Reflective Music – Learning How To Listen All Over Again

It began with a revisitation to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns? album. Headphones fit cozily around my ears, I’d decided to disappear from my office environment one Sunday afternoon and explore the more thoughtful headspace afforded by Feldman’s tranquil piano melodies. I was instantly transported, and the record prepared me for some reflective and solemn music to while away the hours at my desk. Resultantly, I soon found myself compiling a list of essential listening I was keen to either revisit or to explore for the first time in the spirit of that mood.

Rothko Chapel

Morton Feldman – Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns?

The list would be a survey of key recordings of German ambient music both classic and contemporary. Berliner ambient essentials including:

  • Nils Frahm – Wintermusik and the post-minimalist Felt LP
  • Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds collaborative work, Trance Frendz
  • British-German composer Max Richter’s 8.5-hour post-minimal ambient opus, Sleep, as well as his critically-acclaimed Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks LPs
  • Thomas Köner (a member of Porter Ricks and Kontakt der Jünglinge) – Permafrost
  • Cluster & Eno’s self-titled 1977 album recorded in Cologne
  • Eno/Moebius/Roedelius – After the Heat, featuring the haunting album-closers, “The Belldog”  and “Tzima N’Arki”  
  • Alva Noto – Xerrox Vols I & II (the sound of desolation, itself)
  • Highlights from Wolfgang Voigt’s recordings under the Gas moniker – Pop, Königsforst, Zauberberg, and his triumphant latest effort, Narkopop
  • Popol Vuh’s choral classic, Hosianna Mantra
  • Klaus Schulze’s space music debut epic, Irrlicht from 1972
  • Hans Zimmer’s score to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
  • Favorites from Tangerine Dream – the albums Zeit and Phaedra
  • And for a taste of ambient darkjazz, Bohren & der Club of Gore’s Black Earth LP

I was awestruck by the listening experience of the first three recordings, so much in fact that I remained with them for the duration of the week. I spent days and nights immersed in Richter’s Sleep, never tiring of the fundamentally succinct central theme which carries throughout the entire opus. And even now, six days later, I am still reveling in the gentle elegance of Frahm and Arnalds’ pastoral melodies.

But more importantly, I found that I was not engaging these works as I had so often approached 20th-century music. I confess that I’ve routinely engaged recordings in an overtly-academic fashion. I obsessed over structure, form, and socio-cultural context. I preoccupied my mind with where each composition fell in relationship to the artist’s other works. I examined music so critically, that I failed to experience it emotionally.

There were notable exceptions to this standard – particularly those ambient recordings I chose to engage through music meditation. When consuming specific works of consequence for the first time, (and again thereafter if they became beloved favorites), I would don my circumaural cans, swaddle myself in blankets, extinguish all lamps, lay still in bed, and let the music fill me. The most recent album to receive this treatment was Brian Eno’s monumentally intimate album, The Ship from 2016.

What I found so arresting about these contemporary releases from the top of my list was that they explored the ambient genre differently than by their vintage predecessors. I quickly surveyed the albums and discovered that I had developed an affinity for post-minimalism. Borne of a reactionary movement to the impersonality of minimalist works in the 1960s, these artists aimed to resolve minimalism’s often cold and over-intellectual nature by introducing more expressive qualities, often evoking the body and aspects of sexuality. The resulting works are intimately affecting, soothing, and serene with more organic sonic textures than the mechanics of traditional minimalism.

It was that very quality which inspired in me such a novel and emotional response. Frahm’s Felt LP exquisitely embraced these organic elements, captured in its unique compositional process.

Felt.jpg

From the ErasedTapes label’s website:

Having recorded his last album live in a large, reverberant church, Nils Frahm now invites you to put on your headphones and dive into a world of microscopic and delicate sounds – so intimate that you could be sitting beside him.

Recorded late at night in the reflective solitude and silence of his studio in Berlin, Frahm uncovers a new sound and source of inspiration within these peaceful moments:

Originally I wanted to do my neighbours a favour by damping the sound of my piano. If I want to play piano during the quiet of the night, the only respectful way is by layering thick felt in front of the strings and using very gentle fingers. It was then that I discovered that my piano sounds beautiful with the damper.

Captivated by this sonic exposition, he placed the microphones so deep inside the piano that they were almost touching the strings. This brought a host of external sounds to the recordings which most producers would try their hardest to hide:

I hear myself breathing and panting, the scraping sound of the piano’s action and the creaking of my wooden floorboards – all equally as loud as the music. The music becomes a contingency, a chance, an accident within all this rustling. My heart opens and I wonder what exactly it is that makes me feel so happy.

It is his emphasis of those very sounds, which in traditional recording would be trimmed away as nuisance rather than beauty, which make Felt such an intimate and captivating listen. To quote a card from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck – “Emphasise the flaws.” I found myself holding my breath so as not to miss the curious “non-musical” sounds present in the recording. I permitted the music to create a space for pure experience, rather than considered analysis, which I found immeasurably rewarding and satisfying.

And it is that exemption from quantification – the absence of left-brained cognitive study which freed my mind to just enjoy the music.

I don’t feel compelled to pore over academic texts examining post-minimalism. I feel no urge to read critical papers from music journalists on the merit or inferiority of works of this musical category. I just want to experience it. And that is wonderful.

 

The sound of a kick drum… miles away… buried deep within the earth.

Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas Box 10LP +4CD set has just arrived. Of Voigt’s countless one-off side project monikers, it is his work as Gas which has gained the most critical acclaim. And for good reason – this is some of the finest dark ambient minimal techno you could ever hope to find. And after sixteen years of various abridged and modified reissues, Voigt has presented the albums Zauberberg, Königsforst, and Pop in their entirety, along with a bonus disc featuring “Tal 90”, (previously released in Various – Pop Ambient 2002) and “Oktember B” from the Oktember EP from 1999.

Gas 01.JPG

The set is housed in a sturdy slipcase with embossed jackets for each release. The discs are contained in glossy black paper sleeves with GAS logo printed on both sides. The accompanying hardcover 12″ x 12″ art book with digital images of the Königsforst also contains four CDs of the music from the set.

Inspired by Voigt’s youthful LSD experiences in the Königsforst (a German forest situated near his hometown of Köln), served as the inspiration behind these releases. Voigt claimed that he wanted to “bring the forest to the disco, or vice-versa”.

Wikipedia offers an excellent description of the Gas sound:

Each album consisting of several long tracks of dense, hypnotic, atmospheric sound. All Gas material shares a characteristic sound, consisting of an ambient wash of drones and loops, usually accompanied by a repetitive four-on-the-floor kick drum underneath the multiple layers of music. Occasionally a song will just drift on its own ambience.

Indeed, most of the time there is no clear musical progression in a Gas track, as Voigt seems to be more interested in exploring depth of the stereo field, utilizing subtle shifts in sound. Because music under the Gas alias lacks any trace of orthodox melody or chord change many would not describe it as musical. However, the sources of Voigt’s samples are often of musical origin, encapsulating “old pop record stuff” as well as classical music such as Richard Wagner and Arnold Schoenberg.

Gas 02.JPG

It also notes that critics have described Gas music as, “similar to hearing a band playing very far away, underwater, or from behind walls.” By any measure, this is a milestone ambient box set and an essential piece of any ambient record collection.

Wolfgang Voigt – Lost in Königsforst

Wolfgang Voigt - GAS - Nah Und Fern 2LP
Through a wonderful stroke of good fortune, I am now honored to have claimed a copy of Nah Und Fern for my vinyl library.  A milestone compilation – both for Wolfgang Voigt, performing under his legendary moniker GAS, and for the incredible impact the recording had on my own musical experience.

GAS is ambient minimal techno in its purest form.  Voigt’s samples are ghostly sonic elements – formless and featureless.  There is no melody, no key, no pitch, and no progression for the listener to cling to.  Instead, the pieces, (all untitled), pulse steadily in place, with no discernible beginning or end.

Voigt, himself describes it as “GASeous music, caught by a bass drum just marching by, that streams, streams out through the underwood across the forest soil.”  The music of these projects were inspired by Voigt’s LSD experiences in the Königsforst forest near Köln.

There are four albums in the GAS project – Gas, Zauberberg, Königsforst and Pop.  Released between 1996 and 2000, the albums were later compiled into a 4CD box set titled Nah Und Fern in 2008 on the Kompakt label.

This limited vinyl release consists of four side-long edits, the first of which is exclusive to the LP.

GAS was my initiation into drone music, and led me on a rewarding path of discovery with albums like Jimmy Cauty’s Space, Robert Rich’s Somnium,  Black Swan’s vinyl-only releases, and later to Voigt’s own influences – namely Wagner and Schoenberg.  A delightful friend and ambient guru first played GAS for me in his bookshop, and the rest was history.

But Nah Und Fern does not come cheap, and I confess that I approached the purchase with some hesitation.  Thankfully all my doubts were vanquished when I learned that the gentleman who sold me his copy was a fellow member of the Youtube Vinyl Community!

Critics have called it many things – zero-gravity club music, tunes for lucid dreaming, underwater techno, or as Wire put it, “an outdoor rave, heard floating through the air from a neighbouring village.”  One thing is certain – this is drone music at its finest.

Published in: on December 12, 2014 at 10:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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Top 10 Drone Albums

After the positive response I received to yesterday’s ambient/ethereal post, I’ve decided to share my top 10 drone records, complete with links to the media so that you can preview (most of them) in their entirety before you order.  So here they are…*

My All-Time Favorite Drone Top 10:

Gas (Wolfgang Voigt) – Nah Und Fern (4 CD set of Gas, Zauberberg, Königsforst and Pop)

Disc 1: Gas

Disc 2: Zauberberg (album playlist)

Disc 3: Königsforst (album playlist)

Disc 4: Pop

Black Swan – The Quiet Divide

Black Swan – In 8 Movements

Alvin Lucier – Music on a Long Thin Wire

William Basinski – Disintegration Loops

La Monte Young – Dream House

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath 1972

Brian Eno – January 07003 Bell Studies For the Clock of the Long Now

Robert Rich – Somnium – the greatest sleep concert you will ever hear (7 hr DVD)

And finally,

Sound And Silence: ‘Remembering Sept. 11th At The Temple Of Dendur (feat. The Wordless Music Orchestra’s premiere live performance of Basinski’s Disintegration Loops.)

Download the complete concert from NPR here.

I would love to see your own drone top 10 lists.  Please feel free to share!

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* DISCLAIMER: The Innerspace Connection does not own the rights to any of the media content in this post, nor do we receive any financial benefit directly attributable to said media.  At the request of the copyright holder we will act expeditiously to remove or disable access to the infringing material.