Every month, noted song expert K. Ross Hoffman presents Now Hear This, a sampling of fresh specimens for your consideration.
Last year, in my final installment of Now Hear This over at PhillyVoice, I inaugurated what I’ll now establish as an annual tradition: a column dedicated to the wide, unobtrusive world of ambient music. Ambient is always around us, but the winter is an especially good time for it. No other genre better evokes (or soundtracks) the placid, frosty stillness and/or the glowing, contented, indoorsy warmth that represent the season’s great duality.
Accordingly, there’s been a bumper crop of worthy ambient-leaning releases in the past month or so. Just to name a few, in addition to those I’ll feature below: an intriguing, formally innovative modular drone experiment by the always worthwhile Eluvium; a pair of reissues from indie favorites The Album Leaf; a gorgeous new set of swirling, marimba-heavy instrumental chamber-pop from Thor and Friends; an enjoyable record of ambient-adjacent electronic burblings from Coupler, a.k.a. Lambchop’s Ryan Norris, and a massively acclaimed left-turn into stark ambient purism by the habitually eclectic producer Bibio – whose work I typically enjoy, but which in this instance leaves me persistently, inscrutably cold.
While it can be highly conducive to thinking in general, and to a surprisingly wide range of emotion, ambient can be strange music to ponder too much or too deeply or (especially) to try to assess in words. For the most part, it doesn’t really have songs per se – more than most genres, it tends to thrives in long-form expressions – and thus, more than usual, the tracks I’m featuring below are proffered as representatives of their parent albums as much as for consideration on their own merits. But hopefully we’ll at least get a nice, leisurely relaxing-time playlist out of the bargain – sequenced on a loose trajectory from busier / more unsettling to calmer / more soothing material.
As always, you can stream it all here via this handy-dandy Spotify playlist (which also contains all the music featured in previous months, plus a few bonus selections):
By the way – this seems like an appropriate opportunity to mention one of my favorite holiday-season musical traditions, which just so happens to be taking place TONIGHT in South Philly: Unsilent Night is a piece by the New York composer Phil Kline which has been called a “participatory sound sculpture” and “a luminous soundscape played by the audience on boomboxes carried through city streets.” I’d also describe it a sort of ambient-music Christmas caroling. For many Decembers, it was convened locally in and around Rittenhouse by the new music group Relâche; more recently the mantle has been taken up by South Philly’s Mallory Politz, who’s inviting folks to join her at 7p.m. tonight at the Singing Fountain on Passyunk Ave. (Facebook event is here.) Highly recommended!
1. Gas – “Narkopop 8” (from Narkopop)
There aren’t a lot of “event” releases in the ambient world, but the first album in seventeen years by this much-venerated alias of Wolfgang Voigt – the polyvalent Cologne producer and co-founder of Kompakt (which is now up to the eighteenth annual installment in its long-running Pop Ambient series) – certainly qualifies. Album title notwithstanding, there’s not very much that’s pop about this ambient. This is weird, dark, nightmare-inducing stuff, as dense and overgrown as the primeval German forests that inspired it – but equally redolent of post-industrial decay as of the natural world at its most alien and remote. Or maybe it foreshadows an inevitable, post-human intertwining of the two, much as it blurs the normally clear lines between serenity and foreboding. The album’s eighth untitled track is perhaps its most dread-steeped, a numbing churn of shifting drone and hissing static engulfing a cavernous, deeply submerged kick drum (the only vestigial link to Voigt’s more typical dub techno output), against which a queasy miasma of orchestral samples unfurls its futile strands of haunted, disembodied melody.
While Narkopop came out back in April, it feels fitting that Voigt has waited until the long dark nights of December to grace us with a clutch of performances on these shores, including his first-ever Philadelphia engagement. GAS performs at Union Transfer next Monday, December 18th.
