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Stop, Children, What's That Sound?

Fripp and Eno couldn't have seen this stuff coming.



Tim Hecker

Mirages (Alien8)

Washer, Zimmer, & the Guitar People

Eat Your Friends (Keplar)


Axolotl (Psych-o-path)

The experienced listener should wish rather to broaden his appreciation to include every known species of tone color. --Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music, 1939

In the visual arts, abstraction is as established and respected as any other mode of expression. It's appreciated by more than just an elite audience of scholars--college freshmen hang Kandinsky posters in their dorm rooms. In A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, art critic Richard Kostelanetz argues that abstraction goes back 7,000 years, and points to the rejection of the figurative in Islamic religious art as a less ancient example. This prohibition of "graven images" draws viewers away from the mundane objects of the world and toward a state of attention unbound by familiar categories--an openness to infinite possibility that many people experience as spiritual.

Anyone walking past an Ellsworth Kelly color field can distinguish it from a painting of a tree. In music, though, it's difficult to even define abstraction--mostly because music, lacking the visual arts' power to represent, is always a little abstract to begin with. A picture or a sculpture can be "of" something, but at best a song is "about" its subject, and in most cases it needs lyrics to get that far. Instrumental music can evoke moods or settings--churchy, triumphal, melancholy--but it's difficult for it to do much more. Some players attempt to reproduce familiar noninstrumental sounds: Rockabilly guitarists imitate clucking chickens, and a thousand blues songs chug and shuffle like a train. In the contemporary classical realm, Olivier Messiaen transcribed birdsong, and Charles Ives enshrined the sounds of small-town life in compositions like The Gong on the Hook and Ladder, or Firemen's Parade on Main Street.

In most cases, though, musicians don't attempt any sort of representation, and the only specific image that comes to mind when you listen to a recording is that of the performers and instruments used to create it. With representation off the table, abstraction can only be a meaningful category with respect to those performers and instruments--that is, with respect to the source of the sound, not its meaning. If you've never heard or seen a bassoon before, you won't have a mental picture to go along with its tone, even if you're listening to an unadorned live recording of one.

While it's usually easy to tell that an abstract painting or photograph was created with paint or a camera, in abstract music, sounds are deliberately detached from their sources, not just from referents--it's impossible to say what generated the sound in the first place. This approach began in intellectual circles in the early 50s, reached a popular audience in the early 70s, and today exists as a folk form. Three records released in 2004--Tim Hecker's Mirages, Washer, Zimmer & the Guitar People's Eat Your Friends, and a self-titled disc by the San Francisco duo Axolotl--demonstrate the vitality and variety of the genre. It's a lot like punk rock, in that anyone can do it; the necessary technology gets cheaper and easier to use every year.

In the 50s composers like Iannis Xenakis in Greece, Edgard Varese in France, and Pauline Oliveros and John Cage in the States began experimenting with tape manipulation, analog processing, and primitive digital sound synthesis to create music that existed solely as recordings. It wasn't just impossible to picture the ensemble that might be playing this material--such an ensemble couldn't exist. By the early 60s, terms like "tape music," "electroacoustic music," and the overused and frequently misused "musique concrete" had arisen to describe these emerging styles.

These composers were mostly unconcerned with accessibility--they were creating new sonic worlds, but they didn't try to lure people into them. In 1962 cartoon composer and synthesizer pioneer Raymond Scott teamed with Epic Records in an effort to buck this trend, but his electronic trilogy Soothing Sounds for Baby failed to inspire many babies (or many parents, for that matter) to embrace the aesthetic.

American composer John Cage championed the freedom that abstraction gave a listener with a clarity few have matched. He offered a corrective to the notion of abstract music as the product of an ivory-tower clique by pointing out its timeless spiritual qualities, but unsurprisingly he didn't reach a mass audience either. In his 1959 article "History of Experimental Music in the United States," Cage writes, "Why is this so necessary that sounds should be just sounds? There are many ways of saying why. One is this: In order that each sound may become the Buddha. If that is too Oriental an expression, take the Christian Gnostic statement: 'Split the stick and there is Jesus.'" The listener could create an independent world out of the sound, because it wasn't attached to or subsumed into any meaning or image in this world. Rather than turning its back on reality, abstract music created a reality of its own, superimposed on the first, that deepened the listener's appreciation of ordinary experience.

