Music From The Warm Jets
07 Jun 95
THURSDAY AFTERNOON, Brian Eno (Editions EG EGCD-64; 60:56), 1985.
DREAMTIME RETURN, Steve Roach (Fortuna/Celestial Harmonies 18055-2; 127:44), 1988.
WORLD'S EDGE, Steve Roach (Celestial Harmonies 18057-2; 127:04), 1992.
THE DREAM CIRCLE, Steve Roach (Soundquest/Projekt LTD1 ; 73:59, or played indefinitely), 1995.
TRANCES / DRONES, Robert Rich (Extreme Special Editions XLTD001; 141:20), 1994.
YEARNING, Robert Rich and Lisa Moskow (Hearts of Space HS11050-2; 59:41), 1995.
THOUGHT TONES VOL 1-2, Kit Watkins (Linden Music LM2002, LM2005; 128;38), 1991, 1992.
SYMPHONIES OF THE PLANETS 1-5, NASA Voyager Recordings (Laserlight Digital 12-123, -124, -125, -126, -127; 154:49), 1990/1992.
PHAROS, Seti (Instinct Ambient AMB:001-2; 108:10), 1995.
TERRACE OF MEMORIES, Sam Rosenthal (Projekt PRO34; 42:35), 1992.
A SMOOTH SURFACE, A Produce (Trance Port Music TPT-103; 40:15), 1994.
SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, Original Soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (Virgin 7-91298-2; 29:43), 1989.
DEEP LISTENING, Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, Panaiotis (New Albion Records NA022; 63:15), 1989.
THE READY MADE BOOMERANG, Deep Listening Band (New Albion Records NA044; 56:04), 1991.
IN THE GREAT ABBEY OF CLEMENT VI, Stuart Dempster (New Albion Records NA013; 57:58), 1987.
EMBER GLANCE -- THE PERMANENCE OF MEMORY, David Sylvian (Virgin Records DSRM-1; 35:23), 1991.
THE PROMISES OF SILENCE, Various Artists (Projekt PRO41; 78:54), 1993.
"Are there any ambient CDs that I can play all night long?"
A friend of mine has a common dilemma. Living in the city, a rather crowded part of it, he's at the mercy of whatever racket happens to be occurring outside his door. Car honks, passersby, distant yells, thieves, dog barks, police sirens -- he hears it all, and it all keeps him from restful sleep. When he beds down near his large glass windows, in a room fronting the street, there's no escaping the intruding presence of an urban noise level that knows no rest, and so his rest is fitful and at the mercy of strangers.
He went down to the local Gee Whiz electronics boutique, and bought a little travel alarm clock/radio that produces digital reproductions of various ambient environments and sounds. It's the newest thing in white noise generators. In addition to a seascape (buoy bells, seagulls, waves) and a countryside (crickets, wind in the grass, roosters, cows), it can use any of a number of digital sounds to periodically enliven the environments (these same sounds can be used in lieu of the alarm's generic "beep," as well). The sounds are cleverly divided between two independently controlled sources: the ambient background environment, and the spontaneous individual sounds. (It's so impressive that I joked I'd make my next fortune by marketing a similar product to those (like myself) who'd retreated to the suburbs or countryside, featuring an authentic, digital Cityscape environment, complete with car honks, breaking glass, screaming drunks and gunshots.)
The device my friend brought home is neatly constructed and works well, but the speaker is way too weak, and the sounds repeat on a strict, 15 minute cycle, too brief to be convincing. (Who wants a rooster crowing 4 times an hour for the entire night?) After about an hour, he realized he was hearing ... an electronic device. Not good enough.
So, my friend asked me, are there any ambient or space music CDs that he could play all night long without driving him bonkers?
The Original Ambients
The question's an interesting one. There are hundreds of excellent titles in the ambient and space pantheon, but most consist of clear music, which is recognizable and will become discernible as music once it's been repeated a few times. Most of these works, though they may be long, just can't be played in a endless loop.
But a rare few can. And quite a few could be played in such a fashion without too jarring a transition. Brian Eno help jump-start the whole ambient music scene in the 1970s with his classic MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (Editions EG CAROL-1516-2), which consists of four extended selections that apparently have no beginning, no middle, no end. Although the album came out in the days of turntables and LPs, the advent of the CD now allows the listener to program one track, or an entire disc, to play in "repeat" mode. As the title infers, the music would make a marvelous, low-level background soundscape for the hustle and bustle of a modern airport. Since such early work, Eno and his colleagues produced the ON LAND series, and APOLLO, all of which are highly regarded ambient works.
About ten years after MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, Eno recorded THURSDAY AFTERNOON for a Sony video project, and the new CD technology allowed him a revolutionary opportunity: he could present a full 60 minute ambient piece without interruption. THURSDAY AFTERNOON remains an excellent choice for ambient music, its simplicity and elegance untouched by time. Even less structured than other ambient works, this album is a 60 minute visit to a shimmering, resonating environment where time stands still. I once came home with a massive headache, and listened to this CD through headphones, with all the lights down low. I immediately sunk into a deep trance, and awoke from my nap fully refreshed.
