My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Sun, 29 Feb, 2004

Ambient Composers 3: Fine music, but less output

The ambient field is filled with talented composers who for various reasons have not produced as many albums as the guys I've profiled in the last two chapters. Yet some of these albums from the less prolific folks are absolute gems.

I begin with Paul Avgerinos, a music producer in southern Connecticut. His Studio Unicorn is his livelihood, and in that studio, among all the other film, TV, and popular music he does, he has made a number of fine albums under his own name. (They are available for sale on his website.) Avgerinos is a classically trained bassist, who can also play jazz and just about anything else. In his ambient work, he uses the string and electric bass as both lead instrument and drone, sometimes electronically modified. It's certainly a difficult and unwieldy instrument to use as a melody carrier, but he makes it sing. Avgerinos is of Greek ancestry and he has used Classical Greek culture as a theme in his two best albums, MUSE OF THE ROUND SKY (1992) and SKY OF GRACE (1998). On these albums he has gathered with him some of the best jazz and Middle Eastern musicians of our time, among them guitarist Brian Keane and Turkish/Egyptian multi-instrumentalist Omar Farouk Tekbilek. MUSE is filled with Mediterranean instruments and rhythms, but also can float away on gorgeous tone-clusters from smooth synthesizers. Perhaps because of his extensive commercial experience, as well as his classical music background, Avgerinos tends to have a "slicker" and more accessible sound, with more familiar harmonies, than composers like Roach or Rich. SKY OF GRACE is one of my favorite ambient albums of all time, full of spiritual longing and languorous flights of sonic fantasy. In 2002 he released another album, WORDS TOUCH, which looks to be along the same lines as SKY OF GRACE, though I have only heard excerpts from it. Paul Avgerinos consciously avoids "dark ambient," preferring to provide his listeners with an uplifting sound full of a sense of wonder.

From Paul Avgerinos' sunny Greece we move on to electric China, the virtual world of Forrest Fang. By workday, the Chinese-American Fang is a lawyer in the San Francisco area; the rest of the time, he is a dazzlingly gifted avant-garde musician specializing in violin and Asian stringed instruments. Like Avgerinos, he began as a classical string player. But Fang is also trained in classical Chinese stringed instruments, which he plays on many ambient albums. He's most often heard as a guest player, especially with Robert Rich on Rich's albums PROPAGATION and SEVEN VEILS. But he also has two solo albums, THE BLIND MESSENGER (1997) and GONGLAND (2000). THE BLIND MESSENGER is an album that makes me sit up and go "Yikes!" every time I hear it. It's definitely not "comforting" ambient. Composed with Fang's strings as well as a wide array of percussion and electronics, it rips along with jagged rhythms, dissonant and Asian harmonies, masses of dizzying fractal-fueled whirling chords, and adventures in mathematical structures made into themes and variations. It's one of the most original techno-ambient albums I've ever heard — relentlessly intellectual and unsentimental, definitely not New Age sweet. GONGLAND is quite different from its predecessor. The Asian harmonies and instruments are still present, but it is much softer and less aggressive, misty and nocturnal, a subtler sound all around. You can find these albums, and more information, on Forrest Fang's home page.

Jeff Pearce opens the door to Heaven with his guitar. This may sound silly, but if you listen to Pierce's metaphysical playing, you'll perceive that heavenly light, too. All his sounds are produced with electric guitar and electronic modification; no crowded cabinets of world instruments nor stacks of synthesizers are necessary. The electronics modify the guitar so thoroughly that you will be unaware that he is not using synthesizers, and yet often his simple, innocent playing comes through almost as if he were just sitting on the porch next to you. Take some sophisticated jazz chords based on 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths, strum them on an electric guitar and stretch them out to infinity in a soft cloud of sound, and you will have a good idea of what Jeff's music sounds like. He has a number of albums, not all of them available. I recommend three albums. The first is TO THE SHORES OF HEAVEN (2000) which is a gentle narrative in slow ambient, from despair to exaltation. Next is its followup, THE LIGHT BEYOND (2001) which has one of my favorite single ambient tracks of all time, "Across the Infinite Sea." This album also has a 44-minute (yes, that long!) track which was recorded live at a concert in 2000, "A Farther Shore." Listen to this for sweet sleepy trance dreams. A more recent album is BLEED (2002) which has a more melancholy tone than the mystical warmth of his previous albums. Ambient music rarely says so much with so little instrumentation. You can find Jeff Pearce's information, and links to his recordings, at the Jeff Pearce webpage maintained by "Star's End," the ambient music organization at whose concert "A Farther Shore" was recorded.

If you like the quiet, melancholy tone of Pearce's work, you will probably also like the music of Tim Story, who combines piano with long-sustain electric guitar and other instruments to create minimalist melodic miniatures. Like Pearce, he does a lot with a little; just one or two motifs, repeating and varying, can convey an entire universe of mood. He's put out quite a number of albums, all of which feature his highly individual sound. There's GLASS GREEN (1987), BEGUILED (1991), THE PERFECT FLAW (1994) and more recently, SHADOWPLAY (2001). My favorite for pure sense of wonder and quiet is BEGUILED, though GLASS GREEN is also good. When you listen to Tim Story, it is always a rainy February twilight, and you've just lost someone you desperately love. SHADOWPLAY is so sad that I can't bear to listen to it. Share the tears at Tim Story's website.

