ambient

Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden III

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It all began with a trilogy. This was back in 2005 when, over the course of three successive years Irish musical entity Fovea Hex (singer Clodagh Simonds, together with a changing rostrum of collaborators) put out the trio of EPs – Bloom, Huge and Allure – that would become collectively known as Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. An album in all but name, each part of the trilogy was accompanied by an additional disc where the music had been extensively remixed by The Hafler Trio. Following this there was a four-year wait until their only actual album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, was released in 2011, again with an accompanying disc of remixes (titled Three Beams) by Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. After which a further five years would pass before their most recent, even more slow-to-emerge, trilogy The Salt Garden, the third and final part of which has recently – finally! – been released.

It’s worth taking a moment just to reflect on two significant aspects of all this. First is the group’s disinterest (for the most part) in more conventional contemporary release practices. i described Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent as an album in all but name, yet at a risk of contradicting myself the fact is that it wasn’t, and isn’t, an album, but – to borrow a phrase from The Hafler Trio – a ‘trilogy in three parts’. There’s something rather old-school about it, not unlike like the main practice during the 1990s in which, due to the popularity of the relatively new CD medium, instead of releasing bog standard singles, artists would instead put out dual maxi-singles, one disc of which typically featured three or four songs, the other disc a collection of remixes. Taken together, the two discs would often last as long (if not longer) than an album, and being able to spend time with a cluster of songs that were then reworked was always an enormously enjoyable listening experience. Read more

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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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Monty Adkins – Shadows and Reflections

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An interesting aspect of what i’ve been calling ‘steady statism‘ is the relationship it has with the idea of stasis. What is a musical stasis? Considering that music unfolds in time, isn’t it an oxymoronic idea? Furthermore, is such a hypothetical stasis intentional (objective) or perceptional (subjective) – or both? When writing about Markus Reuter’s Falling for Ascension, i remarked about one of the fundamental characteristics of steady statism: behavioural stasis, where the music changes over time but its underlying mode of operation – the compositional processes that lead to the musical material – remains essentially static, a system out of which musical outcomes emerge. More recently, i’ve been reflecting on the other kind, perceptional stases, where the emphasis is on extreme stillness of utterance, which may or may not be (or appear to be) the product of a behavioural stasis.

A striking example of this can be heard on Monty AdkinsShadows and Reflections, released a couple of months ago on the Crónica label. This album was one i’d been anticipating for a while; Adkins spoke about it briefly during the Dialogue we recorded together in the spring, explaining how it was inspired in part by the process of painter Gerhard Richter:

…it’s the way in which he chooses certain types of colours on his squeegee, and then draws them very slowly down the canvas. So one of the things i’ve been working on recently is how you could actually compose very short fragments of material and then slow them down, and then, as he does, layer them on top of one another. So i’ve just finished a long, 40-minute piece, and that piece is made up of six three-minute pieces, and what I did was slow those pieces down, just as Richter would take very specific parts of the paint, and then slowly draw those across and add extra layers on the canvas. So that piece was drawn out of the technique of his paintings. [… It has] no gesture in it at all, which is quite unusual for me […] it does go somewhere but it’s pushing that to the absolute extreme: out of forty minutes, the main thing happens at thirty-two minutes. And I find, [when] you get to that point, there’s almost a sense of ecstasy.

This latter aspect is a familiar Adkins trope, one i’ve remarked upon numerous times previously, where the timing of a gesture or sound is not merely pivotal but transformative, making one reappraise much if not all that went before. But my anticipation for Shadows and Reflections was particularly piqued by the idea of it being essentially bereft of gesture, suggesting an altogether more ‘flat’ sonic journey. Read more

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Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden II

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It’s high time i flagged up one of the standout new releases i’ve been spending time with over the summer. Whenever Irish experimental electronic folk group Fovea Hex put out something new, it’s not just a cause to rejoice but a guarantee of something unique and indescribably wonderful. They’ve been around for 12 years now, though their attitude to releases during this time has been measured and meticulous: just one album has emerged so far, Here Is Where We Used To Sing (reviewed here, and one of my Best Albums of 2011) and a collection of EPs and singles.

