Electronic Music, Writing, and Reviews

"Altocumulus" is my artist name for electronic music, ambient, and my writing about experimental music and related subjects.

Sat, 04 Apr, 2009

Cosmic ambient background

The first example of true "ambient" electronic music was probably SONIC SEASONINGS by Wendy Carlos (1972). She blended electronic, acoustic, and recorded environmental sounds like birds, thunder, howling wolves, and rain into a set of four pieces which were meant to evoke the mood of each season. SONIC SEASONINGS has stylistic features which would eventually be standard for ambient music: sustained electronic tones, environmental sounds, modified acoustic instruments, and electronic special effects. The basic idea was not to create a "concert" piece which had to be played as an object of full attention, but a background of sound which would evoke a mood, a landscape, a feeling: an audible ecosystem.

Another composer who is more widely considered a founder of ambient is Brian Eno, specifically with his 1978 album MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS. Again, this album defines the language for ambient music, as well as its quiet mood. Its synthesizer tones may sound a bit dated nowadays, but you can hear echoes of this album in more than twenty-five years of imitations, up to the present time. Two years later, Eno collaborated with avant-garde jazz pianist Harold Budd to create the exquisite PLATEAUX OF MIRRORS album (1980). Both are still currently active though they've worked in many other styles than ambient.

By the late 70s, then, the characteristics of the ambient genre were pretty much settled, and they've remained the same, with some important variants, since then. Here are some of the characteristic qualities of ambient music:
1. Slow pace. Much of ambient moves much slower than other music, whether pop or classical. In fact, some "ambient" composers have adapted the slower movements of some classical pieces, sensing a common quality. Whether it be rhythm or melody or pacing or the rate of chord changes, true ambient goes slowly. It also tends to be soft, rather than loud like rock, opera, or big band jazz. This is deliberate, because ambient music, above all, is the music of contemplation, just as jazz or dance music or dramatic classical music is the music of action.
2. Sustained notes, whether on synthesizer or an acoustic instrument.. Ambient won't use 100 notes when one or two will do. Synthesizers, like conventional organs, lend themselves naturally to long, sustained notes while instruments like flutes, pianos, or guitars produce notes of limited length. An important invention for ambient is digital reverberation which allows any sound, even an acoustic one, to be stretched out into near-infinity. Ambient music would be nowhere without such techniques of sound-extension and blending, which have given Eno and Budd and all their successors that vast and mystical sound. There is no such thing as "ambient unplugged."
3. Limited melody and minimalism.During the era when the first ambient composers were doing their work, the "classical" field was also undergoing the trend towards "minimalism" in music. The musical celebrity Philip Glass led the way with his frenetic repetitions and slowly phasing melody and texture changes. Another influential figure for ambient is Steve Reich who was already doing tape loop and repetition pieces in the 60s. And yes, the ambient composers, though not part of the academic "contemporary classical" music scene, were listening closely to people like Glass and Reich. Ambient pieces are almost by definition minimalistic, whether they use rhythm or not. Minimalism is hardly a modern trend; in fact it is an essential part of the sounds used by humans throughout the ages to alter one's state of consciousness. Ambient music has from the beginning (as I mentioned earlier) been connected with the mind-explorations of the psychedelic 60s and the pop mysticism of the "New Age." More about this later.
4.Use of "environmental" and other sampled sounds.As with Carlos' SONIC SEASONINGS, a large proportion of the ambient pieces I know use recordings from nature, as well as human voices, seemingly random bits of radio broadcasts, Native or Aboriginal chanting, industrial sounds, and anything else that fits the composer's purpose. This has its origins in the very earliest tape music, musique concrete which might be translated as "conglomeration music" made exclusively from cut-ups and modification of recorded sound. Usually these samples are added as accents to music made by synthesizers and acoustic instruments. There are plenty of human voices in ambient, but they are usually wordless singing, unrecognizable whispers or garbles, or word-bytes. It's rather rare to find actual coherent "songs" with words in ambient pieces, though they do occur. Spoken word, modified or not, is more common.

Though the above characteristics sound limited, ambient actually has quite a variety to it. Despite what I said about slow, soft, sustained notes, there is a whole style of ambient which uses rhythms. Here's yet another list of some of the different styles of ambient.

