1”. Even before listening, the track titles are highly suggestive: “Gorgeous Pale Light”, “Starlight: A Distant Shimmering Particle”, “Beyond The Cosmic Gates”; nonetheless, many are the composers who have made astronomical connections to their work, only for it to fail entirely to live up to such a lofty association; vivid titles like these are best approached with caution. But it’s immediately clear that Implex Grace is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill composer. and it’s clear too that the radiance alluded to in those titles is not merely present, but omnipresent, permeating—no, saturating—the music with incandescence, often composed in roughly equal parts of ambience and noise. “Twilight: Diamond In The Sky” is an exercise in simplicity: a delicate fragment of material (the “diamond”?) is placed within a soft harmonic bath (the “sky”?), wherein it loops merrily away, glitching here and there; it’s as though we’re watching it slowly draw nearer to us, allowed a few precious moments of closeness, before it passes us back into the beyond. “Gorgeous Pale Light” is a tough title to live up to, but the music succeeds, presenting a sonic landscape that feels by turns autumnal and/or suffused with rain (a different kind of saturation). Even longer than the first track, it opens up the scope of the album, widening the horizons still further; it’s an epic pronouncement, almost a statement of intent. Read more

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The ambient tradition: John Hudak and the infinitesimal writ large

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In general, composers of ambient – no doubt due to the fact that as well as being “interesting” it should also be “ignorable” – tend to fashion their music at the quieter end of the dynamic continuum. And in the farthest reaches of the quiet, his music looking at the natural world as through a microscope, is John Hudak. His name has become synonymous with an extreme form of microsound, exploring the the gentle repetitions of noises that either bypass our attention or – even more remarkably – exist beneath the threshold of human hearing. In his own words, his work “focuses on the rhythms and melodies that exist in our daily aural environments. These sounds usually remain hidden, as we tend to overlook their musical qualities; or, their musical qualities are obscured through mixture with other sounds”. Hudak subjects his field recordings of these unheard sources to digital manipulation, resulting in finely honed sonic vistas that are familiar and organic, yet achingly strange.

All of his works are breathtaking, and one could write for hours about any of them; his imagination – both in terms of the origins of his material, and also what he then does with those sounds – is simply astonishing. Even before one actually hears the music, just a cursory amount of research into what one is about to hear results in a breathless, tantalising excitement about the very ideas themselves. Take Pond, for example, where microphones are placed in – of course – a pond, and the piece explores the miniscule noises of underwater insects. The result is utterly unworldly, truly alien, like muted crotales delicately ringing within a claustrophobic soup. Pond lasts just over an hour, and at first i confess i felt this was too long; but having spent longer with his work, and coming to understand its place within what i have called the “ambient tradition”, i no longer feel this reservation. Even more astounding is his collaboration with Stephen Mathieu, Pieces of Winter. Surely among the quietest pieces ever created (positively defining microsound), Hudak’s contributions originate in a contact microphone encased in snow that has solidified overnight into ice, which then records the infinitesimal sounds of snowflakes landing on the frozen surface. Who else would even think of an idea like that?! While Mathieu’s contributions (both the sources and what he does with them) are more recognisable and tangible, Hudak’s are once again entirely unlike anything else; the opening track, “01”, sounds relatively naturalistic – a wonderfully enclosed sensation (made better still through headphones) – while “Winter Garden” is a more impressionistic take; in a manner similar to Pond, the minute impacts are now writ large, resembling sharp but delicate collisions of glass bells. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Steve Roden and the world of lowercase

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If dance was the first style of music to make deep impressions on my formative mind, hot on its heels was ambient. By pure serendipity, in my early teens i stumbled on a book (the title and author of which i wish i could remember – it’s probably still lurking in Cheltenham’s music library to this day) that both discussed the genre (this was the mid-80s, so it was still relatively new – at least, the term “ambient” was) and also detailed the best artists and recordings. The elaboration of the conceptual ideas behind the music fascinated me, and ignited my interest in ambient, as well as numerous other aspects of avant-garde and contemporary music. i still find Brian Eno‘s guiding principal for “ambient music” to be extremely useful; in the notes for his seminal Music for Airports, he pronounced that “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”. In other words, being “ignorable” and “interesting” are equal and opposite forces within the music (Newton would be proud). Therefore, it stands to reason that music that is “ignorable” but not sufficiently “interesting” is not really ambient music – at least, not good ambient music. and the opposite is true too: if it’s so fascinating that you can’t (if the mood takes you) “tune out” to it, then it fails in precisely the same way. It’s a difficult, delicate combination of qualities, demonstrating how much depth and complexity is contained in Eno’s ostensibly simple words. Unfortunately, neither depth nor quality are found in the majority of music that is released these days claiming to be “ambient”, and the same goes for its tenebral sister “dark ambient” and its recalcitrant cousin “shoegaze”. i suspect that the genre strikes more creatively-challenged people as being ‘easier’ to create than some others, since it may appear that not very much needs to happen over quite a long time period. This is erroneous, and results in extremely boring music that lacks any hint of the “interesting” part of the balance. (Indeed, it could be argued that the best ambient music is capable of being “ignorable” precisely because one is aware that is has an “interesting” component present too, and vice versa, but that’s another discussion for another day). There is, however, some excellent music being created at the moment that i feel wholeheartedly upholds what we might call the “ambient tradition”, and i’d like to spend my next few posts exploring some noteworthy examples.

