space life in ambient electronic music
Spaces of being
If spaces are a key expression within ambient music then it feels like from early on, a sonically expressive animacy (or sonic-presence-as-being) has been another. Partly because as per Young/Zazeela there is the question of ‘forms of existence’ being involved with sound, I think different kinds of conceptualisation alongside can be helpful here. This is also because expression in sound brings such a multiplicity into play that different ways of thinking about what that expression is/can be or can lead to seem naturally to follow.
Although Eno’s opening to the genre (at least the first piece to be called ‘ambient’) was the sublime Music for Aiports (the 1978 release whose meditative refrain was co-written with Robert Wyatt and producer Rhett Davies), for me it was On Land (1982) which brought a dimension of life so spectacularly to the idea of the explicitly spatialised sound of ambience. Eno took field recordings from the North English countryside, Honduras, and Ghana in the process of exploring senses of space and place. Although there were precursors to this kind of work from others and that as soon as we are talking about field recording and bio/life sounds – a whole span of other possibilities begin to take shape, including early Musique concrète, recordings of whales, electronic emulations (and from which pioneering work by the likes of Pierre schaeffer, David Tudor, Delia Derbyshire) need be mentioned. There are possibilities to all such pieces as uncategorised fields of encounter, Pauline Oliveros advises that it is necessary to ‘expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound’ which will include its entire resonant field of properties (expressively of the physical and beyond).
It is with perception that the spaces and presences of sound wake up, partly because we are those spaces and presences and in the act of waking up to the depths of sound, we also wake ourselves. We have a cover story for our perception, which is that as soon as we’ve identified what we are encountering (or what type of specificity), it can/ken be fitted generally into a certain stability and certainty in the overall mode of cognition. But it is also a deadening blow to perception as the act of waking, which must silently burrow back out of the certainty as to what things are and admit the outside which is always of the moment, the multiplicity of now and its components whose wider energetic worlds are in a dance of unknown angles and symmetries. What is the direction in this direction? What brings you hear? How is this sense composed?
This experiential place of encounter, of hearing sounds and compositions, with the potential which is never limited to the past or to what we already know, a direction towards abstraction not limited by the prefabrications applied through our daily realities of perception and cognition. Making it also crucial to reiterate sound as a field that deepens and undoubedly what Pauline O was drawing upon. ‘Deep Listening has to do with complexity and boundaries or edges beyond ordinary or habitual understandings’ or when making the point that ‘Sounds carry intelligence. Ideas, feelings and memories are triggered by sounds. If you are too narrow in your awareness of sounds, you are likely to be disconnected from your environment.’ As well as being the physical spaces that you find yourself, ‘your environment’ here would also be the simultaneous pressure, tone and composition in configurations of your consciousness and its ongoing multiplicitous realisation. In this sense, it is also to be alive to the question of what is being connected with what in the realising listening (and formation) of sound? Which drives? Which histories and unknowns? Which timbres of readiness?
One of the powerful things about On Land is that through the threads it weaves together comes a propensity to open the edges of encountering ‘the land’ as a sonic world/expression. One whose dimensions are about aliveness, but whose constitution threads with the unknown, thereby bringing specifically different kinds of feeling and responses in terms of our experiencing what this land in its sonic expression actually is. It would be remiss not to point out as eerieness is a primary affect here and as per Mark Fisher, that the eerie can be thought of as a kind of presence or absence which does not belong, or which is in itself a failed version of either (neither properly there, nor properly not there) and which brings a sense of agency into play through this (while retaining of the unknown).
Mark, alongside Justin Barton in their (audio essay / sonic fiction) work On Vanishing Land used Eno’s album as a key intersection in conceiving of the eerie and its occurent threads in relation to the landscape of Suffolk. Through the stories, formations, images and archaelogies belonging to the landscape, they identify in its eerieness the elucidation of a story of human beings mostly and unknowingly out of contact with what the land contains, the eerieness of its very liminality, forces at or beyond the edges of what we know (and know we encounter). Among the atmosphere of these sonic arrivals and the opening of perception to the worlds of the land (these lands) and their becomings; the very stories, myths and momentary expressions which breathe through them and our being with the sense of what else is altered and augmented when we are emphatically and intensively a part of it.