The earliest of these EPs, painstakingly drip-fed over an 18-month period from late 2005 to mid-2007, formed the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, comprising Bloom, Huge and Allure. The tenth anniversary of this trilogy’s release in a gorgeous limited edition box set, supplemented with three bonus discs containing reworkings of the material by The Hafler Trio, was just last month. Before getting to their new music, i should say something about this trilogy, as it ranks among the most genuinely astounding, epiphanic music i’ve ever encountered. Had 5:4 existed in 2007, i would have bent the rules and made it my album of the year. In describing them as ‘experimental electronic folk’, i’m perhaps obviously struggling to articulate where exactly Fovea Hex most comfortably fit. Folk is surely the group’s most defining feature – spearheaded by the unaffected natural beauty of Clodagh Simonds’ voice – yet the complexity of the soundworlds that are woven around her voice encompass experimental electronics, field recordings and ambient music (Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Colin Potter were among those involved in the trilogy’s creation). Where the ’60s expanded folk music into ‘electric folk‘, Fovea Hex exploded it into ‘electronic folk’, and on Bloom, Huge and Allure, this found expression in a sequence of songs and interludes that, ten years on, continue to resonate with sheer authenticity, laden with echoes of the past while its entire demeanour is ultra-modern, with infinite sonic scope. Though long sold out, the trilogy is available via Bandcamp, and while this lacks the dazzling additional Hafler Trio meditations – the last of which lasts an entire hour – it nonetheless stands as one of the most significant and radical musical landmarks of the 2000s. Read more

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Mixtape #27 : Drone

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It’s 1 July, so here’s the new mixtape, focusing on the intense genre of drone. Drone music suffers the same kind of malaise as more generalised ambient music—immobility and drift as tacet apologias for a dearth of imagination and subtlety of ideas. But these 21 tracks offer an insight into something altogether more profound, plumbing the depths of immobility and stasis, teasing out faint, furtive tendrils of exotica. They represent a broad sonic palette, in terms of colour, dynamic and texture, incorporating elements from dark ambient and noise as well as more experimental electronics.

In all, two hours of droning wonder; here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, and the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, and connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy and imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she and Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon and exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging and blushing of colours and motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another and allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect and are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

Read more

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New CD out today – Night Liminal

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i’m delighted to announce that today sees the release of my latest CD, Night Liminal. Here’s a bit of blurb from the spiel:

For the last four years, my electronic music has been to a large extent founded upon noise. Whether sculpting large, primordial shapes from it (Triptych, May/July 2009), pitting it against pitched material (the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars) or allowing it to do its own thing (Simulated Music), noise has been the principal vehicle for my electronic music. Even in my most gentle work (The Stuff of Memories), noise has been present, colouring and caking the music in sonic detritus.

Night Liminal is different. Lasting a little under forty minutes, the work is a stark contrast to these intense noisescapes, signalling both a return to and a reclamation of my æsthetic roots, embracing the quietude of ambient music. For the first time, the material is gentle, soft-edged and peaceful—even relaxing. That, at least, is its first impression; but the work’s inspiration is more subtle and ambivalent than that. Night Liminal is partly inspired by the ancient monastic service of Compline, which takes place as day is ending. Both the service and its setting confront head-on the perils heralded by twilight.

Being in a sacred space at dusk is a profound and paradoxical experience, comforting yet unsettling. One is caught between light and darkness, between the vast expanse of tradition and the contemporary mystery of the moment. The night can be a dangerous and uncharted place; my hope is that this music can become an integral part of the gloaming, teasing out and resonating with both its delights and its uncertainties in a gentle act of provocation and peace.

Provocation may seem incongruous in the context of ambient music, but Night Liminal’s soft, slow-moving textures echo this; warm and melodic, sometimes dark and disquieting, they afford the listener a dual experience of rest and reflection.

Night Liminal is dedicated to the memory of Jehan Alain.

As usual, the CD is a limited edition of 50 numbered copies; to order a copy, go here.