There’s a lot more to ambient than the clichéd, cheese-laden washes of sound that one hears so frequently. Of course, Eno’s Music for Airports at times uses textures like these, as does Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II – but in ways that are subtle, surprisingly complex and, of course, not exclusively. These two albums are valuable as ambient paradigms precisely because of what they do, not how they do it. Both entirely fulfil Eno’s dictum, capable of being ignored (i.e. not actively listened to, but nonetheless aware of) or interesting in equal measure, but there’s no reason why ambient music must sound like that. One of the most successful artists to demonstrate this understanding is Steve Roden. Roden is a Los Angeles sound artist, whose work is often described as (a term he invented – and a term i adore) “lowercase”. Something of an extreme example of ambient, much lowercase music occupies the “microsound” end of the dynamic spectrum. Ambient music invariably affects the way in which one perceives time passing; often, the impression is that time is moving more swiftly than usual, the sparse events seemingly expanding to fill a large durational space. In Roden’s music, however, the reverse is the case; time seems to slow to the pace of an anæsthetised snail, its material becoming ostensibly compressed, crammed into an apparently smaller duration. Read more

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Scandanavian sounds, part 3: AM and the UV

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Every now and then, a band appears that seems to bring together the most engaging qualities of several other artists. A delightful example of that – and proof that not everything coming out of these remote arctic regions is quite as intense or brooding as Deathprod and Biosphere – is AM and the UV, the relatively unknown collaboration of singer Anne Marie Almedal (AM) and obscure duo Ultraviolet (UV). The result is some of the most delicate and compelling songs i’ve heard, effortlessly blending the vocal lyricism of Alison Goldfrapp, the dark funkiness of Portishead (ok, so it broods a little) and the drifting washes of the Cocteau Twins, easily rivalling those artists, the songs are that good. Sadly, they only stayed together long enough to produce two EPs – Tomorrow Is All Like Flowers and Silently The Birds Fly Through Us – and an album, Candy Thunder. The titles of the EPs, in particular, point towards the ethereal aims to which AM and the UV are working. The songs communicate a kind of transparent (if perhaps world-weary) bliss, which grows with repeated listenings. Among the brightest of the highlights: “Whisper” is simply one of the most gorgeous songs ever recorded, “Speak” features some spectacular melodic writing, “Wonderful, Beautiful” is a bizarre retro/modern combination (Almedal sounding a bit like Karen Carpenter), and the chorus is irresistible to sing along with, and “Everywhere We Go”, the final track from the album, is very mellow, with the most delicious ending.

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Scandanavian sounds, part 2: Deathprod

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Deathprod – it’s a name both striking and strange, which is appropriate, as his music is both of these things too. There are obvious similarities to Biosphere – both are Norwegian; both explore large soundscapes; both create music that is immediately arresting – and yet there’s something very much more going on in Deathprod’s work. It’s even more dark, more remote, to the point of being mysterious, even ominous or desolate. But i think it’s the remoteness that is the most palpable characteristic of Deathprod’s output, neatly encapsulated in a 4-CD box set, released a few years ago. The set brings together three previously released but now hard-to-find albums – Morals and Dogma, Imaginary Songs from Tristan Da Cunha (remoteness even in the title!) and Treetop Drive – with a disc of new material, titled Reference Frequencies. There’s a fascinating low-fi approach taken in many of the tracks (some were transferred to phonograph cylinders), which somehow sit remarkably well beside more obviously electronic pieces – although, almost nothing on these CDs betrays exactly how it was created, which is quite a feat.

i first discovered his work about 4 years ago, and it still ranks as one of the most exciting, transforming encounters i’ve ever had. The most breathtaking of all is “Treetop Drive 1”, where a wide, orchestral string chord sounds again and again, pregnant and ominous, while slowly-evolving electronics splash and wail, like plangent seabirds over the foghorn of a melancholy ocean. Atop this imagined water, “Towboat” explores the same misty territory with a wider and yet more claustrophobic vision. “Burntwood” sounds like a decrepit audio tape discovered on a beach, filled with sounds that simultaneously beguile and disturb. and then, perhaps the supreme achievement of Deathprod’s sound-world, “Dead People’s Things”, an unbearingly poignant lament for something unutterably lost. All of these pieces reinvent music, expand what it can be, how it can speak. They are among the most rapturously beautiful and sad pieces one will ever hear.

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Scandanavian sounds, part 1: Biosphere

Posted on by 5:4 in Thematic series | Leave a comment

Music emanating from the Scandanavian countries is always interesting, and often unusual. Once upon a yesteryear, it was all Abba (70s), A-ha (80s) and Aqua (90s), but they’re probably as glad as we are that that’s ancient history, and the sounds of 21st century Scandinavia are altogether more absorbing. The best of these sounds is as remote as their geography, a remoteness often palpably audible in the music. Perhaps the finest example is Biosphere, a Norwegian who is held by many (including me) to be an important figure in that most mine-ridden of fields, ambient music. While the comparisons to Eno are irritating, they do at least point to the significance that Biosphere’s music possesses. His early work is very interesting, revealing a cold (temperature, not emotion), distant quality, evocative of the north arctic clime where he resides. In fact, his work – which frequently incorporates field recordings (particularly the wind) of the sounds from that area – is often referred to as “polar ambient”. This was the main feature of one of his collaborations with the UK’s Higher Intelligence Agency, entitled Polar Sequences (the other collaboration, Birmingham Frequencies is the opposite, exploring more urban sounds). The turning point, though, is his album from the following year, Substrata – and it was, literally, a turning point, beats rejected completely, allowing the slowly-evolving soundscapes to become the altar rather than the reredos. and this is why the Eno-esque claims are annoying; ambient (from one perspective) may have evolved from Satie’s “Furniture music”, but it is capable of, and indeed has become, very much more than that. Arguably, the mere term “ambient” (as we’ve seen before) is somewhat unhelpful here, “polar” or otherwise. Biosphere’s work needs to be listened to, not merely allowed to float around the room while we “chill out”. There’s a lot going on here, and most of it defies words.

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