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

More Minimal Ambient Classics

A visit to the legendary Bop Shop in my old home town of Rochester, NY yielded two delightful surprise acquisitions. The first was one of the three of Harold Budd’s 1970s and 80s classic output missing from my vinyl collection – Abandoned Cities. (I now need only The Pavilion of Dreams and The White Arcades to complete my collection.)

Harold Budd - Abandoned Cities

The other was an equally unexpected but similarly important work of early ambient music – a German import from Grönland Records combining two classic recordings of Can’s co-founder, Holger Czukay with the great David Sylvian.

Plight & Premonition / Flux & Mutability is a double reissue and remaster of their late-80s collaborations experimenting with abstract ambient soundscapes which are sparse, sombre, and atmospheric. Pitchfork contributor Robert Ham remarked that these recordings laid “the groundwork for years of ambient music that would follow.”

David Sylvian & Hogler Czukay - Plight & Premonition and Flux & Mutability

“Each feature two long instrumental works built around drones from a synthesizer or guitar interrupted by random shortwave-radio intrusions and occasionally disorienting tape edits.”

The first disc, Plight & Premonition, originally released in March of 1988, comprises drones of harmonium, synthesizer, piano, and guitar. The second disc, Flux & Mutability followed in 1989. Allmusic describes its ambience as “deep, expansive atmospheres with eerie samples and vacuous walls of sound” and calls the album “an important selection for fans of electronic minimalism.”

Both the Budd classic and this new remaster from Grönland are exquisite additions to my library of pioneering early ambient music. My next ambition is to secure a copy of the Editions EG 1981 reissue of Budd’s debut on Eno’s magnificent Obscure Records label in 1978. The Pavilion of Dreams is ethereal, holy, and exquisitely beautiful and has been a long-standing favorite recording of mine in the realm of the genre’s origins.

George Winston Live in Concert: Music for Contemplative Solitude

Given my predilection for 20th century classical, ambient, and drone music I seldom have the opportunity to experience my favorite artists performing live as few visit the States, (or in many cases they stopped breathing many years ago). So when I learned that George Winston, legend and icon of Ackerman’s Windham Hill record label was offering a concert performance in my fair city I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

For the few of my readers yet unfamiliar with Winston’s beautiful music, on his website he describes his style as “rural folk piano.” Rateyourmusic.com tags him as Neoclassical New Age, Christmas Music, Modern Classical, and Jazz and employs descriptors including, “pastoral, peaceful, passionate,” and “bittersweet.”

Winston has two primary concert themes – a Summer Show and a Winter Show, each showcasing selections from his catalog related to those seasons. This week I had the pleasure of attending The Summer Show which was a treat as I’d previously gravitated toward his autumnal and wintery early recordings like his certified triple-platinum 1982 classic, December. This concert offered fresh, new content from one of my favorite pianists in an intimate live setting. And intimate it was, indeed! Only twenty or so rows of folding chairs were set up immediately in front of the stage and there were but two hundred in attendance and I was honored to be among them.

Initially I’d wondered if the experience would be a drowsy evening of so-called new age key-plinking, but it was nothing of the sort. Winston live would never be mistaken for a Steve Roach sleep concert – even at 70 and in his health condition Winston was lively, spirited, bursting with zestful energy, and his performances were dynamic and varied tremendously as he transformed from interpreting one musical period or performer to the next.

The performance featured not only standards from his early Windham Hill repertoire but also Winston’s own stylistic interpretations of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz, the classic stride-piano technique of numerous New Orleans R&B pianists like Henry Butler, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and John Cleary, Hawaiian Slack Key solo guitar, (a unique fingerstyle tradition of the island), and Winston’s distinctive harmonica stylings as well.

For Christmas of 2013, Jay Gabler penned an incredibly thorough feature on Winston published by Classical MPR. The article summarizes the Winston concert experience so effectively that little more needs to be said so I will encourage my readers to visit his full original write-up. But a few of his key remarks really touch upon what I appreciated specifically about this concert experience so I’ll share a few excerpts.

One particularly captivating number was “Muted Dream,” from his latest 2017 effort, Spring Carousel – A Cancer Research Benefit, which sounded like a prepared piano composition. (George manipulates the strings inside the piano during the piece.) Gabler describes the technique thusly:

Winston acknowledged the influence of towering minimalist composer Steve Reich; in a Cage-ian flourish, Winston sometimes reaches inside the piano to mute the strings as he plays. Winston also shares the interest of minimalist composers — and, by extension, ambient musicians such as Brian Eno — in crossing the boundaries of genre to grab rhythmic ideas from jazz, from pop, and from international musical traditions.