1."Classic" ambient. This is the stuff I've described above, with its "synthesizer washes" and drifting, dreamlike mood. Believe me, there's acres of it out there, and I've trekked across lots of them. It's the easiest material to produce. With a few synthesizers and sound-modifying computers, a digital reverb device, and basic recording studio technology, anyone who can afford the price of, say, an SUV, can create his own electronic recording studio. You have to sort through a lot of this soundage to find what's good. A subset of this is dark ambient which is meant to have a creepy, spooky, cavernous, nightmarish, even disturbing quality. I love this stuff but sometimes it's not for the faint-hearted.
2. "Techno-ambient." This is ambient with rhythm. The rhythms can be made with real drums and other percussion, or they can be synthesized, or they can be made with clever looping of otherwise unpercussive sounds. It can go quite fast, and can be loud—and yet it's still considered ambient, because of its trance-inducing quality. I tend to like this type the best, especially when the composer varies his/her output between the dreamlike soft stuff and the harder drumming.
3. "Tribal" ambient. This is rhythmic ambient in which the percussion element is taken from drums and other percussion associated with Native or aboriginal peoples. It will also involve Native chanting or more likely, imitations of Native chanting. This music often attempts to reproduce shamanic drumming, or at least evoke it. But "tribal" ambient, for me, brings up unsettling issues of Western exploitation of Native musics outside their proper context, even when the "tribal" element is well-done. Some composers, especially those who have had actual contact with Native musicians in order to learn from them, can pull this off with respect and rise above the "colonialism" much as other Western artists and musicians have used African or Oriental material in their work. But the field is also full of tacky tracks where just because someone plays the bongos, it is called "tribal."
4. Avant-garde, minimalism, drone, and "glitch." These are the most extreme types of ambient. With avant-garde, you get a fragmented, sometimes noisy and toneless, rambling flow of sound, whether from instruments or environment or both, which defies interpretation or sense; it's the personal expression of its maker and often nothing but that. Minimalist ambient is minimalism squared—one long note or environment or chord or effect for a whole hour. Why listen? The answer is not to listen, but to keep it in the background. It can actually be rather pleasant, because it's meant to be a kind of "audible incense" for other activities. "Drone" is, as it sounds, composed of very long single or multiple notes, with no melody and little change until a new effect appears. Like the minimalist stuff, it's meant to be kept in the background, but it's usually not as pleasant. "Glitch" dispenses with note and melody altogether, and uses sounds like static, scratchy vinyl records, malfunctioning electronics, bugs, and other nasty little noises. This kind of stuff is for special tastes only.

A classical music purist (and there are still plenty of them) would say, at this point, "But this isn't really music, because nothing happens! What's the point of this? It just rambles, without any structure or development! It uses a few recognizable notes here or there, but then goes on and on and on endlessly until the listener just nods off or trances out!" And my reply is, "Well, yeah."

Ambient music simply does not follow the aesthetic canons of conventional music, whether "classical" or popular. It has something else in mind. Nevertheless, ambient has already entered the realm of "classical" music played in orchestra halls. Pieces like Gyorgi Ligeti's LUX AETERNA (1966) and the very slow, mysterious string and orchestral work of Estonian composer Arvo Part can be considered ambient without electronic elements. And more significantly, a piece that I would consider "ambient" won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, namely "On the Transmigration of Souls" by John Adams. This piece, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in memory of those who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has many of the characteristics of ambient that I described above: electronic sampling of voices, long sustained notes, slow pace, contemplative mood, and limited or hidden melodies.

At its best, ambient music is meant to provide a mind-expanding experience, without drugs. Some ambient composers deliberately intend to express spirituality in their music. Ambient music, unlike dance or pop electronica or so many other types of non-classical music, is quite serious. It is not shallow entertainment. Though that classical music purist might maintain that only classical music can truly be "serious," i.e. deal with matters of deep and complex philosophical or spiritual interest, ambient is one of the non-classical Western musics where the creators work in a sense of "seriousness." (Other types might be folk, gospel, or blues, which hardly ever intersect with ambient.) What began as an exploration of electronic and environmental sound has become, in the hands of creative people working with the best in modern musical technology, a genre of music that can carry more meaning than it appears to.

In my next installment, I'll talk about some of the important ambient composers of our era, and refer you to their Websites so that you can encounter their work for yourself.

