Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ambient Music Recommendations

Here are some posts I made on the rec.music.ambient newsgroup in answer to specific queries about Gavin Bryars, The Hafler Trio, Hector Zazou, Harold Budd, and suggestions for a best album list. This article is presented here as part of my Retro series. I have made a few small edits for clarity.

Gavin Bryars (1997.05.22)
Speaking of Tom waits and ambient music...didnt he do an album with gavin bryars? i think the title had something to do with jesus, suffering? cant remember.
You are referring to Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet [Point Music 1993], a haunting serialist work based on a religious song performed by a tramp, accidentally caught on a film soundtrack, rediscovered by Bryars, and subsequently orchestrated. The first version was one side of an LP on Eno's Obscure Records (1975). The extended rendering found on the Point CD starts with the solo vocal, adds a chamber ensemble, and eventually a full orchestra with choir. It is extremely emotive and touching, qualities lost when Tom Waits' voice (bathetic faux tramp) enters in the fifth movement.

I also recommend:

Vita Nova [ECM New Series 1994]: Four chamber pieces in a contemplative vein featuring, among other artists, the Hilliard Ensemble.

The Sinking of the Titanic [Les Disques Du Crepuscule 1990], the full-length CD version of a piece again originally released on Obscure Records. This is a totally new recording perhaps also different from the more recent American issue on Point (confirmation?). Based on themes from the hymn "Autumn" and performed by a chamber group in an early 19th-century disused water tower, this intense performance sounds scarily like the musicians are going down with the ship. Long reverb times make this a fitting companion to the Deep Listening Band's recordings.

The Hafler Trio (1997.06.02)
Can anybody provide any insight into their music -- is it kind of so-so, does it have distinct, worthwhile properties of its own, is it fast or slow, etc.?
The Hafler Trio exist to screw with your head by way of two symmetrical entry passages known as "ears". Their music is more slow than fast, sometimes distinct and other times absent, and has many worthwhile properties, not least of which being the ability to clear a room of unwanted houseguests.

Soundtrack to "Alternation, Perception & Resistance" -- a Comprehension Exercise is a lecture on sound perception overlaid with musique concrete. On side two (this being 45 rpm vinyl) more sonorous drones persist. Contains a nice booklet.

Three Ways of Saying Two: The Netherlands Lectures contains more faux scientific discourse punctuated by bumps, grinds, and things that go edit in the night. Recorded more crudely, the voice here is part of the mix as opposed to being the primary foreground element.

Intoutof (1988) is a pure noise soundscape varying from distant factory drones to vertical shards of intense pain. This exceptional record proves The Hafler Trio can sculpt noise like no other "group".

Some of these together with many other vinyl releases have been compiled into a six CD series by Touch for The Grey Area of Soleilmoon. Here's one:

All That Rises Must Converge (1993) includes three tracks originally from The Sea Org ten-inch vinyl, incorporating rhythmic blobs of noise, voice, oscillators, even percussion and musical instruments (?). Five subsequent tracks originally designed for an art exhibition and released as Brain Song in 1986 utilise longer textures but also more intense noise. Two previously unreleased tracks continue in the same vein and out the same artery.
Also, how does this particular album stand up?
I don't know. But if you are not a fan of musique concrete don't sign up for any Hafler Trio outings.

Hector Zazou / Harold Budd Recommendations (1999.01.28)

I just found the Hector Zazou / Harold Budd CD "Glyph" and really love it. I recall seeing a powder blue colored CD by Hector Zazou some time ago... Sad to say I have never heard of him. harld Budd on the other hand, I also have the "Through The Hill" CD with Andy Partridge (nice). Any other recommendations in this vein?
Well sure. Harold Budd makes incredibly beautiful piano-based music, and every album is different. A few are not that great, and I place the Andy Partridge collaboration in that category, mostly because the pieces are so short and sound throwaway.

Early American efforts like The Serpent (in Quicksilver) [Cantil Records, 1981] are mostly underdeveloped. The Pavilion of Dreams [Obscure, 1978] begins Budd's association with Brian Eno, though it's still a solo work. The classical soprano vocal gives it a sound distinct from his other releases. It's amazing. Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror [1980] occupies a still, beautiful place further explored on The Pearl [1984], which also includes contributions from Daniel Lanois.

A denser reverb-soaked sound was evident on Lovely Thunder [Editions EG 1986] and The Moon and the Melodies[4AD 1986]. The latter is actually credited to Harold Budd, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Simon Raymonde (fit that on a marquee!) which is basically Budd plus Cocteau Twins. These are two of my favourite records ever, and rather defy description.

The White Arcades [Land 1988] is another nice one, but the works since have been more uneven. Basically, if you have all of the titles I've already mentioned, then you can start on things like Music for 3 Pianos [All Saints/Caroline 1992] a short collaboration with Ruben Garcia and Daniel Lentz. Unfortunately Budd since started including his Beat-like poetry on his albums, a serious detraction.

As for Hector Zazou, he released a few albums on the Belgian Made to Measure label, all rather undeveloped and silly but with occasional moments of note. He also put out a sappy Celtic album a year or two ago. But you will not be disappointed with Sahara Blue [Crammed Discs 1992], tracks based on poems by Arthur Rimbaud. A host of stars grace this record, which Zazou is credited as directing, in the manner of a movie. And very soundtrack-like it is, with wall-to-wall sound and a very eclectic and international cast. I would not call it ambient, however. Some of the non-stars are the most notable performers, like vocalist Barbara Louise Gogan (old-timers will remember her work with The Passions).