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Navigating the sounds of the cosmos

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It’s been with no little excitement that i’ve watched the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars this week. Astronomy has been a back-burner interest of mine since i was a boy and, not surprisingly, i’ve been especially fond of the sound recordings produced by NASA from the data received by Voyagers I and II as they’ve travelled through and beyond the solar system. So i was intrigued last year to see an independent release of something called Voyager: Sounds of the Cosmos, a large-scale compilation of these NASA recordings, made available in three versions of increasing length, titled ‘Grand Tour Edition’, ‘Standard Edition’ and ‘Legacy Edition’ respectively. However, as i’ve spent more time with it, i couldn’t shake the feeling i’d heard these before, so i did some elementary investigating. It turns out—and the compiler, one Philip Graham (aka RazorEye), admits this on the Wikipedia page—that the compilation is a bootleg of earlier NASA releases, some of which are still readily available. However, new track titles have been invented and there’s also a bit of duplicity and misguidedness going on, so for the benefit of others who love these sounds as much as i do, i thought i’d just flag up the facts regarding this material, in order to make an informed choice possible. Read more

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Richard Ginns – Sea Change

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Nostalgia is a curious and dangerous thing. Its essential condition – memorialising past events, beautifying them into an idealised rendition of the original – is a kind of historical plastic surgery, and its prevalence in contemporary culture shows no sign of abating. At its best, in the realm of the hauntological, it can become a sharp, incisive exploration of half-remembered memories, in the process losing the pretence that nostalgia, unwittingly but unerringly, inflicts on its subject. At its worst, in the realm of Hipstamatic and the neo-Polaroid, it becomes a cosmetic conceit, a wistful yet phony affectation, positing the notion that things were better or more lovely ‘once upon a time’.

Richard Ginns’ Sea Change exists somewhere between these poles, although more at the Hipstamatic end of the continuum (the artwork features precisely this kind of imagery). Ginns acknowledges that his foray into “the memory of childhood visits to the seaside” is “completely personal”, and that truth presents a further difficulty emanating from nostalgia: in some ways it is so utterly personal that one can barely hope to engage without resorting to nostalgia of our own, making for a rather diffuse, even faintly solipsistic kind of empathy. This crystallises in Ginns’ hope that such imagery “produces a sensation of fondness and memory”; notwithstanding the fact that ‘memory’ isn’t a sensation, the kind of ‘fondness’ of which he speaks is, again, entirely personal, and he cannot rely on the fact that, merely by presenting the listener with ostensibly loaded material, we will instinctively relate to it and be drawn into his memories as though they were our own. Artistically, as anywhere else, nostalgia is indeed a curious and dangerous thing. Read more

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Mind-bogglingly beautiful: Fovea Hex – Here Is Where We Used To Sing

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Clodagh Simonds likes to take her time. Following an early spell of musical incandescence in the late ’60s and early ’70s (in her own group, the fascinating prog folk outfit Mellow Candle), the Irish singer was content to hover in the fringes for three and half decades before taking centre stage again in 2005. But even then, her return was a gradual one; in a new guise, Fovea Hex, Simonds took a further three years to unveil a one-hour cycle of music, titled Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. But what music it was! the nine tracks—released as three EPs: Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007)—did nothing less than reinvent from the bottom up the notions of what song is and can be. This was no irreverant act of avant-garde ruthlessness, however; Simonds’ folk leanings (and they are only leanings; she has repeatedly stated that she neither thinks of herself as a folk singer, nor does she feel part of a tradition)—despite their proximity in an apparently alien context—were loudly and proudly proclaimed seemingly at every moment. It was, in short, an almost incredible blending of ancient and modern ideas, an enterprise made all the more successful and telling by the contributions of such figures as Brian Eno, Colin Potter, Carter Burwell and The Hafler Trio‘s Andrew M. McKenzie, who also mesmerisingly reworked each EP for an accompanying CD series.

That choice of title, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, could not have been chosen more wisely; it encapsulates perfectly the paradox confronting the listener in Fovea Hex’s music. On the one hand, as already stated, the folk elements are emphatically foregrounded, and folk music is at its heart communal music, not to be sat back and listened to, thought about and critiqued; on the contrary, it invites our participation, we are compelled to join in, to speak. Yet equally emphatic is a profound sense of ritual—not exactly a religious sense, it’s more diffuse and unfocused than that, but nonetheless a potent, perhaps pagan forcefulness that invokes a rather different kind of response. Rituals are communal acts too, of course, but participation here has more ebb and flow; at times, whether by rubrics or by our inner sense of the numinous, we are compelled to be silent. This unique, magical paradox has returned in dazzling fashion on Fovea Hex’s new album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, released last month. Read more

