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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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