ambient

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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Free internet music: Altus

Posted on by 5:4 in Free internet music, Thematic series | 4 Comments

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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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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