Eno released a CD of more recent works in this vein, THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY (Opal/Warner Bros. 9-45010-2; 1992). Though most of the pieces are only about five minutes (the blink of an eye in this genre), "Ikebukuro" runs about 16 minutes. After his varied work with U2, Devo and the Talking Heads, Eno once again proves that he's still capable of some of the most sophisticated ambient music, and with a personal signature that's unmistakably his.
The One Long Piece
A leader in the new generation of space music artists, Steve Roach, has contributed a couple of magnum opuses to the genre. I think Roach once said that the synthesizer is a folk instrument for the electronic age, and the evolution of his work could be said to be from humble beginnings in digital chips into organic sounds from around the world. A breakthrough album was DREAMTIME RETURN in 1988. Though there are no long-play ambient pieces here per se, the second disc contains two extended pieces available only on CD, and the 62 minute disc (DREAMTIME is over two hours total) gradually takes the listener on a journey into an alternate, acoustic reality. The summit of this suite is "Red Twilight With the Old Ones," an eerie section with the voices of chanting Aboriginals, calling out from the Dreamtime. Through countless listenings, this disc still startles me with its subdued, mystical strength.
Roach later made yet another contribution to this genre with WORLD'S EDGE, another two-disc set. The first disc is more aggressive and, like his work with the group Suspended Memories on Hearts of Space (FORGOTTEN GODS, HS-11034, and EARTH ISLAND, HS-11043), more evocative of a primal, alternate reality. Disc 2 takes an entirely different tack; "To the Threshold of Silence," is a 60 minute trip to a plateau of echoing stillness that transcends cultural reference. I once featured this selection alone as an edition of my public radio program, THE HARBINGER HOUR, and it made for a startling hour. "To the Threshold of Silence" is an important achievement in the realm of ambient music: it's an enveloping, bass-heavy effluvium of floating sound with minimal development, but nevertheless slowly shifts and changes, introducing rhythms and half-melodies as they approach from the distance. Wherein most ambient music has no beginning, no end, and just IS, Roach's music deftly takes the listener from Point A to Point B ... with specific impressions usually left up to the listener. The finales to these two double albums will create sonic atmospheres that are both distinct and universal. Other Roach releases, notably ORIGINS (Fortuna 17081-2 1993) and THE LOST PIECES (Rubicon RGBC 2311 1993) also feature extended, ambient tracks -- it's a form that he's comfortable and, at times, most adept at composing in.
In 1995, Roach released another endless track, this time specifically designed to be played in a loop. THE DREAM CIRCLE starts nowhere and ends nowhere, a repeating pulse of quiet energy that gives rise to random sounds, whistles and noises of objects in a vast chamber. Unlike "To the Threshold of Silence," THE DREAM CIRCLE has no development at all and, like THURSDAY AFTERNOON, simply creates an acoustic space to exist in.
Robert Rich has been involved with synthesized music since he first began building them as a kid. In the years since his first ambient compositions, he's worked with Steve Roach and others, to introduce new acoustic sensibilities (some from Indian, Indonesian and African traditions) to the realm of space music. His contributions to the new ambient music are impressive, and his "voice" is unmistakable. Recently, he collaborated with sarod player Lisa Moskow on YEARNING, a full-length etude that exploded the structure of the classical "alap" into a monumental introspection.
TRANCES/DRONES contains his first released work, "Sunyata," done in the early Eighties, when he was performing extended, improvised space music concerts to live audiences in Northern California. Although the Eastern influences were already working in his style, the three albums assembled here (with one previously unreleased track) reveal a more epic, impressionistic voice than any of his work since. Epic in the sense that the rhythms are measured in minutes rather than measures (his Sleep Concerts measured the cycles in hours), and the whole of the six, roughly half-hour pieces might only be appreciated when played by themselves, in the background. I've drifted off with Rich's music, and it's a deep sleep that comes with his music.
His gift, though, is not in the realm of strange, other-worldly electronic music, but in creating ambient music that combines electronics and acoustics to find a truer, organic sound. (He's fond of a certain effect he calls "glurp.") His skill with the bamboo flute, and command of Eastern musical traits, are evidenced here, and the subtle backdrop of live recordings of rain, frogs and a Mexican ocean lend the recordings a palpable fidelity -- however weird the sounds, the music feels real. For over two hours, these recordings exude a raw, thrumming energy that can fill a room, and extend beyond the walls.
Ascension To The Drone
These suites are similar to Kit Watkins' strange and beautiful THOUGHT TONES Vol. 1 & 2, two CDs which invoke images of a dense, sometimes menacing climate of sonic apocalypse. Where TRANCES/DRONES are lightening, THOUGHT TONES are all enveloping; where Rich's music effects airiness, Watkins' have weight. Abstract and throbbing, these remarkable synthetic soundscapes are more active than the serene drifting that this genre is known for. As the albums build intensity, the shimmering sounds become more active, and stronger moods appear and dissipate. The sound of the Thought Tones is initially dark and alien, but by the conclusion a sensation of light and wonder permeates the soundscape. Each Tone overlaps onto the next, forming a long, droning progression of sound.