And regarding the fascinating slack-key style:

Winston is a practitioner, fan, and preservationist of guitar music played in the Hawaiian slack-key tradition; with its open tuning and alternating-bass pattern, the slack-key style is just the kind of thing that might interest 20th-century musical adventurers from John Adams to Sonic Youth.

Of Winston’s harmonica playing, Gabler notes:

Harmonica is yet another of George Winston’s musical interests; he offered a sample of his technique at the Fitzgerald, and his approach is fascinating. As Winston plays, he effects rapid dynamic changes; he doesn’t sound like Larry Adler or Little Walter so much as he sounds like a Steve Reich tape loop in which a snippet of sound is played over and over again at different pitches and tempos, creating a hypnotic effect that can be disrupted by sudden stops, starts, and reversals.

But my favorite segment of the feature is Gabler’s summary of Winston’s characteristic and trademark sound:

Winston’s music sounds distinctly urban, with its smooth sonorities and delicate textures, but it evokes a sense of the rural and the vernacular in its sense of suspended time, of burbling placidity that flows like a brook rather than marching like a fugue.

Quite poetic! For those musicians among my readers curious about Winston’s choice in instruments, the Summer Show program included the following information:

Instruments:

Piano: George Winston plays Steinway pianos

Guitar: Martin D – 35 (1966) with a low 7th string added

Harmonica: combining Hohner Big Rivers with key of low D Cross Harp reed plates

Winston has released fourteen solo piano albums, as well as four benefit EPs and five soundtracks, and the concert inspired me to venture further beyond my familiarity with his early Windham classics to explore his complete catalog.

It was equally wonderful to experience him playing early staples like the hauntingly captivating and magical “Woods” from his very first Windham Hill release, Autumn (1980) and “Variations on the Kanon” (by Pachelbel) from December live, up close, and personal. He closed with a Doors cover, as featured on his album, Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors released in 2002, and for his encore concluded with a charming traditional fiddle tune, “Sandy River Belle.”

It was a concert to remember, and instantly became one of my favorite live music experiences. An RYM user described Winston’s music as that of “contemplative solitude” and it was precisely the medicinal music I needed at this transitional time in my life. Thank you, George.

The Sound of Homecoming: The Complete Collaborations of Harold Budd and John Foxx

2018 has been a year of great personal development and growth, and as such, I’ve found myself time and again seeking warm, familiar tonalities rather than venturing into the unfamiliar and novel territories I’d explored in the years prior. I found it comforting to revisit long-standing favorite composers who created a sense of returning home each time I revisited their catalogs. That is precisely what made this latest discovery such a joy for me at this point in my life.

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Harold Budd is unquestionably one of the foremost veterans in the field of ambient composition. His trademark soft-pedal technique is instantly captivating and calming, and while he may not be breaking any new ground in the genre, that’s not what his listeners are seeking. Budd commands a mastery of his craft seldom matched in his field, and he’s consistently delivered quality contemplative soundscapes for nearly fifty years.

At 81 years of age, Harold Budd has shown no sign of slowing down. He’s collaborated with numerous artists, including Brian Eno, Robin Guthrie, The Cocteau Twins, Clive Wright, Eraldo Bernocchi, Bill Nelson, Andy Partridge, Daniel Lentz, Fila Brazilla, & U2. Budd retired briefly in 2005 but quickly returned to composition and released ten more albums and this magnificent new acquisition in the years that followed. I’d always wanted a vinyl keepsake of Budd’s music, but much of his catalog was limited to compact disc, including the Budd Box seven-disc set. That what made this discovery an exciting addition to my library.

From the original VinylFactory announcement in September:

Translucence, Drift Music and Nighthawks are being released on limited edition 3xLP by Demon Music for the first time.

Translucence / Drift Music is a 2003 double studio album from ex-Ultravox frontman John Foxx and ambient composer Harold Budd. Minimalist composer Ruben Garcia joined the duo to feature on their third album Nighthawks.

The triple vinyl package also features artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the graphic designer who created the Grammy-winning art for David Bowie’s Blackstar.

This box set features the complete Budd/Foxx recordings – seminal collaborations of the ambient genre. Nighthawks is dedicated to Garcia, who sadly passed away in 2013. At the announcement of the box set, Popmatters.com noted that, at the album’s 142-minute runtime, you’re going to need a lot of candles. They called the set, “lovely and provocative” with occasional chromatics and discord. “The City Stops for Snow” was described as “painting a picture of urban stillness” with its interplay of tiny overtones over top the many sustains and echoes.

This is the first time these recordings have been available on vinyl, and Demon Records did an exquisite job. The discs are 180g heavyweight vinyl, housed in a rigid slipcase. This release also comes with a limited print signed by John Foxx.

