The ambient tradition: John Hudak and the infinitesimal writ large

by 5:4

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.

It may seem questionable that i place pieces like these in the “ambient tradition”. But i think they are one of the most perfect marriages of “interest” and “ignorability” that i’ve ever come across, a conviction set in stone when, very recently, i read an interview with Hudak where he said the following, “Now, I consider a piece successful if it has the ability to act as background, but can poke into the foreground if someone listens attentively enough. I like to listen to music while doing other things, so this is part of what goes into my thinking when I’m making a new composition…can I listen to it for a long time without getting bored…does it hold my attention, and can it be ignored as well?”. It’s nothing less than a paraphrase of Eno’s original statement, and confirmation of what one hears in the music. Nonetheless, both these releases may be a bit extreme for listeners new to this kind of approach to sound, and music of less unfamiliar appearance can be found on Brooklyn Bridge. Again, the work lives up to its simple title; Hudak has recorded the vibrations of the bridge at various points, and created four meditative tracks from this most unlikely source. These contain some of his most beautiful work, from the muffled throbs of track 1 through the hollow wind-like drones of track 3 to the fragile high whispertones of track 4 (track 2 is the odd one out, surprisingly unengaging by contrast, and rather annoyingly nasal). It’s as though he’s managed to give a voice to this majestic, inanimate thing, and in the process reveal something (if i may be forgiven the anthropomorphism) of its very soul. There’s an overwhelmingly forlorn quality to the music, an epic weariness that is very moving.

These, i think, serve as an adequate introduction to John Hudak’s work; however, i can’t resist mentioning Don’t Worry About Anything, I’ll Talk To You Tomorrow. These words were spoken by Hudak’s mother-in-law on an answerphone message; shortly afterward, she died. Created in the wake of her death, the work takes this fragment of speech and stretches it out, seemingly, to infinity. There’s something powerfully immediate in this piece, something i recognise from my own encounters with bereavement and grief: both the attempt to take the ruins of one’s memories and make them last forever, as well as the felt need to examine and scrutinise every tiny aspect of these last vestiges of the loved one, now lost. It lasts just under an hour, but really the piece needs to be limitless; perhaps it’s best to think of it as a relatively brief “window” into a vast landscape of tattered recollections and shattered hopes.

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