2. The Caretaker – “Libet Delay” (from Everywhere at the End of Time – Stage Three)
As of this fall, James Leyland Kirby has reached the midpoint of one of the most singular, compelling and profoundly poignant conceptual musical works…well…within memory. Building on the premise of his breathtaking 2011 release An Empty Bliss Beyond This World – an impressionistic exploration of the effects of Alzheimer’s-induced memory loss, created through subtle manipulation of crackly old ballroom-jazz 78s – and expanding it to the broadest scope imaginable, Everywhere at the End of Time comprises a proposed six full-length albums, released at six-month intervals, charting the progressive phases of dementia. Stage three, representing “some of the last coherent memories before confusion fully rolls in and the grey mists form and fade away,” is the last installment before we plunge into “post-awareness” in the project’s final three chapters – wherein, Kirby promises, “anything can and will happen” – and it’s easily the most haunting volume thus far. It’s also in some ways perhaps the least “ambient,” in a functional sense, especially early on, as still-discernible melodies and recordings recycled from earlier in Kirby’s output return in heavily, sometimes jaggedly warped and phantasmagoric fashion. By this penultimate track, though, we’re clearly veering ever closer to pure abstraction – toward a sonic space that might be just as arresting and transportive with or without an understanding of its theoretical conceit – with the source material slowed down, decayed, dissolved and attenuated almost beyond the point of recognition.
3. Pauline Anna Strom – “Energies” (from Trans-Millennia Music)
These are fascinating times for fans of cosmic, ruminative psychedelia – especially those with a sense of historical curiosity – what with the break-down of the culturally biased, discriminatory and essentially meaningless demarcations between ambient music and “new age,” and a burgeoning interest in progressive electronic synthesis of all sorts. Following releases from pioneering head-trippers like Craig Leon, Ariel Kalma and Suzanne Ciani, RVNG Intl. is at it again with the first-ever compilation (indeed, the first wide release of any sort) from this hitherto little-known blind, San Francisco-based composer, collating tracks from the seven albums she released between 1982 and ’88. It’s pretty darn out-there stuff (even without digging into the heady conceptual/spiritual framework underpinning it all) – but it’s also astonishingly accessible. Take this nugget from her 1982 full-length Trans-Millennia Consort: a constellation of woozy but twinkling melodies and fabulously tactile blurps, bearing a rather elliptical relationship to the steady yet inscrutable rhythmic pulse underneath; the whole business is disorienting in a decidedly charming fashion.
4. Bitchin Bajas – “Angels and Demons at Play” (from Bajas Fresh)
This Chicago trio are sort of like the merry pranksters of contemporary ambient music. They’ve figured out how to make a little levity – much of it merely a matter of presentation – go a long way toward reinvigorating a sometimes overly solemn, humorless genre, while remaining essential faithful to its core musical principles. They put on an entirely delightful performance this past Friday at the West Philly house venue Sound Hole, surprisingly dynamic and engaging while at the same time fully zoned out. This selection from their largely synth-centric new long-player, the inevitably titled Bajas Fresh, was a highlight of the set, eliciting the comment from founding Baja Cooper Crain that it was “a fun one to play in Philly, in particular.” He didn’t specify why – perhaps a little cryptically – but presumably it’s because it’s a cover of a tune by our very own Sun Ra Arkestra, originally recorded in 1960. The Bajas rendition is an inspired reinvention, taking the original’s swinging 5/4 groove at a more moderate, meandering clip, translating the bassline into a kosmiche-style synth ostinato, and actually beefing up the flute parts, giving the whole affair a vaguely Zenlike, Asian-inflected flavor.