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Aidan Baker – Lost in the Rat Maze

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There will be some who regard Aidan Baker as not just an important part of post-rock, ambient doom music, but as a sine qua non of that scene, perhaps even the benchmark by which its practitioners should be measured and judged. Such is his perceived importance to many, and the sheer scale of his output (Discogs lists no fewer than 93 solo releases, including this one) makes for an intimidating testament to the breadth and abundance of his creative imagination. Size isn’t everything, of course, and it often follows that, the more prolific the artist, the more inconsistent is the quality of their work. Furthermore, it’s interesting how the overwhelming amount of music Baker has created through the last decade serves as both an aid and a hindrance when approaching new releases – we know, broadly speaking, what to expect; equally, we never quite know what we’re going to hear. There are few artists about which that could be said; Aidan Baker’s work is nothing if not enigmatic. Read more

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Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

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If there’s one thing that characterises Tim Hecker’s music, it’s a spirit of dichotomy, sitting comfortably betwixt smooth, rounded ambient edges and jagged points of noise. Ravedeath, 1972 continues that dichotomy, and embodies another one, combining the effervescent caprice of live improvisation with the cool consideration subsequently brought to bear on it in the studio.

From the outset, this album makes it clear that noise is going to be the order of the day. First track ‘The Piano Drop’ – presumably named for the curious event on the cover – unveils material pushed into overload, although it’s neither harsh nor forbidding, bludgeoning the ears with all the force of a pillow fight. Its spinning surface quickly erodes away due to its own constriction into a more shimmering, pulsating kind of object, that seems to fade rather too quickly (i could happily have listened to this develop for a lot longer). Read more

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Ironomi – Sketch

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While stereotypes abound when discussing music emanating from the east, an acute sensitivity to the machinations and subtleties of nature seems to be an unmistakable, almost ubiquitous characteristic. This, complimented by a profound kind of simplicity, sets such music apart from the preoccupations of the west, which so often gravitate to extremes, either abounding in cerebral filigree or playing around in frothy, superficial nonsense.

For the last few years, Japanese duo Ironomi (いろのみ) have been exploring their own response to the world around them, with a particular interest in the seasons. Pianist Junya Yanagidaira is invariably found in the foreground, generating a seemingly eternal stream of improvisations; at the fringes is Yu Isobe, using his laptop to weave impossibly delicate and restrained contexts for the piano. Despite the prevalence of the piano in contemporary ambient music, their combined approach is a distinctive and somewhat unusual one, demonstrated to good effect on a cluster of releases, of which Recode (2008) is arguably the most assured. Read more

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Celer – Brittle, Fountain Glider, Poulaine

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My admiration for the music of Celer has grown seemingly exponentially since my first encounter with their work last year, in the form of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann (subsequently highly-placed in my Best Albums of 2008). The retrospective/obituary that i wrote back in July was a first attempt to say something meaningful about their illustrious output, although i was and remain acutely aware that it barely scratched the surface. In the three months that have passed since that fateful time, as many full-length albums have been released, with yet more announced and coming soon.

All three assume Celer’s most demanding shape, lengthy solitary tracks, the first of which, Brittle, is the longest of all, its single span lasting over 74 minutes. Its title is complemented by the track’s title of ‘Eustress’, a word that embodies the opposite of ‘distress’, referring to forms of stress from which we obtain positive effects. A short essay accompanies the CD, explicating Celer’s intentions in bringing these two evocative words, ‘brittle’ and ‘eustress’ together. And it’s extremely tempting, reading the words that refer to their aim “to demonstrate a feeling of continuation through what sometimes seems like a fragile existence”, immediately to draw connections to Dani Baquet-Long’s sudden death; but this music was obviously made before her passing, and while at the moment it cannot fail to be heard in the wake of that tragedy, it would be a facile mistake to allow that to obfuscate the music contained in Brittle, still less to define it. Celer’s music has sufficient depth and substance to stand on its own two feet, without the need for imposed emotional crutches, despite how keen one may be to impose them; i prefer to allow the music to communicate on its own terms. Read more

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