Note that there are two versions of this album. The first has a credit for "Mr. X" and contains two different tracks by unknowns. The second owns up by crediting "David Sylvian" and replaces those tracks with ones by Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance. This obviously has more fan appeal but I prefer the former. (If anyone has a copy they'd part with...)

The second great Zazou album is Chansons des Mers Froides [Sony 1994], again something along the lines of a compilation with a theme. This time it's all female vocalists who invoke the north or a feeling of coldness. Among many brilliant unknowns there's a fantastic track by Bjork that's alone worth the price of admission. My version is all in French with many inserts -- nice.

Finally, I must mention the Barbara Gogan album Made on Earth [Crammed Discs 1997] for which Zazou composed a lot of the music, as well as being the arranger and producer. It's not ambient but has a great mix of pop, soundtrack, and even jazz aesthetics with some hipbeats and abstract lyrics. I cannot recommend this album enough.

All-Time Classic Ambient Albums (1999.01.29)

The problem of ambient.

The first is how to define it, an issue that various threads on this newsgroup have had to contend with. In order to choose "classic" albums in a given category it's necessary to know what that category entails. It's a given that no definition will please everyone, and that any definition is provisional at best. It's perhaps appropriate that such a definition should be a fractal borderline between a mostly-in and a usually-out.

My Pocket Oxford Dictionary has a one-word definition for ambient: "surrounding". This infers music as immersive experience and could include massively loud noise works, so long as they were appropriately textured. By this definition we do not expect an ambient piece of music to contain large variants in dynamics or rhythm. It would also be difficult for vocal music to be ambient, since vocals call attention to themselves as a shifting focal point. They are not (generally) immersive.

Brian Eno, generally regarded as the father of ambient music, said "I regard this music as environmental: to be experienced from the inside." This in 1982 from the liner notes to Ambient #4: On Land. Earlier, in 1978, accompanying the seminal Ambient #1: Music for Airports, he wrote "an ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint." He concluded, "Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." (Note: this text accompanied only the first edition of the record.)

Nowadays, ambient seems to refer to a whole class of electronic music derived from club-based dance genres, even if the music fails to meet any of the criteria stated above. This is easy to understand: ambient has become a marketing category.

As an antidote I'd like to provide a provisional list of albums, most of which can (more or less) be said to reflect the words: surrounding, immersive, atmosphere, influence, environmental.

Durutti Column: The Return of the Durutti Column [Factory 1979]
Brian Eno: Ambient #1: Music for Airports [Editions EG 1978]
Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music [RCA 1975]
Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook: Sleeps with the Fishes [4AD 1987]
Steve Reich: Early Works [Elektra/Nonesuch 1987]
Harold Budd: Lovely Thunder [Editions EG 1986]
E Voce Di U Cumune: Corsica: Chants Polyphoniques [Harmonia Mundi 1987]
Oliveros, Dempster, Panaiotis: Deep Listening [New Albion 1989]
Jeff Greinke: Cities in Fog [Intrepid 1985]
The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir: Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares [Elektra Explorer 1987]
Richard Jobson: "The Kiss, The Dance and The Death" from Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night [Les Disques Du Crepuscle 1983]
Somei Satoh: Litania (Margaret Leng Tan) [New Albion 1988]
Various: The Shining OST [WEA 1980]
Laraaji: Ambient #3: Day of Radiance [Editions EG 1980]
Bill Nelson: Chance Encounters in the Garden of Light [Cocteau 1988]
Will Sergeant: Themes for 'Grind' [92 Happy Customers 1982]
Cluster and Eno: Old Land [Sky 1988]
Arvo Part: Arbos [ECM 1987]
Recoil: Hydrology and 1+2 [Mute 1989]
Virginia Astley: From Gardens Where We Feel Secure [Happy Valley 1983]
Roedelius: Wenn Der Sudwind Weht [Sky 1981]
Bruce Gilbert: This Way to the Shivering Man [Mute 1987]
Brian Eno: Ambient #4: On Land [Editions EG 1982]
Gavin Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic [Les Disques Due Crepuscule 1990]
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Volume II [Warp 1994]
Bark Psychosis: Hex [Caroline 1994]
Charles Ives: "The Unanswered Question" from Symphony No. 2 (New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein) [Deutsche Grammophon 1990]
Thomas Koner: Permafrost [Barooni 1993]
Ingram Marshall: Three Penitential Visions / Hidden Voices [Elektra/Nonesuch 1990]
Oval: 94 Diskont [Thrill Jockey 1996]
Robert Rich and B. Lustmord: Stalker [Fathom 1995]
Seefeel: Quique [Too Pure 1993]
Michael Nyman: Gattaca OST [Virgin 1997]
Various: Endless 2 [Manifold 1995]
Various: Isolationism [Virgin 1994]

And most other Eno recordings. Naturally!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would agree with many of the recordings here, and I would add a true Ambient 'masterpiece' -- "Substrata" by Biosphere.

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