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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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Deerhoof: confounding & clever

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i detest the obsession to subdivide music into genres, and what excites me so much about Deerhoof’s music is that it’s absolutely impossible to pigeon-hole. i’ve seen them called “indie rock”, “post rock”, “avant rock” and “math rock”; but i don’t worry about such things, and choose rather to revel in some of the most confoundingly brilliant, unashamedly artistic and downright clever music i’ve heard in my life. There’s an omnipresent sense of anarchy lurking in their songs, the band often sounding as though they’re barely held in check by Satomi Matsuzaki’s simplistic vocals.

Their most recent album, Friend Opportunity, starts with “The Perfect Me”, the perfect album opener: fast, irregular, harmonically ambiguous, percussion everywhere; it’s also a perfect demonstration of Deerhoof’s approach to structure, veering between utterly different episodes with absolutely no attempt at smoothing over the joins. Play it loud, very loud! “+81″‘s opening trumpet fanfare shows a willingness to bring in unexpected instruments, which sound entirely at home; the middle portion of the song is them at their most obtuse harmonically, perhaps the most peculiar series of chords i’ve ever heard away from classical art music. Though i hate the term, Deerhoof exhibit a palpable ‘retro’ quality at times, and the opening of “Believe E.S.P.” is, dare i say it, the kind of thing one might expect to hear in a ’70s porn movie. But there’s nothing remotely embarrassing about it; it’s made to fit perfectly, melding among the laid-back percussion and dark guitar/electronic stings. Read more

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Ghosts drowning in supreme thunder: Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I–IV

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i was surprised to find, yesterday, that since 1 January, i had listened to 99 albums. It seemed all too fortunate then, that my 100th album of the year should be a brand new release from one of my favourite artists and, in my opinion, one of the very greatest creative minds in music today, Nine Inch Nails (the mind belongs to Trent Reznor, of course). Having been loosed from his record label bonds late last year, Reznor is leading the way in a new kind of thinking, in terms of music distribution. In interviews, and in the way his collaboration with Saul Williams was released last autumn, Reznor is clearly enthusiastic about new ways of delivering music to the fans.

His new album, released 2 days ago, is Ghosts I–IV [Halo 26], which comprises four 9-track EPs, each filled entirely with instrumental music. There’s a variety of ways in which the music can be obtained: the first EP, Ghosts I, can be downloaded free of charge; all four can be downloaded for $5 (barely £2.50 at today’s rates); a 2CD edition is available for $10; and, for the really keen, there are “deluxe” and “ultra deluxe” editions, with additional accoutrements. i opted for the 2CD edition which, since it isn’t released until April, entitled me to an immediate download in any format i chose – unsurprisingly, i opted for FLAC – which includes a large number of wallpapers and other graphics, plus a PDF file of the accompanying 40-page book (each track has its own, very beautiful, artwork). It’s not the first time i’ve encountered an artist including a digital download in the purchase of a CD (Björk began doing it recently), but it seems an idea that will probably catch on, since it both allows one to listen immediately, as well as providing the listener who wants it with a physical object. Read more

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Not Einstürzende Neubauten but Eingestürzt Altbauten: Belong

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One of the most immediately powerful and communicative images of our time is that of the ruin. Whether it’s something prosaic and dark, like a human suicide, or profound and vivid, like the remains of a cathedral, the effect is similar: we’re made aware of, and irresistably drawn into, something that projects its history upon us. and if the ruin makes for a striking image, it is capable of being an even more breathtaking artistic metaphor – the suicide images of Rachel Howard and the juxtaposition of the new Coventry Cathedral alongside its wrecked sibling are wonderful examples. While concepts such as deconstruction, entropy and collapse are all too common in contemporary music – a worrying fact, worthy of study – the very different concept of ruin is rarely explored. Belong is a duo from the United States who seek to do just that; their music is a few years old now, so it surprises me that more people haven’t encountered it (including me; i did only a few weeks ago). Read more

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Irrational Appendage (Extending)

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Back in the late autumn of 2005, when – in every sense – things were very much darker than they are now, i did perhaps the strangest music search i’ve ever done. Into Soulseek i idly typed the words “disjecta membra”, only half curious to see what it might find, expecting to see nothing; but a couple of moments later, one of the most remarkable track titles i’ve ever seen appeared: “A full desirous body, rendered disjecta membra through the application of dust pincher appliances”. Unable to resist a title as allusive as that, i downloaded it, and thus began my love of the music of irr. app. (ext.). Product of the feverish mind of american artist Matt Waldron, irr. app. (ext.) explores music in a surrealist, at times absurdist manner, juxtaposing the immediately identifiable and anecdotal with the obscure and almost arcane, combining field recordings with electronics. In a way not dissimilar from that of The Hafler Trio, image and text are an integral part of the sonic experience; Waldron is a talented visual artist, producing the dream-like visuals that drape his output. The texts are equally obtuse, bearing a sidewise relationship to the music and the images; indeed, it’s often unclear whether the accompanying words are designed to clarify and elaborate, or confuse and obfuscate. i like this lack of certainty, and find it makes the overall experience that bit more stimulating. Waldron’s experiences with record labels have not been terribly successful, with many planned releases delayed or cancelled; of the works that actually made it so far as to be released, most were released in relatively small quantities, and so are now out of print. It seems i discovered his work just in time to acquire everything before the copies ran out. As of 2008, things seem to be looking up, and a number of irr. app. (ext.) releases are scheduled for release this year. Read more

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