There are so many compilations of electronically or classically tinged ambient music appearing these days, many of them for free, that it would be reasonable to wonder: why should I pay particular attention to this one? Let me answer that in two ways.
If you are already familiar with the recent outpouring of music that melds electronic, found sound, and classical elements into gentle, emotionally evocative instrumental vignettes, then there is a fairly simple answer to the question. You should get this one because you already know about the rewards to be found in giving yourself to the music of Marsen Jules, Talvihorros, Danny Norbury, Lawrence English, Konntinent, Pjusk, offthesky, Field Rotation, Ian Hawgood, and the like. Each of these, together with a few perhaps less familiar names, offers a strong contribution here; it’s an album full of very enjoyable pieces from folk who know what they are doing. You also already know that Hibernate and Audio Gourmet, the labels collaborating on this release, have a strong pedigree in this area and aren’t going to waste your time. In sum, if you like this genre, this is one of the good ones.
If the above names mean little to you, and you are a newcomer to the genre, this album would serve very well as an entry point. It showcases a representative range of approaches, and they are sequenced wisely, beginning with material that most will find tuneful and gradually moving to slightly more challenging sounds. If you’re open to exploring a little, here’s what I suggest you should do.
First, give yourself a quiet hour with a beverage of your choice, and give yourself permission to slow down and let go of hurry. This is not music for jogging, or for listening to in traffic. You could play it in the background while working, and it will cooperate, but you won’t really hear it that way. It’s designed for your full attention. Find some good headphones. Listen with slow ears. Ready?
Marsen Jules will ease you in with a gentle opener prettily built around warm acoustic guitar sounds. Get used to the idea that there will be no hooks; you are listening for overtones, moods, textures. As the somewhat less gentle Talvihorros track arrives, watch the plucked notes flutter from one ear to the other as a rhythmic sea-swell of noise flows and ebbs in the background, gradually surging like an incoming tide to fill the stage. Notice how those plucked strings gradually fade and change tone and change pace, and how the more solemn low and high notes that begin to accompany them add a sense of forward-moving narrative to the repeating patterns. Now that you’re thinking in terms of stories, listen to how Midori Hirano uses a steadily repeating piano figure as a stable frame against which the slightly uncanny wobbliness of the electronic accents stands out. Notice the interruptions of the plaintive cello by rattles and what sound like labored intakes of breath, and how these hint at a hidden narrative, perhaps some lost soul wandering the halls of an ancient house, enveloped in mourning.
Ponder how the next three tracks fit together. In the first, by The Frozen Vaults, listen to how the strings both yearn and flutter, drawing the ear upward and beyond their stuttering arc, how the piano gently answers, then adds subtle drama, how the bass drone grounds the whole, keeping that yearning and fluttering earthbound, like an injured bird flapping to rise then resting. Notice how we slowly withdraw from the scene without resolution, leaving the outcome still in question. Compare this to the more conventional cello track by Danny Norbury, with its beautiful melancholy – what is gained and lost by its comparative simplicity of palette, by the smoother lines? What gives it its emotional power? Then add the Rudi Arapahoe piece that follows, noting how it sets up a tension between a deep background rumble and a pure vocal tone that begins to gesture upwards like those strings in the Frozen Vaults piece – is the effect the same, or subtly different? Listen to how the piano does not simply begin, but erupts out of a subtle swell of noise as the voices echo away, and then notice how the tone becomes more melancholy, and how that reframes the voice sound, its rise now expressing a more tear-stained yearning. Listen to the voice’s range of utterances unfold and diverge, without ever resolving into words, keeping the piece in constant motion. Focus on how in the end the strings are left to mourn alone. Three tracks, each working with strings, with mood, with melancholy – yet painting in slightly different colors.
And then a shift of mood and of approach, with two brighter tracks that make do without melody lines at all. Stop listening for musical storylines and imagine yourself sitting in a clearing, with interesting small sounds at play around you, bright like leaves after rain, like shining from shook foil. Federico Durand and Quinn Walker explore the particular kind of beauty that can be found in such non-linear collections of tiny notes – notice the gentle tensions and how they achieve a kind of sparkle without clear pattern or rhythm. Notice how the tone changes as a cloud crosses the sun and, in Pawn’s track, the environment turns a shade bleaker.
Let Lawrence English change the direction again, this time into meandering drones. Instead of searching for the melody, ask yourself, have you ever heard that precise sound before? What does it remind you of? If it doesn’t have a name, or an instrument that you can place, how would you describe its quality? What is it expressing or evoking? If it were the cry of a creature, what would it be singing? If it were the aroma of a wine, what hints of flavor would you be finding? Can you hear different layers shifting within the single sound? At what moments does it sound more like an organ, like brass, like strings, like voices, like a siren? Where exactly do the transitions occur? Keep those questions going as Field Rotation takes us into “Early Morning Mist” – how do these looming tones evoke mist? Why would it have been wrong to call this track “sunrise”? What is the mist hiding – something good or something you’d rather stayed hidden?
With nature images now in play, ask yourself how you might paint an image of a pond (Vannspeil, “pond” in Norwegian, is the title of the Pjusk track) if you had to do so using only sound. Listen for the wind, for the movement of the water’s surface, and its refractions of light. Notice how an oscillating gust of faint noise is punctuated by stuttering interruptions, how this creates an underlying rhythm for the track without using percussion, formed instead from a kind of audible absence, the faint rush of something passing. Listen to the layers, the background hum, the slowly modulating notes, the higher chirps and echoes, the crunches, how together they create mood and motion. Listen for how the background fuzz is still there when you thought it was gone because other sounds had crowded your ear. Listen for how the mood shifts, wonder what kind of water this is, in what kind of landscape.
And then back to the drones, the tracks built from pure texture and densely layered sound. The final tracks, by offthesky, Konntinent, Noir, and Ian Hawgood all fall to varying degrees in this category. Again, these might at first seem rather static. Imagine yourself looking out of a window at a garden. What color are the trees, the bushes, the grass, the plants? Green. The same green? Look closer. How many greens are there? How interesting would the view be if your eyes were content to just register all of them as standard green? Tune your ears for the same task. How do these textures shift and change color? Which one sounds stressed, which one sounds distant, which one sounds saturated, which is heard through a haze? When do they swell and ebb? Where do gusts, rises, and descents add drama and mystery? What musical mood is created by each shade and movement?
Your journey is for the moment completed. You have spent time in the company of gentle guitar strums and the howling of imaginary wind tunnels, plaintive cello and the chirp of field recordings, evocations of nature and abstract sound patterns, gentle pianos and insistent drones. Each track opens into further worlds to explore – these artists all have a back catalog of equally intriguing recordings, and Audio Gourmet and Hibernate are excellent places to explore further (much of Audio Gourmet’s output is free). But first come back for another listen, and see what has shifted, deepened. This is music best attended to closely. It is good music because it rewards careful listening and unfolds itself to attentive ears, sparking images, stories, questions, contrasts, moods. It can slow you down and tune you in to a place where there is more than one green. Book some more time with it at bandcamp.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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