ambient

Music Beyond Airports

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In February last year, Monty Adkins and i organised Ambient@40, the first academic conference devoted to ambient music, which took place over two days at Huddersfield University. The conference was designed to explore the history and legacy of the genre forty years after the release of Brian Eno’s pivotal album Ambient 1: Music For Airports, and i’m delighted to announce that an accompanying book, Music Beyond Airports: appraising ambient music, is published today. Co-edited by Monty and me, the book features lengthy chapters by many of the contributors from the conference, approaching ambient from a host of different angles encompassing musical, psychological, societal, cultural and gender aspects, among many others.

Here’s a summary of the chapters:

  1. David Toop – How Much World Do You Want? Ambient Listening and its Questions
  2. Ambrose Field – Space In The Ambience: Is Ambient Music Socially Relevant?
  3. Ulf Holbrook – A Question of Background: Sites of Listening
  4. Richard Talbot – Three Manifestations of Spatiality in Ambient Music
  5. Simon Cummings – The Steady State Theory: Recalibrating the Quiddity of Ambient Music
  6. Monty Adkins – Fragility, Noise, and Atmosphere in Ambient Music
  7. Lisa Colton – Channelling the Ecstasy Of Hildegard Von Bingen: “O Euchari” Remixed
  8. Justin Morey – Ambient House: “Little Fluffy Clouds” and the Sampler as Time Machine
  9. Axel Berndt – Adaptive Game Scoring with Ambient Music

Taken together, i believe they provide a fascinating and provocative investigation of what ambient is, how it works, and its wider implications, connotations and meanings for composers and listeners alike.

Published by The University of Huddersfield Press, the book is available as both a print edition (£30 from Gazelle Book Services and Amazon; currently only £26.70 from Wordery) and a free ebook download (PDF/EPUB/MOBI) from the Huddersfield University website.

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Kyle Bobby Dunn – From Here to Eternity

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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. Read more

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Free internet music: Wixel

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Wim Maesschalk, better known as Wixel, is a Belgian musician who originally set up the label Slaapwel Records, the aim of which, as that name implies, is to provide “music to fall asleep to”. In a way that tells you all you need to know about Wixel, though his music is capable of a whole lot more than just sending one to sleep. His output isn’t large, and for the most part consists of his ‘2009 Project’, a series of 12 mini-albums he released a decade ago, each one on the last day of the month. Though these releases weren’t put out by Slaapwel their connection to sleep is extremely strong, and indeed one of the things i find most fascinating about them is that they don’t merely sound designed to accompany that unique kind of somnolent whooziness, but in many cases sound as if they were actually created in that very state. What this means is that the music has a tendency to veer quite sharply between grabbing one’s attention and seeming completely disinterested in doing anything more than just lethargic rambling. Such a division as that sounds pretty close to Brian Eno’s ‘interesting/ignorable’ dichotomy, and indeed Maesschalk wrote the following in his introduction to the fourth album in the series, Slaapliedjes [Lullabies], with regard to the practice (and difficulties) of utilising processes to aid creativity:

Trying to make good music every day of the week can be quite frustrating. Especially because you know it is impossible to make 12 records full with excellent melodies and sounds. … Suddenly I had the idea to forget about melodies, about rhythm, about shaping sounds. The only thing that would determine these songs is the density of notes and the choice of the instruments. … The consequence is that all [the] songs are very different, yet they sound very alike. … They all look very very similar, but they’re all quite unique. … All [the] songs are also part of my idea about “slaapwel records” music. They shouldn’t carry too many stories, but should reside on the thin line between pretty and boring.

Read more

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Robert Scott Thompson – Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees, William Price – Rush Hour

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A couple of noteworthy albums of electronic music by US composers have found their way to me recently. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees by Robert Scott Thompson was released last year and pretty much tells you everything you need to know in that title. Aesthetically, the five pieces contained on this album are a melding of acousmatic and ambient, with some implied whiffs of new age, quasi-spiritual incense thrown in. On the one hand, there’s something rather dated about the timbral palette of these works – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to learn they were composed in the mid-1990s – but this isn’t necessarily an issue (indeed, of itself this could be regarded as appealing) and in any case the way the ambient outlook – which dominates overall – is fleshed out with acousmatic details makes this a negligible concern.