Harold Budd & John Foxx - Translucence Drift Music Nighthawks Box Set

Rateyourmusic user, dvd offered some valuable insight about the impact of this music on the listener:

It is very strange: after I listen I find it really difficult to recall any more specific details of the music itself. … The music is so transparent, like there is nothing to grab onto, and it just sort of drifts in and out on the edge of consciousness on its own. Maybe this is not a bad thing for ambient music, and likely part of what the creators were going for based on the title(s). For all its subtleties, the music still feels like it has some power over my mental state, as if it puts me in sort of a weird trance: something that’s vaguely serene and beautiful.

Paste Magazine shared similar remarks about the tranquil calm of this set, calling it “almost unbearably beautiful.” The impressionistic nature of the soundscapes was described as evoking images of “silhouettes of birds cutting across an early evening sky or slowly floating on a quiet, still body of water” and “tramping through a blanket of white on a quiet boulevard.” This is precisely the sort of contemplative music which brings me that feeling of homecoming.

I discovered Budd’s compositions early in my musical journey, initially through his collaborations with Brian Eno. The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror were albums I instantly knew I needed to have on vinyl, and they were followed shortly thereafter by an original pressing of his critically-acclaimed collaboration with Cocteau Twins for The Moon and The Melodies. But other than the aforementioned titles and a pressing of The Serpent in Quicksilver, I’d never been able to find a release on vinyl that truly felt like it celebrated and showcased Budd’s best work. And sadly the Budd Box has only been issued on CD. So imagine my excitement at discovering this recently-issued collection of the complete Budd & Foxx recordings!

Mike Powell of Pitchfork fittingly described Harold Budd’s characteristic sound as existing “in that misty place between ambient, new age, and minimalist composition, where everything is gentle and nothing lasts for long.” Powell described Budd’s quietly recognizable style as “intimate and intuitive; fragile but warm; seductive but just a little bit mysterious, like the soft tinkling of a presence in the next room.”

But perhaps the most fitting description comes from the set’s designer Jonathan Barnbrook who explains:

These are pieces that I return to again and again. Separate from his (John Foxx) more electronic work, they have a humanity and serenity that only comes with a great musician working in collaboration with others greats in an empathetic, understanding style. The music has a delicate, reflective quality – of human beings that have lived life and realise the beauty of it all, the joy and the suffering. They ask us to stop and consider, and that despite it all we should never desire to change a moment of it.

TheQuietus published a wonderful interview with John Foxx at the launch of this box set. His remarks revealed much about the albums’ composition and his thoughts about their collaboration. Foxx stated that he, “especially wanted to extend the harmonics of the piano strings resonance and sonic decay and use that as a live, real-time expansion of the sound.“ He went so far as to call Budd “a modern-day Satie.”

And describing the production process, Foxx said:

We also used another completely unique property of recording – reversed time. By reversing sounds and recording reverbs, then playing them forward and applying further layers of reverberation, you can enrich the already extended harmonics. You also have the miracle of reverberations moving simultaneously forward and backwards in time, and a truly complex interplay and texture going on between them. We took all this layering and multiplying as far as we possibly could, while still observing the delicacy and emotional tone of the pieces. All you have to do is listen and feel.

Allmusic.com summarized Budd’s sound as “distinctively dreamy, often extraordinary and occasionally ominous” and likens his technique to that of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Budd’s slowly morphing reverberant and shimmering atmospherics certainly have an impressionistic quality, and the parallels drawn to these greats are not inapt.

To those who might precipitously dismiss these works as simple new age music, I’d offer this closing remark from The Brighton Festival’s Guy Morley who said, “I think the impact of Harold is yet to be realised. Tonally, Harold has always come from a very deep and instinctive place. You don’t need a degree in composition. Its simplicity belies its originality.”

By any measure, this box set is a fantastic keepsake for anyone who enjoys the godfathers of ambient music.

Tracklist:

LP 1 / Translucence

1.Subtext
2.Spoken Roses
3.Momentary Architecture
4.Adult
5. Long Light
6. A Change In The Weather
7. Here And Now
8. Almost Overlooked
9. Implicit
10. Raindust
11.Missing Person
12. You Again

LP 2 / Drift Music

1. Sunlit Silhouette
2. The Other Room
3. Some Way Through All The Cities
4. Stepping Sideways
5 A Delicate Romance
6. Linger
7. Curtains Blowing
8. Weather Patterns
9. Coming Into Focus
10. After All This Time
11. Someone Almost There
12. Resonant Frequency
13. Avenue Of Trees
14. Underwater Flowers
15. Arriving

LP 3 / Nighthawks

1. Down A Windy Street
2. Now That I’ve Forgotten You
3. The Invisible Man
4. Fugitive Desire
5. From Then To Now
6. When The City Stops For Snow
7. The Shadow Of Her Former Self
8. Music For Swimmers
9. Lovedust
10. Nighthawks