The Challenge of Articulating Abstract Music

Luigi Russolo - Music (1911)-1.jpg

I’ve read a number of texts on experimental and ambient musics, whether academic, philosophical, or critical, and have always admired when the author finds creative and insightful phrasings to discuss soundscapes where very little is happening on a superficial level. Sparse, minimal drone works are characteristically challenging to describe, so I take note when a journalist does an exceptional job at painting a conceptual, impressionistic image of a recording for those who might be curious to explore it, inspiring new listenership.

Kyle Gann published a fascinating mathematical examination of early minimalist music in his essay, Thankless Attempts at a Definition of Minimalism which provided many of the descriptors I incorporated in my personal response to the oft-posed question, “what kind of music do you like?” My general reply:

I particularly enjoy minimalist music – compositions which employ static harmony, quasi-geometric transformational linearity and repetition, gradual additive or permutational processes, phase-shifting, and static instrumentation. I am captivated by the metamusical properties which are revealed as a result of strictly carried-out processes. Many of these recordings explore non-Western concepts like pure tuning, (e.g. pure frequency ratios and resonant intervals outside the 12-pitch piano scale), unmetered melodies like those of Carnatic ragas, and drones.

As Roland Barthes describes, “…it is each sound one after the next that I listen to, not in syntagmatic extension, but in it’s raw and as though vertical signifying: by deconstructing itself, listening is externalized, it compels the subject to renounce his ‘inwardness.’” (Listening 259)

I’ll provide below a few examples of music criticism which exemplify this particular talent. Each inspired me to revisit the classic work they describe and rekindled my appreciation for the music. The first is an excerpt from Philip Sherburne’s recently contributed article published by Pitchfork on May 5th of this year celebrating Aphex Twin’s epic, Selected Ambient Works Volume II from 1994.

Then, as now, the first thing you become aware of with Selected Ambient Works Volume II is its purity, its starkness, its emptiness. There have been quieter records, more minimal records, more difficult records. But few have done so much with so little; few have shown less interest in being any more forthcoming than they are, in meeting the listener anywhere near halfway, in making the slightest attempt at articulating their own ambiguous emotional terrain. SAW II can be warm and it can be chilly; it can be sentimental and it can be forbidding, but it would be hard to call it expressive, exactly. A little like those samples of Mars’ terrain thought to contain evidence of amino acids but which turned out to be merely tainted with the sweat of some careless lab tech who didn’t pull his gloves on tight enough, Aphex Twin’s creation frequently seems only accidentally contaminated by human emotion. Whatever you feel when listening to it—well, that’s on you.

The album opens with a subtle tension: soft synth pads, the most basic, three-chord progression imaginable, cycling uneventfully round and round, while a breathy syllable—a voice, or something remarkably like one—bobs overhead, like a loosed balloon rapidly fading from view. Lilting harp accents turn to steel drums and back. The voice is detuned by just a few nearly imperceptible cents; the delay lags almost unnoticeably behind the beat. It’s a child’s lullaby turned queasy, a music box with a whiff of attic mold.

That tension—between disturbing and reassuring, trouble and calm, mutation and stasis—is the album’s defining characteristic. Across its 23 (or 24, 25, or 26, depending upon the format and edition) mostly untitled tracks, the balance tends to tip from one extreme to the other, like someone nervously shifting body weight from foot to foot. Some tracks, like #3 (known by fans as “Rhubarb”) are soft and consonant, welcoming as a well-kept lawn; others, like #4 (“Hankie”), with its bowed metal and whale-song laments, are deeply unsettling. The lilting chimes of #7 (“Curtains”) suggest a fairground populated only by tumbleweeds; the slow-motion grind and whirr of #22 (“Spots”) might be a chopped-and-screwed edit of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. #23 (“Tassels”), recorded on an EMS Synthi, one of the first synths the young artist ever bought, might come closest to James’ description of the album, in an interview with David Toop, as being like “standing in a power station on acid”: “Power stations are wicked. If you just stand in the middle of a really massive one … you get a really weird presence and you’ve got the hum. You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dream-like for me.”

The four tracks that open CD2 (both the US and UK editions; tracks #13-16 of the digital release) make for a particularly compelling stretch. “Blue Calx”—the only song to bear an official title, it originally appeared on the 1992 compilation The Philosophy of Sound and Machine, credited to Blue Calx—is surprisingly pretty, placid, dreamlike. #14 (“Parallel Stripes”) delicately balances the album’s most tactile tones—I imagine metal shavings dancing across a magnetic field—with a meandering hint of melody. The shuddering, clanging “#15 (“Shiny Metal Rods”) is a tumultuous counterbalance to the album’s gentlest passages, the closest James comes here to the jagged techno of his earlier singles. And #16 (“Grey Stripe”) is pure filtered white noise; it might be the dying breath of a distant star.

The other example is taken from David Stubbs’ 2018 examination of the history of electronic music titled, Mars By 1980:

Certainly, as a young man, I played my vinyl copy of Kontakte to friends as a sort of test, which I rather hoped they’d fail, enjoying a hollow and slightly pyrrhic feeling of superiority when they did. Even fellow music journalists regarded the music as a sub-Clangers farrago of sonic nonsense, cerebral snake oil perpetrated by mad Germans on po-faced, pseudo-intellectual dupes.

Some of them, though, have since come around, not least because the ubiquity of electronica and ambient has sophisticated the collective sound palate; or because of the undiminished capacity of the piece to astonish and impact. I’m playing it now as I type. In its deep background, a vastness murmurs; then, a sudden asteroid splash of concrète makes a crater in the cerebellum. Recessions, a nervous tinkle of percussion, a distant pulse like a receding spacecraft that, in a trompe l’oreille, is actually closing in. Pianistic anxiety. Serrated fragments of metal, ancient drones, sudden fresh, cold waves. Whiplash intensity, particles illuminated by explosive flashes. Rumbles and signals from alien sources, unpredictable and irregular, but which seem premeditated, operating on a higher plane of thought. Long-extinct stars flickering obscurely. Diagonal bursts of radiation. Sudden catastrophes whose immolation leaves no afterburn, just a void. Single piano notes, isolated and disconnected from their original keyboard context, lost in space. Growling electric currents like approaching waterborne reptiles, changing course at the last second. Decelerations, then another crash-landing, sidelights whirling. Moons spinning off their axes. Cosmic birdsong. Oscillations, impossible droplets, curlicues, sparks.

Coiling sine waves, slowing and rearing like aliens right up in your face, probing and examining you as you try to remain stock still. A more regular broadside of events, constructions of stone and metal floating at speed from all angles, against a backdrop whose indifference and omnipresence is represented by a wispy perma-drone. Sabre squabbles, multiple collisions, scorched aftermath; a laser bolt between the eyes, the scatter of cerebral matter. Untranslatable alien exclamations writ large in carbon tags. Fresh Big Bangs, new universes. Inconsequential clatter, like spinning coins coming to rest. A dance of percussion and piano, brief echoes of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître. Then, radioactive glitter in the eyes. An aluminium chorus, glass waves, siren calls, revolutions of light, varispeed. An ending, without resolution or arrival, whose fadeout merely indicates that we’ve been staring through the window at processes that are both permanent and infinite. (Stubbs 108-110)

These examples actively engage the reader and inspire listeners old and new to explore or to revisit the works they describe. I aspire to do the same with my journaling and to find novel and effective phrasings to articulate the beauty of the music I share. If just one listener develops an appreciation for a work because of something I’ve written, then all my efforts are worthwhile.

Russolo, Luigi, 1885-1947; Music
Luigi Russolo, Music, 1911