As Eno wrote on the sleevenotes for the album (and as quoted by Mark here)
‘I became interested in exaggerating and inventing rather than replicating spaces, experimenting in particular with various techniques of time distortion. This record represents one culmination of that development and in it the landscape has ceased to be a backdrop for something else to happen in front of; instead, everything that happens is a part of the landscape. There is no longer a sharp distinction between foreground and background.
In using the term landscape I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods that they evoke. And of expanded moments of memory too…’
Back to life
This identification of something else living, being given expression in sound can be traced back probably as long as human utterance. Some of the wildlife sounds from this brilliant piece by Ayarkhaan reflecting the creation of the world are for example quite amazing. There’s also the work of John Cage ally David Tudor whose Rainforest piece (full) is a breathtaking expression of the rainforest rendered entirely through electronic and analogue means. Originally produced as a soundtrack to a dance piece with Merce Cunningham, one of the innovations of Rainforest was that during performances its sounds would be modulated by being played through a variety of different solid objects. These came in various shapes and forms, providing a material media which expresses the transition of the sound through vibrational contact of differing kinds and densitites. It should be remembered here that speakers are essentially vibrational platforms of pulsation-variance that push out air from in front of a diaphragm at precisely replicated frequencies to create tones and sonic properties.
Tudor’s own descriptions of building and evolving this piece are fascinating and give you a sense of the scope of thought involved. In concert with Merce Cunningham, it is not enough that the sonic of this work should be an innovative production that expresses a vibrant wild space, but the ongoing transmission of that sound-in-space as a modulatary exploration shows how much Tudor was working in the different dimensions of possibility and understanding.
Part of what makes Tudor’s sound piece so effective is that its form and its interactions – its holistic impact are so resonant with what we know and feel and see already when we dream of the rainforest. All of its illicit tendrils of realisation and reckonings, the forest-cousins of our different lands, the storybook of its spaces, lives and mysterious forces. Although here the sounds are partly inculcated with a sense of the alien and unknown from being electronically generated. The composition always takes you to a rainforest, but its more directly available that there is an alien, unknown quality and reality to the sounds which form this one.
The song opening the mouth by Boards of Canada gives us different, layered wind sounds, the occasional whispered breathy punctuation alongside an effected and eerie flute refrain. It is a short and potent track. The title pertains to an egyptian ceremony following death, but for me it is most effective simply in imbuing an eerified presence to the sound whose dimensions include a wild sense of life and being in the encounter.
Of course breath sounds can give us this feeling, but however it is achieved the effect in its possibility remains the same, a sense with sound whose affective scope makes murky delineations as to the alive (or the sound-life of some kind) in the recorded work beyond any direct sonic relationship e.g. breathing sounds. This is further elaborated by the acknowledgement that sometimes it can simply be sounds of certain kinds of movement, or motion, rustling, scratching, or a padding which can give us this sense and this occurs throughout music. As an expressive field it feels essential to grasp these life reflections and be open to what they say. I would contend that ambient specifically has been a doorway for these expressions to escape the sense of their being known or their identity as sounds, infecting the music composition (and its spatiality) such that our corner of space-time can in that moment succumb to a sonic outside whose modes of presence and motion are as explorable as the terrains of land, sky and sea, the flora, fauna and atmospheres of the other terrains we are more used to being in.
It seems to me that in both the whole and the minutiae of some of the pieces referenced, there is an experiential doorway that is always partly unknown, but that can diversify our sense of what sound can express, and what that expression can contain. Directly, this can impact our feeling of this and other worlds of possibility and how these may be in communication, across spans of active now, in these moments of being formed and encountered (as one also encounters oneself in the same moment), as impliments of transformed imagination, as components of re-dreamed realisation, as play-friends and allies of the virtual, as encampments of the unknown, finding instances in sense. Worlds together in the mutuality of contact, an augmented now whose continuum can only become more strange and intense in the exploration and whose meanings can ascertain a fuel of freedom in imagining and being in relation to what we learn and what we feel, in the context of vibrations that create dreamings and what even these truly are.
‘…when my uselessness is brutally revealed to me. what else is there to do except search for the true face of Nature, forgotten somewhere in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains, on the seashore, among the birds?‘ Olivier Messiaen
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