For the budget-minded, there's a series of CDs based on digital data received from radio telescopes. Like the Thought Tones, THE SYMPHONIES OF THE PLANETS are amorphous and electric, but without Watkins' artful touch. These 5 suites rumble and shiver of their own, random volition; they're in the rough. Although Fiorella Terenzi uses this sort of material to assemble her own quirky compositions, this is the raw material, presented with minimal cleaning. This is not to say they're spastic: they're gentle and organic, coming from nowhere and going to the same place again. As background sound, they're ideal, since they're devoid of any earthly composer's hand. They're also a bargain, if you can find the set for $20 or less as I have.
In 1994, Taylor808 and Savvas Ysatis, as Seti, released a sprawling, narrative 2-CD set entitled PHAROS. Though it contains no extended, loopable ambient music, the entire work is a quiet, exploratory composition that takes the listener to a faraway place in our little universe. Using samples voices, and throbbing energy, both supported by minimalist melodies and segues, PHAROS is an understated rapture of radiotelescopy, and the faraway explorers who may be listening to our invitations. It's an excellent work.
For purer ambient music, Southern Californians Sam Rosenthal and A Produce have each released quiet, introspective albums. Rosenthal worked with Belgian composer Vidna Obmana to craft TERRACE OF MEMORIES, a subdued, gentle serenade of private music that looks further inward than most space music. Rosenthal's work with Black Tape For a Blue Girl, and other contemporary gothic groups, is of a characteristically personal nature, and this performance justly demonstrates that background. A Produce usually releases more involving, active music, like that on LAND OF A THOUSAND TRANCES or his recent retrospective WHITE SANDS, but the EP A SMOOTH SURFACE took three tracks from other works and stretched them out. Freed from the "album" context, the pieces unfurl leisurely, and the title cut becomes a perfect complement for Eno's THURSDAY AFTERNOON. This is some of Produce's best work.
In the same tradition of music that hangs in space, without developing, Cliff Martinez' soundtrack for Stephen Soderbergh's SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE continues to amaze me. Though the selections aren't long, the compositions are timeless. The overall feeling here is of a humid, lazy afternoon, with occasional insects buzzing in the distance. This music is some of the most evocative ambient music I've heard, though with absolutely minimal instrumentation that I can discern. Martinez delivers a synthetic fever dream like no other you've heard; it's a pity he didn't record more for this soundtrack.
Playing To The Space
The Pauline Oliveros classic "underground" ambient recording, DEEP LISTENING, is one of three CDs I took with me when I picked out my current array of hi-fi speakers (I settled on crystal clear Bose 401s, and still swear by them). The crystalline clarity of the CD and the material on it are not to be beaten for evaluating stereo setup.
Oliveros and her collaborators, trombonist Stuart Dempster and vocalist Panaiotis, descended into an abandoned, underground water cistern near Fort Worden, in Washington state, to record improvised (or "deep listening") music. The cistern is remarkable for a naturally occurring forty-five second reverberation that seems to travel around the chamber's circular wall, without any detectable "slap echo." The result: the musicians are able to play the space as a musical instrument itself, and the accordion, trombone, didjeridu and vocalizations take on eerie proportions. At first, you might not even recognize the instruments, as the cistern gives them new, sustained characteristics (and the excellent digital recording balances the two). Many contemporary musicians perform music of and about mystical places, but DEEP LISTENING is indeed an album recorded in ... and for ... a magical site. The extended tracks (one nearly half an hour) are unaffected snapshots of what it was to be in the cistern with the musicians as together they improvised and explored the ambient qualities of the cistern. A stranger, more perfect gem of an ambient recording you may never find.
The troupe returned to the cistern in 1991 for another recording, THE READY MADE BOOMERANG, but only three or four of the album's extended cuts live up to the initial synergy of the first release. The music and the musicianship was tip top, but the CD as a whole is less remarkable. Stuart Dempster also has a solo CD on New Albion, IN THE GREAT ABBEY OF CLEMENT VI, featuring two ambient recordings of trombone and didjeridu in a French abbey, and a taped feedback concepualization reminiscent of Robert Rich's "Resonance." The album's unusual but effective.
In this ambient world, the musicians who pay the highest tribute to acoustic nature may not be those who play to an environment, but actually mimic an environment. Like Eno's deconstructed works before, David Sylvian recorded an half-hour piece that was to hang in the air at an "installation" in Japan. EMBER GLANCE, the CD that accompanies the book about the sculptural and architectural work o which Sylvian collaborated, is a strange, muted piece that plays notes almost at random, as if he were strolling through a room full of bells and strings, brushing up against them as he looked for a forgotten object. Alio Die and others go further on Projekt's THE PROMISES OF SILENCE -- the musicians take the music to a place where the music is pared down to sounds of water and found objects, spontaneously chiming in the darkness. Though the album has a definite progression (and includes some remarkable work by each of the contributors), as an ambient work it comes closest to recreating a parallel environment.
Which, if you're trying to distract yourself from the present, noisy environment, is all that an ambient work can hope to do.
-- D.B. Spalding
A self-described multicareerist, D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, independent radio producer, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia.
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