past the zoo of the definites

space life in ambient electronic music  (Part 1)

Expressions of spaces

I came across this great piece of music which is also a remix while recently checking in on the LA artist Deru (Bejamin Wynn) some of whose earlier co-credits have included amazing work and sound design on the Avatar /Korra US Anime series, as well as a more recent collaboration with Joby Talbot on Wayne McGregor dance piece Genus.  His 2014 album 1979 is a superb work of dreamy intensity through and through (now on its third vinyl pressing) and has been a staple in my music ears on and off since then.

The Instructions for Time Travel remix is a fantastically transformed reworking of the original which uses the built-to melodic passage of that song as its opening and gives it a fine grained sand-blasting imbuing it a range of sonic vastness that continues to work through the melodic but now as an expansive vector in the form that the melodic takes.

While the original track (already named as a remix by artists Robot Koch and Savannah Jo Lock) is a fine song, it feels like Deru has identified dynamics within which are – in this distilled and expanded treatment, brought together as an intensification of the spatiality of the track and the way that space is comporting and resonating, something that in the act of listening is always taking place beyond the sonic alone.

It feels unavoidable in fact to refer to spatiality (spaces) in terms of this track and with many examples of ambient, as it feels like spatiality is precisely one of the things which is at stake and which this kind of music brings more into focus and transformative possibility.  Perhaps more specifically this is in terms of encounters where the spatiality rendered in behavioural sonic terms becomes more pronounced in relation to the melodic and rhythmic elements of the sounds/song alone.  When placed in conjunction with the wider possibilities of sound production/modulation techniques then the experiential potential of this encounter takes on additional dimension.  The spatial aspect also has a kind of meaning, conveying an expressive form that is not summarily the sound alone as a disconnected ‘end product’ entity, but the entire ‘space’ of its motional interactions generated as an inclusion of contact with reflective parameters impacting of its motion.

Deru – ‘Three cheers for existence’ (from 1979)… a spectral dusting

A Spatialising (or spatialising effect) in music and sound design is mostly achieved through adding reverberation to sounds.  Audibly, the reverberation is the result of an interaction of sound with/within an environment, space or material which in some way reflects it upon itself in its motion.  This can create a tail (tale) or swell (well) of echoing with its own specific behaviour and interaction (i.e. speed or degree of repetition, degree of fade, degree of sharpness or brightness in reflection, degree of overall sustain, duration etc.)  All of which contribute to the character of the sound and its expanded profile in the audible effect of its interaction with the reflective masses or limitations of this ‘space.’   Much that we come across now in terms of how the spatiality of musical sounds and components is achieved is almost entirely virtualised.  Where once recordings were only made (or played out and re-recorded) actually inside resonant spaces, there came a point where they could be played through metal springs or against large resonant metal plates, to generate the required spatiality of interaction.  Now sonic profiles and the variability of endless forms of reverberation are available through circuitry or algorhythms that model the potential of these behaviours and apply them.

One of the things which I found striking about reverberation is this slightly counterintuitive aspect of achieving a subsequently expanded sense of space (as most music you hear will have some form of reverberation added or a part of it) by being imbued with the behaviour of contact as reflective limitation or containment, significant enough to modulate sound to the receiver (microphone, ears).  It is from its material reflection (or as modelled) that we gain this sense from where there is a story of the effects of the sound’s encounter with ‘the space’ and its formation, a story that is ‘understood’ in terms of specificities of feeling.  Although its good to bear in mind also, that when you are hearing it, sound is always escaping whichever limitations or obstructions may have partly defined its spatiality, now almost like the paintbrush stroke that deepens, or specifies the dimensions of the rendered sonic field.  However, that it has partly become the resonant qualities of these forces is also apparent (think Lucier‘s fascinating and extraordinary room piece as a process giving us the far extrapolation of this pheonomon).  This is why it feels possible to say that the sound is also the story of the spaces (virtual or otherwise) of its formation, expressed singularly and simultaneously to its motion (virtual or otherwise) that generates the specificities of change to its waves and frequencies and on from that to the feeling and reality of encounter.

As to what might be occuring in our experiences of encountering sound (specifically here these ambient worlds of sound) I often return to the thought from La Monte Young / Marian Zazeela that we should ‘…experience them (sounds) for what they are… a different kind of existence.’  As open as that may be.

As Lucier beautifully demonstrated, a resonant space is its own world of frequential responsivities and yet, with technological assistance, it is now possible to render sound within configurations of architectural / spatial possibility and reflection that is unlike anything we could physically create (like tunnels, halls, cathedrals or mountain canyons), in this respect we are also beyond the visual in how we might understand and correlate the acts of sound in terms of the interaction with configuration of any real spaces.  It also seems to be the case (as La Monte/Marian again point out) that we are heavily encrusted with a visually oriented cognition of the world, to wit sound is simultaneously less a factor in our ‘picture’ of what’s real and what is not, or what feels real.  In this sense sound has the possibilities of bringing things to us which are not constained in the same way as the sense of operational lock down which seems to be involved in our habitual seeing of the world.  Research has shown the brain often paints in the suggestion of detail outside areas of key focus, suggesting an essentially pre-fabricated response to the habit worn wildness of seeing actual spaces (though this need not I am sure, be definitional in any act of waking such a faculty).

This sense of a space (or place) is never more vividly available than when we include sounds which express a bio-motion as an element of the space or environment of the sounds.  The connection with real places and spaces has been a part of the story of ambient from the beginning, as has the move (partly faciliated by Eno’s On Land, more about which will follow in part 2) towards freeing it up to be something which can appreciably engage with a sense of the intensive, the unknown or alien in terms of the spatial correlates to some ambient pieces (the ‘world’ that arrives when we listen and take in).

That the real effect of spatiality in music does not particularly rely upon reverberation from actual or real spaces is moot.  The reality of the sounds we hear are simply autonomous enough as experiences of spatiality and encounter.  It brings to mind a point made by William Burroughs in the collected letters ‘Intensity by its very charge is valid for (those) who experience it…’  It was likewise from there that I noted his assertion ‘So called solid reality is only crystalised dream.  It can be undreamed.’

Spaces which connect us with the unknown, which affirm a sense of powerful feeling and encounter and which confer a greater depth and possibility to the extent and configuration of our reality are in my view, powerful tools in any sense of re-dreaming our understanding of the worlds of being and life, and our short span thereupon.  What separates us from this deeper mode of being is a good question, but it does not seem unyielding to a real intent at exploring and realising the worlds of these contacts and for which sonic intensities (and the worlds they convey) are a catalyst thread.

Part 2

*                                   *                                    *