5. Peter Broderick – “If I Were A Runway Model” (from All Together Now)
When indie music types talk about “modern classical,” they tend to mean a certain style of contemporary composition – exemplified by folks like Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran and Nils Frahm – that draws from minimalism, impressionism, romanticism and, not least, film music, prioritizing “beauty” and emotional evocation, and featuring generally consonant, agreeable tonalities and timbres rather than anything more challenging or even mildly avant-garde. Which is to say, “classical music” that functions more or less like ambient music. Oregonian composer/songwriter Peter Broderick fits in with this school – his label, Erased Tapes, is one of its primary exponents – but he’s a bit wilier than most, veering at times into quirky folk and pop material (as on this year’s delightfully oddball collaboration with David Allred, All The Ways.) All Together Now, a collection of bespoke and unreleased pieces from the past decade, offers a charming overview of his trick-bag. Indeed, this warm, winsome keynote selection – so titled because it was originally intended (but never used) to soundtrack a fashion show – shows considerable breadth all by itself. Across its unhurried twelve minute runtime, Broderick (who performs all the sounds himself, with ample loop-pedal assistance) meanders from a one-man a cappella chorale to a lovely, lively circular figure for piano and soaring strings, to a sort of hushed, fragmentary quasi-pop-song, to a bit of rippling, ruminative keyboard work, and then back again.
6. Penguin Cafe Orchestra – “Vega” (from Union Cafe)
The roots of “modern classical,” as sketched above, probably have as much to do with the work of these eminently likable pioneers of the uncategorizable as with the more obvious likes of say, Glass or Satie; in any case, they were certainly a crucial link in the development of the aesthetic. Earlier this month – coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of founder Simon Jeffes’ untimely passing – Erased Tapes gave the group’s fifth and final studio album, 1993’s Union Cafe, its first-ever vinyl release. Among the album’s many treasures (and perhaps the clearest case in point) is this expansive, elegantly light-hearted highlight, which cycles through a considerable array of instrumental textures, harmonies and melodies all over a continuous piano figure. It’s got to be one of the most nimble, fluid septuple-meter works ever created.
7. Martyn Heyne – “Fårö” (from Electric Intervals)
This German guitarist/composer has collaborated with Broderick (among other things, both have logged time as members of the Danish post-rock outfit Efterklang) as well as the aforementioned Frahm (who’ll be in Philly in March; more on him some other time) and O’Halloran – so we’re clearly in a similar traffic pattern to the past few tracks. But the music on Heyne’s instant-winner full-length debut, Electric Intervals, is something quite distinct: solitary, spacious, meticulously performed and recorded without feeling fussy at all. The crisp, pin-prick technique and gorgeously resonant tone of Heyne’s guitar work call to mind, variously, fellow-travelers like Mark McGuire, Land Observations’ James Brooks and the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly – guitarists more interested in the abstract architecture of sound and space than in evoking any sort of vernacular tradition – but always in service to strong, resonant melodies, as on this tender standout named for a Swedish island.
8. ensemble, et al. – “Minbalism” (from The Slow Reveal)
These Brooklynites have clear ties to the contemporary classical world as well – they began life as a percussion quartet in NYC’s new music scene, and their debut EP featured reworkings of Arvo Pärt as well as the ambient musician Goldmund – but their current incarnation hews closer to the parallel (and equally problematic) but distinct rubric of post-rock. Their neatest trick may be splitting the difference between post-rock’s jazzier, headier, more experimental side (á la Tortoise, most obviously – and not just because, being a percussion quartet, there’s an awful lot of vibes and marimbas involved; it’s probably also relevant that John McEntire produced their record) and the more dramatic, emotive, crescendo-oriented side best exemplified by Explosions in the Sky. This cut gradually builds up a stunning, swirling, highly technical (or, perhaps, math-rocky) interlocking groove that calls to mind the early minimalists’ interest in Balinese gamelan music (the track’s title references both minimalism and the name of the studio where they recorded – they’ve sure got a way with dorky names) and is at once hypnotic and hyperactive. Ultimately, of course, nothing can forestall the inevitable, eponymous “slow reveal” – of muscular, crashing, cathartic rock drums, naturally – but they hold it off valiantly for a good long while. By the way, this is also the most Christmassy inclusion on this list. (Anybody else getting “Carol of the Bells” vibes?)