This ambient outlook manifests primarily at a structural level. Put simply, there’s a looseness to the structure of these pieces such that their moment-by-moment activity is more significant – or, at least, attracts more focus – than their long-term direction. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to say that many of them don’t have a clear overall sense of direction, and the extent to which this feels problematic varies from piece to piece. In the case of the title work, it is a problem; there’s a lot to enjoy – the mix of cimbalom- and bell-like pitches interspersed with soft bursts of turbulence, and particularly the way Thompson creates ‘melodies’ apparently from the noise of metallic friction – but due to its half-hour duration it ultimately comes to feel meandering and inconsequential, which for a work evidently seeking to tap into a certain meditative quality is pretty fatal. By contrast the 10-minute Magiae Naturalis really works; bringing to mind the earlier music of Adrian Moore, its ambient mindset is more potent playing out within a much shorter time-span. Read more

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Electric Spring/Ambient@40

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A quick, last-minute heads-up about Huddersfield University’s annual blow-out celebrating all things electronic, Electric Spring, which starts this evening and runs until Sunday. This year’s programme is typically diverse: Philip Thomas and Colin Frank will be performing works for piano, percussion and electronics, Freida Abtan will present a 21-minute audiovisual work “inspired by the logic of dream narrative”, while Rodrigo Costanzo, Brian Crabtree and Angela Guyton will explore improvised pieces, some of which involve dynamic lighting and video. The concerts are once again supplemented with opening acts, from Aaron Cassidy, Sam Gillies, Katy Gray and Owen Green, plus a couple of late-evening shindigs from the BaconJam collective and Sebastien Lavoie. As usual, it’s a mix of names i know and plenty i don’t, so it promises to be an exciting and unpredictable adventure. All concerts are free, and start at 7:30pm in Phipps Hall, in the Creative Arts Building. Full details on the Electric Spring website.

The Saturday evening concert ties in with the Ambient@40 conference, which runs from Friday to Saturday. The conference promises to be a fascinating investigation, with a multifaceted collection of papers and performances exploring ambient from aesthetic, strategic, influential and many other angles, topped off with a keynote from none other than Ocean of Sound author and Brian Eno collaborator David Toop. The Saturday evening concert features a variety of music connected in different ways to ambient, by Robert Mackay, Rupert Till, Kristina Wolfe, Szafranski duo, Tim Howle and myself. i’ll be presenting new live versions of two of my indeterminate works, February 12, 2013, which has not been heard before, and February 24, 2013, originally created for the Imperfect Forms Kenneth Kirschner ebook project. The full programme for the conference, including abstracts for all the papers and presentations, can be viewed on the Ambient@40 website.

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Free internet music: Altus

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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. Read more

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Ambient@40 conference

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Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, an album that established a manifesto, an aesthetic, an ideology and an archetype for ambient music. This is something i’m intending to celebrate and explore on 5:4 throughout 2018, but beyond this, i’m delighted to announce that at the end of next February there will be a conference devoted to ambient music, hosted by Huddersfield University, organised and chaired by Monty Adkins, Rupert Till and myself. The call for proposals was released yesterday, and the details are summarised below:


Ambient@40

Deadline: 17.00 (GMT), Friday 12th January 2018.

In the forty years since the release of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports the concept and aesthetics of ambient music have proliferated, influencing artists as diverse as Taylor Deupree, Steven Wilson, David Lynch and The Orb, infusing drone, microsound, minimalism and experimental electronic music as well as aspects of contemporary instrumental music. The aim of this two-day conference is to re-appraise ambient music in relation to Eno’s milestone release.

Ambient@40 will be hosted in the newly opened Oastler Building at the University of Huddersfield from Friday 23rd to Saturday 24th February. The programme committee invites proposals for:

a. individual papers (20 minute presentation with 10 minutes for questions and discussion);
b. performance and paper (10 minute per performance, 10 minute presentation with 10 minutes for questions).

The committee welcomes proposals from academics, independent scholars, research students and practitioners.

The conference will run alongside the Electric Spring Festival (www.electricspring.co.uk) and an evening concert on Saturday 24th February at the Festival will close the conference.

The program committee will also invite a selection of those giving papers to write them up in the months following the conference (deadline June 2018) as book chapters for publication in late 2018 / early 2019.

Submission and selection process

All proposals should be submitted to Prof. Monty Adkins (m.adkins@hud.ac.uk) by the deadline, Friday 12th January 2018 (17.00, GMT). Individual paper submissions should include an abstract (350 words) and an author biography (200 words). Performance and paper submissions should include a brief overview of the audio presentation including technical resources required (300 words), links to online samples of audio work, an abstract (350 words) and an author biography (200 words).

The committee aims to notify proposal authors of its decision by Friday 19th January 2018. Those selected will be asked to confirm their acceptance and technical setup. The full programme will be announced online and booking opened on Monday 22nd January 2018. The Ambient@40 conference registration fee will be £50 (£30 for students/concessions).

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