Electronic Music, Writing, and Reviews

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

Thu, 30 Sep, 2010


Just twenty years ago, music was a solid thing. You got music through vinyl records, cassette tapes, or most likely CD's, those pretty, shiny discs which you can still find plenty of in conventional record stores. Or, if you were a musician, you got sheet music to play on your keyboard or guitar or whatever solid, physical instrument you had.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the solidity is gone. Once high-speed Internet became common, music went online. Music, or sound, has been encoded into computer-readable data files since at least the 1970s and 1980s, though computers have been used in music from the very beginning of electronic music in the 1950s. The breakthrough was the development of the MP3 file which allowed sound data files to be much smaller than the large data files recorded onto CDs.

The next thing which made music Internet possible was the wide dissemination of high-speed Internet, known as "broadband." My first years as an Internet participant were spent waiting for things to download or transmit through dial-up service over phone lines. This all seems like a time of horses and buggies compared to the cable transmissions I enjoy now, even though some folks in underserved or remote areas still depend on something like dial-up. Even they get satellite dishes for a faster Internet, causing lovely landscapes to sprout grey dishes among the corn and the grapevines.

Finally the development on the consumer's side of megamemory chips and tiny MP3 players like iPods allowed listeners to save their favorite music and even videos without the mediation of a solid piece of plastic. With an iPod or its equivalent you could go directly from download to player. And an iPod, for instance the one I own, has eighty gigabytes of memory in it. That's more than any of my computers had up until a few years ago. I could digitize my entire music collection and still probably have room to spare on this thing. And pieces of my favorite music, classical, are quite long compared to popular music. The music industry assumes that we consumers are all pop music listeners who grab their music (called "songs" whether there are vocals or not) in small chunks of a few minutes at a time. But is my music excessively long-winded? My current computer has a terabyte of memory, 1000 gigabytes. Richard Wagner's entire epic output is a couple of drops in this bucket.

No one is going to pay a lot of money for ambient or experimental electronic music. I mean, the kind of money that pop stars get. Some artists may make some money here or there, either through sales of music or the use of music in commercials or films. But for the vast majority of ambient/electronic musicians, their work is completely non-profit. They just want somebody to hear it. Since by its nature this kind of music attracts technologically sophisticated persons, they are glad to use this technology to share their music. Thus is born the "netlabel." The "label" refers to what would in the past be a record label, a publishing house for music. Now it's an internet-based publishing house for music. Instead of something being published like a book, it's "released" into the world for listening.

A Netlabel may have only a few artists recording for it, or it may have a long list. Some of them are almost entirely the work of a single artist. Many of these netlabels are still a hybrid form, offering physical CD's if the customer is willing to pay for them. All payments are made online through some form of secure credit card connection, such as "PayPal." Mostly, what a netlabel offers is a file download, which contains not only the music but files for the cover graphics (as if it were to be printed on a CD and its case papers) and "liner notes" offering information about the music. You will pay less for this than you would for a CD. And for many netlabels, there is no payment involved. Many netlabels offer this esoteric music for NOTHING. Just download it and listen. If you want to sample a sound before you download the whole thing, most of these sites offer excerpts for you to try out.

The host of a netlabel is usually an artist himself, who is willing to put up some money and a lot of time arranging for a website and a host server which will store the files he offers for download. The responsibility for choosing, preparing, and advertising the albums he releases is up to the host and the artist. This is where I come in, since I am personally involved in contributing to at least one netlabel and am friends with the hosts of several more. I make no pretense of "objectivity" here. I will promote the netlabels of artists who are my friends, as well as those I discover as I go along. Each netlabel will have links to other sound sites ready for you to explore. The endless Internet allows all sorts of connections to take place.

I am only going to recommend a few netlabels, maintained by my friends in the electronic/ambient community, but there are hundreds of these sites now, all over the world, so it's up to you whether you want to hear more.

From Stillstream, the devoted and tireless Darrell Burgan, or "Palancar," toiling outside of Dallas, Texas, maintains the Earth Mantra netlabel. With almost 150 releases so far, this is a big and rich compendium of many different kinds of ambient and electronic music, whether it is "dark ambient" or exquisite mystical drift. It's a great place to start listening.

Next is one that I am personally involved in: the "Just Not Normal" netlabel, maintained by Mark Stolk in the Netherlands. Mark, who records under the name of "Mystahr," releases sounds which test the boundaries of what is music and what is not, what is listenable and what is not. He released the first of my 40-year-old Buchla electronic music tape transcriptions, under the name I gave it in 1969, "My Name is Marietta Cashman." I am number 42 in the "Just Not Normal" archives. Like Earth Mantra, all the material on JNN is FREE to download.