I haven't yet talked about the sub-genre of ambient known as "spacemusic," but now's the time for it. This music is not that much different from what I describe as "classic ambient" with its long, sustained synthesizer notes and slow rhythms, but its purpose is more specific. "Spacemusic" is used in planetariums or with films, TV shows, and performances which deal with astronomy, stars, galaxies, and outer space. You know it's spacemusic because you hear those starship "whooshes," tinkling bells and beeps suggesting twinkling stars and cosmic rays, and comforting heroic power-chord harmonies suitable for rocket launches and colorful vistas of nebulae. One of the most prominent composers in this genre is Michael Stearns who has cranked out mass quantities of spacemusic as well as film soundtracks. He's probably the best of the lot when it comes to musical quality. Another spacer is Jonn Serrie who started out as an electronic planetarium composer and has since transformed into a kind of ambient easy listening guy, with pop rhythms and romantic sighing songs added to his repertoire. Kevin Braheny builds his own hybrid electronic/acoustic instruments, and also plays an electric woodwind instrument, the Steiner EWI, which has an easily recognizable sound, kind of like a spacey soprano sax. Braheny has released a few albums on his own, especially the spacemusic classic GALAXIES(1988), but most of his work is as a guest player in many different ambient and jazz ensembles.
In 1992 Michael Stearns and Kevin Braheny joined with Steve Roach to produce a superb album of "desert spacemusic," DESERT SOLITAIRE.

Some rare readers may wonder why all the ambient composers I've mentioned so far are male. It's true; the vast majority of ambient composers and performers are men, a much larger proportion than in the general musical community. When women appear in ambient at all, it is usually either as crooning vocalizers or as guest players on acoustic instruments. I can only theorize as to why there should be such a gender imbalance in ambient; possibly it is because women have not had either the opportunity nor the inclination to work with the complex electronic technology which makes ambient possible. Nevertheless, there are some exceptional female ambient composers (other than Wendy Carlos, who is not doing ambient any more). The one that comes first, in my mind, is Constance Demby, a classically trained musician who has been doing experimental and ambient music as long as any of the guys. As you can see from her web site, she's fond of grand gestures and extravagant presentations, and often enough, her music lives up to it. Her album NOVUS MAGNIFICAT (1986) is an over-the-top journey into mind-blowing transcendence, and her 1989 album SET FREE contains not only catchy New Age tunes (yes, singable tunes) but a set of wild, precipitously dissonant spacetracks suitable for high magical ritual, if you dare.
Another lesser-known female ambient composer is Meg Bowles who, along with her engineer/producer husband Richard Price, has created a small repertoire of tasteful ambient albums. Her 1996 BLUE COSMOS is an understated, quiet set of space ambient with rhythmic bongo drum accents. Another album, FROM THE DARK EARTH (1999) features the interesting combination of trumpet solo (played by David Bilger, the principal trumpeter of the Philadelphia Orchestra) and synthesizers. Unfortunately, the Bowles/Kumatone website is well out of date and I have not been able to find any information about what Bowles is doing now.

If you are one of the patient folks who have read all my ambient installments so far, I hope that by now you have a pretty good idea of what this music is like and who are some of its best people. I want to leave you with a recommendation for just one more ambient album. This album is simply titled 76:14, the amount of time the album takes, and each track has no word title, just its timing number. It was released in 1994 by Global Communication, the pseudonym for Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard, two British guys with a lot of sound equipment. Their idea in just listing numbers is that you, the listener, will provide the mental imagery to go with the music, and if you hear this album, you will. It's hard to find information about them, and their output is limited to this one and a couple of re-mixes of other, earlier material, such as their 1998 re-mix, PENTAMEROUS METAMORPHOSIS. 76:14, depends on minimalist repetition, mechanical rhythms, sound samples, and synthesizer textures to create an impersonal, brushed-aluminum sound. Yet in this album, these features are used to create haunting, cinematic atmospheres, sometimes wistful, sometimes eerie and UFO-like. There are even moments of wry humor, such as cut number 5, "7:39," where two electronic tracks, playing different rhythms, have a "duel" to see whose rhythm will win out. In a field where many ambient artists take themselves and their music very seriously, the creators of "Global Communications" have a refreshing detachment and light touch. Yet their last piece on 76:14, "12:18," is almost like a repetitive hymn, with big organlike chords and a canned chorus. You don't know whether they are being honestly "spiritual" or just playing at it. It's possible that they are doing both.

Well, it's time to drift on out of the ambient sphere and get back to what I set myself to do, back when I saw the light of physics at Fermilab. I think of ambient as my mathematics and physics background music! All this music depends on those wonderful electrons which flow through the technology which makes it all possible. As I go along I will be talking more about ambient and reviewing albums which I think are worthy of attention. Meanwhile…

Back to math! I forgot the cosine formula!

I've spent so much time composing my series of articles on ambient music that I've been neglecting my first priority, that is, learning math and physics. I went back to my trigonometry books to find that, alas, I've forgotten a lot of what I recently studied, and must review it all. Trigonometric identities, vectors, and that lot. The annoying "Ruritanians" of Barron's study text propose problems which make me feel stupid, because I am not able to solve them. For instance, they list problems where you are supposed to derive a formula from an example and your knowledge of previous formulas. All abstract, something I'm not yet good at. Well, I'll put on some bracing ambient music and get to it.

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