The ambient tradition: Steve Roden and the world of lowercase

by 5:4

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. Depending on your outlook – and, much more importantly, your ability and determination to engage with the material on its own terms – this is either maddeningly sluggish or wonderfully ambitious. i fall into the latter category; his work excites me very much, and while i find myself more often than not interested in its inner workings, it’s just as easy simply to let it wash all around me while i ignore its intricacies. Most definitely, this is music true to the ambient tradition.

A fair amount of Roden’s work is freely available online. Of these, an excellent starting place would be 9-Sided Room, a 27-minute composition created for Touch Radio, and available to download here. Its delicate but lavish texture is nothing short of a masterpiece, an incredible demonstration of how music within a sotto voce habitat can nonetheless be teeming with activity.

i’m still only beginning to scratch the surface of Roden’s releases, but a superb demonstration of exactly what lowercase music is all about is the hard-to-find Winter Couplet, created using just two tea cups as the sound sources. It’s excruciatingly delicate, the resultant material sounding as though it might shatter at any moment. Barely more substantial is Light Forms (Music For Light Bulbs And Churches); the second of its two tracks, “Bell Is The Truth (Berlin)”, sounds like the hugely magnified clicks and clunks of slow-turning cogs within some miniature clockwork mechanism, interspersed with soft chiming bells. and from Speak No More About The Leaves, i’m particularly fond of the second version of “Airria (Hanging Garden)”; a softly repeating 3-note bass motif overlaid with half-sung, half-whispered lyrics and oscillating glitchlets. and if you find you’re becoming as irresistibly drawn into the lowercase world as i am, why not try Roden’s 5-hour installation work Soundwalk; divided into five parts, it can be downloaded free from here.

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