The Atmoworks netlabel is maintained by "Vir Unis" (John Strate-Hootman) and other artists in a community parallel to Palancar's Stillstream. They intersect with Stillstream in an internet "radio" show on Stillstream, "Rabbit Hole Radio" on Thursday nights. Atmoworks features work by dozens of artists from many different countries, though Vir Unis is based in Chicago. The AtmoArtists on this label have a distinctive sound which is, on the whole, more "edgy" and less comforting than EarthMantra. Atmoworks does not offer entire albums for free downloads, but sells both CD's and album downloads.

Finally, I offer Endless Ascent" as an example of a netlabel with a unifying theme. This netlabel provides spacemusic and trancey drifting ambient with an "uplifting" mood. That doesn't mean that it is all sweetness and light, but it will likely leave you in an expansive space. All Endless Ascents are free of charge.

Posted at 4:21 am | link

Wed, 08 Sep, 2010

Ambient Return

From what you see here, it's been more than a year since I posted to "Sound Words." I've done a lot of listening and connecting since then, and so I think it's time I started this music blog up again. If I do more connecting, then I might actually get people to read it.

Ambient music continues to flourish in its narrow niche. The Internet has made this flourishing possible. Without the almighty Network, ambient creators would still be mailing cassettes to each other and calling each other up on the phone (The type with wires coming out of it). The high-speed network allows composers and artists to share music, commentary, technical knowledge, and gossip, all over the world. It is now ordinary to talk online (through typed-in chat messages or even video conferencing) with people you will never meet in countries you will never visit. And it's also ordinary (though I think it's some sort of miracle) to send music over the Net and listen to live concerts on streaming audio.

Lest you think I am being silly, you must remember that twenty years ago this whole thing didn't exist. In 1990, and all the way through most of that decade, internet was slow and subject to even more failures than it is now. I was on dial-up service for at least five years before I got cable. High-speed broadband net has made all the difference in the world for music listeners of all kinds. Including ambient.

I belong to an ambient music community which meets online. Face-to-face contact and jamming happens rarely, usually no more than once a year. Yet we are talking to each other and sharing music almost every night through the means of an audio stream and a chatroom. Typed messages, limited as they are, can build solid friendships and enhance creativity. The chatroom accompanies live DJ's who play music over the internet radio station that is the main attraction for this community. That is

Stillstream was founded in March of 2005 as a place to showcase ambient music which would otherwise not be heard in any commercial broadcast. The founder is Darrell Burgan, a tireless software engineer, family man, and electronic music artist who goes by the net-name "Palancar," after a reef in Mexico that he used to dive to. From his home in Texas, and almost entirely out of his own pocket, he maintains this rich resource on behalf of the ambient music community. Not only is there a 24-hour continuous stream of music available on internet broadcast, but there are live DJ shows at night (USA time, that is), live online concerts, and a chatroom for ambient fans to socialize in. Stillstream has grown to be a "social network" for ambient fans and as a constant visitor, I think of it as a place I can always find friends to talk with about one of my favorite subjects, music.

Another really good thing about Stillstream, and in general about the ambient community, is that many of the people involved are ambient creators themselves. Very few genres of music have this much closeness between artist, composer, and listener. Classical music lovers will hardly ever be friends with their favorite conductor or soloist, and rock fans even less likely. But in ambient, you will most likely be chatting online with the very artist whose music you are listening to. So there is an intimacy to ambient fandom that is unusual in the music world. The other side of that intimacy is that if you say something too negative or critical, the artist knows right away and can get mad at you. I have had this happen! Even if there is no chatroom involved, someone will refer a negative review to the artist over the instant communication of the Net and the miffed composer will get back to you with an angry e-mail.

So you must be careful in the glass house of ambient and in this Blog I intend to observe care and awareness that whoever I review might just be reading what I write. There is so much good ambient music out there in the electronic world that I don't really need to pick anything I'd say negative remarks about. So this renewed Blog will have plenty of reviews of new and even older releases. I will also be talking about artists and their "body of work", and bringing new artists into view. I don't intend to talk about just ambient, either. I'm a big classical listener so there will be plenty of classical music talk as well. And you never know when I might drop a line about bluegrass or jazz or ethnic music….or something completely different.

Stay tuned, ambinauts and ambientfans, and I hope you will enjoy my postings here on "Altocumulus Sound Words."

Posted at 11:24 pm | link