Posted at 2:35 am | link

Thu, 02 Apr, 2009

Electronic Music is Everywhere

It would take far more space than what I have here to give even a short history of electronic music. Instead, I refer you to a good source site on the all-seeing all-knowing Web which can give you a fair idea of it. Dartmouth University's Electro-Acoustic Music program has this information-packed timeline on the use of mechanical, electronic, and computer technology in music.

Musical creativity has always been inspired by technical and material advances. This started with the first time some caveperson realized that they could get a sound out of a hollow bone or reed, and it hasn't stopped since. In the 19th century, for instance, developments in piano technology impelled Beethoven to write some of his later, great piano sonatas. The first electronic musical instruments started showing up in the 1920s, and were immediately used in both concert and film music. Pop music didn't start using electronics widely until the 1960s. An electronic milestone was the Beach Boys hit song "Good Vibrations" (1966) which used the sound of a theremin (see the Dartmouth site). This had been used in countless cheesy horror films in the 50s but here it was on a rock song heard by millions. The psychedelic era of the late 60s and the 70s witnessed a proliferation of electronic sounds in both popular and "serious" music. This sound explosion was generated by the invention of small portable synthesizers. Now any rock band or university electronic music studio could afford to make this kind of music.

Now here we are in 2009, the 21st century. It's the FUTURE and our music sounds futuristic! We wear pink and silver spandex suits and drive around in flying cars. Oops, wrong future. Well, at least we have electronic music—everywhere. Our sound-environment, wherever we turn, whether public or private spaces, is shaped by electronic devices. Even if you think you're listening to "acoustic" music, it's mediated by many layers of electronics, not only in reproduction but in processing before it ever gets played on the sound system. Most of the time, electronic sounds are mixed in with more "conventional" sounds played on familiar instruments (which may however be modified electronically). You can't escape it, unless you were to play your guitar or harmonica in your own private acoustic parlor or porch.

Again, to catalog how electronic music is used in films, rock, and pop culture would be far more than what I could do here. But you already have heard it, for instance the endlessly re-played soundtrack, by the Greek-French composer Vangelis, to CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981). Ads for luxury products on TV, for instance perfume, jewelry, or fancy cars, like to use electronic sound, and of course it continues to be a staple of science fiction culture everywhere except the romantic symphonic styling of John Williams in the STAR WARS series.

The obnoxious thumping bass which you hear from the SUV or sports car stopped next to you at the red light is electronic music. It's generated by a bass machine, not some guy actually playing the bass. Same with the drum rhythms and the repetitious but listenable hooks of "urban" music and rap, and the insistent beats of techno and dance music that you might hear in a fashion store. Just about any pop song now will have some electronic element in it. Another electronic innovation which has formed a large amount of the pop sound we currently hear is "sampling," in which snippets of any sound imaginable are digitized and made available for manipulation. In the old days of horse-drawn tape recorders, we did this by actually cutting up tape and splicing it back together. We also got our tape samples to repeat by splicing our tape into a loop and playing it through the machine. Nowadays the loop-repeating of samples is done completely digitally. Any DJ , or any amateur with a minimum of equipment, can do this.

Electronic music is still being done in the "serious" music field, but it's really obscure. To find it, you'd have to go to academic venues like Dartmouth (see above), University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, or Indiana University at Bloomington. The Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio where I worked with my father in the late 60s is still going strong. Nevertheless, you're probably not going to hear this music anywhere unless you make the pilgrimage to these places or to avant-garde theater and art spaces, usually found only in college towns or big cities.

There is, however, a whole other field of electronic music which is neither "pop" nor "serious." It has a wide variety of sounds, but has been classified unfortunately as "new age music" which turns most listeners away. Yes, back in the 1980s when this music first appeared, it was associated with altering consciousness, bodywork and massage, Yoga, meditation, "channeled" drivel, crystals, angels, rainbows, and other holdovers from the 60s. Some of it still is. But human creativity is an irresistible force, and since the 60s, forms of electronic music which are neither academic avantguardia nor commercial pop nor sticky karmic twaddle have emerged. This music defies classification, so naturally I'm going to classify it. The general term for it is ambient because it originated in attempts to create an audible "environment" for contemplative listening. In my next installment, I'll talk about ambient and its varieties, and lead you to some of its best practitioners.

This article was originally written in February of 2004. I've updated it a bit but it is basically the same as it was then. I mention that I was active in the Brandeis University electronic music studio in the 60s. In later entries of this Blog I will be republishing my accounts of my youth in electronic music, so as always, stay tuned.

Posted at 2:03 am | link