9. Gyða Valtysdottir – “Vision” (from Epicycle)
As we’ve seen, the relationship between ambient and classical music – whatever that even means anymore – can be a complicated and multi-faceted one. This pedigreed multi-instrumentalist and founding member of Icelandic folktronic/IDM pixies múm (who, incidentally, will be playing Philly in February), approaches it from a fairly unique tack on her debut solo release Epicycle, which, while undeniably art music as opposed to ambient per se, does offer several moments of profound tranquility and rumination. The album features her arrangements, or “recloakings,” of works ranging from the Seikilos epitaph (the oldest-known musical composition, preserved on a two-thousand-year-old Hellenistic stele – Valtysdottir adds bagpipes) and a Hildegard von Bingen hymn to 20th century pieces by Messiaen, Harry Partch and (local luminary) George Crumb. It opens with this take on a piano piece by Prokofiev, which uses unorthodox, reverb-doused recording technique, a dramatically exaggerated interpretation of the tempo marking (lentemente, i.e “slowly”) and subtle touches of Moog from collaborator Shazad Ismaily to surprising and quite magical effect.
10. Aris Kindt – “Seagraves” (from Swann and Odette)
How about some good old-fashioned ambient techno? Francis Harris is reliable purveyor of warm, immersive, surpassingly beautiful music, much of it somewhere between the realms of ambient and deep house. This collaboration with guitarist Gabe Hedrick is his most fully ambient outlet – the bulk of their Proustian sophomore outing, Swann and Odette, is entirely beatless. (The duo take their name from a cadaver, painted by Rembrandt, referenced in the W.G. Sebald novel that inspired their debut; The Caretaker, notably, has also produced work influenced by Sebald.) When they do introduce a rhythmic pulse to the proceedings, as on this quietly majestic, thrumming highlight, the effect is not so much to raise the energy level as to cast their lush, shoegazey textural washes into even more lucid, crystalline relief.
11. Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno – “Idea of Order at Kyson Point” (from Finding Shore)
Brian Eno, still the de-facto figurehead of ambient music after all these years – he possibly/probably invented it with Discreet Music in ’75, and named it with Ambient 1 (which turns 40 in a couple of months) – started off 2017 with an iconically minimal new album, Reflection, released on new year’s day. And he’s wrapping it up with a new collaborative project – released last Friday – with the British pianist Tom Rogerson. Rogerson’s (improvised) playing generated all of the tonal (and rhythmic) content on the album, with a nifty setup of infrared sensors on the piano keys triggering Eno’s Moogs and enabling him to imbue the results with a wide assortment of synthetic timbres. This allows for a surprisingly active and diverse yet broadly cohesive whole – intended, like so much good art out, to evoke something sentimental about the English countryside – although the album’s best moments tend to be those with the least going on. Here, in its opening moments, Eno renders Rogerson’s initial, softly searching two-finger exploration in brittle glassy chimes before allowing the piano its full resonant voice for a fleeting, billowing swirl of Keith Jarrett-like density.
12. Marcus Fischer – “Veering” (from Loss)
Listen. This, really, is what I want from ambient. Music that creates a space, and then leaves it open. That doesn’t coax you to enter its world, but merely invites – or more simply, equanimously, permits, yours to coexist with it. Liberation from the constant, subconscious tension and release of rhythmic frameworks, harmonic progressions, melodic lines that only point in one direction. Patience yielding to detachment yielding to content. My favorite ambient recording, The Marmalade Balloon by The Mico Nonet, has been described as akin to “listening to an orchestra warming up for half an hour”; in one sense it is sonically, informationally dense music – it consists of five musicians improvising concurrently for more or less its entire length – but the information never really coheres to any discernible logic or pattern, and the effect is to erase any semblance of a frame of reference, even nullifying the sense of time altogether. “Veering,” like the rest of Marcus Fischer’s Loss – the first solo full-length album in five years from a Portland, OR-based artist previously unknown to me – functions in similar ways. Listening to it in one way, there’s a lot going on – drones flow and ebb, wobble and shift; a soft, guitar-like twinge returns at imprecise intervals; scuffs and scrapes maintain a steady dribbling, tactile counterpoint. Listen another way, there’s virtually nothing there. Neither is the “right” way. These sounds don’t need to be explained or interpreted. There is no should.
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