Very soon after these radical approaches emerged, musicians in more concrete idioms began to borrow from them: in 1954 New York-based composers Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky added abstract elements to a conventional classical approach for A Poem in Cycles and Bells, and by the late 60s abstract textures had permeated rock, from Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland to the Silver Apples' self-titled debut. Then in 1973 Robert Fripp and Brian Eno released the landmark album (No Pussyfooting)--which, as both an aesthetic breakthrough and a prominent commercial release, helped solidify the middle ground.

At the time Fripp was playing guitar in King Crimson and Eno had injected his chaotic synthesizer into the first two Roxy Music albums, but the high profile of (No Pussyfooting) wasn't just a function of their notoriety. Fripp and Eno had made a deliberately pretty record, one that invited audiences to embrace new ways of listening. The relaxed pace and simple tonality allow the ear to freely explore its detailed, inventive sounds, and the occasional fragments of recognizable guitar playing are a surprisingly effective way to push the background into the foreground: each fades slowly, as though taking listeners gently by the hand and leading them into the midst of the carefully layered textures around it.

Of course, abstract sounds lose their power as they become familiar and audiences learn to associate them with a definable idiom. Groups like the Cocteau Twins and Flying Saucer Attack used guitar techniques heavily indebted to Fripp's reprocessed tones on a series of influential albums in the 80s and 90s, but none represent the paradigm shift that (No Pussyfooting) does. Ambient music is a definable idiom now. If each sound is to continue to become the Buddha, artists have to push the envelope--listeners can't be expected to respond to flanged and tape-delayed guitar as though they haven't been hearing it for more than 30 years.

Fortunately digital technology has made it relatively easy to create a broad range of sounds that have few referents even for an educated listener: these days it's almost impossible to be sure whether you're listening to an analog keyboard, for instance, or a digitally reprocessed tap on the bottom of an aluminum bowl. Perfectly sustained sounds and fine-grained textures, extremes at both ends of the frequency spectrum, and sharp transient spikes--all of which were difficult or impossible to produce with Fripp and Eno's tape-based processing--are now at a composer's fingertips. Whether the future pace of innovation will be enough to prevent audiences from growing acclimated to these new noises remains to be seen. But between 1995 and 2000, German electronic composer Wolfgang Voigt released four discs under the name Gas that suggest innovation may win the race.

The Gas albums are smothered in a rolling, undulating bed of low frequencies that defines the movement and shape of the music. Each tone pulses regularly, but every tone pulses at a different speed, so that no single tempo can emerge. Snippets of high-pitched, percussive crackling function as subtle ornament, not as rhythmic driver--though they repeat regularly, they're neither steady nor metered. The overall texture is murky, dirty, even cheap sounding, a radical departure from the cleanliness and sterility of most electronic music before 1995--even Pauline Oliveros's aptly titled 1967 piece "Alien Bog" sounds pristine by comparison. More surprising, after two or three listens this claustrophobic, assaultive noise begins to feel warm, even beautiful.

Like (No Pussyfooting), the four Gas releases provided musicians with a starting point for sonic exploration, not a narrow set of constraints. And since the final Gas album in 2000, computers have gotten faster and more portable and cheap digital technology has become even more ubiquitous. You can now buy a downsampling distortion box--which garbages up a 16-bit signal, for example, by reducing it to 8 bits--for just 40 dollars. Tim Hecker, Axolotl, and Washer, Zimmer & the Guitar People use this sort of gadgetry (though the liner notes don't say exactly what--ambient artists often prefer to leave some mystery intact regarding the creation of their signature sounds) to further expand Voigt's radical palette, in some cases coupling it with conventional performances in an approach similar to that on (No Pussyfooting). Their recent albums provide comfortable, sometimes beautiful contexts in which listeners can explore sonic extremes.

On a hypothetical ambient spectrum with Fripp and Eno at one end and Gas at the other, Tim Hecker is neatly in the center. Mirages, released by the Canadian label Alien8 in September, owes an obvious debt to the harsh, thick, digitally damaged sounds of Gas. But Hecker places his undulating buzzes and brutal cutups alongside warm, analog-sounding drones a la (No Pussyfooting), and overall his style is sparser and more spacious than Voigt's. The individual layers in Hecker's music are easier to pick out, so it's easier to hear exactly how destroyed each one is.

Some of the sounds on Mirages are made by live instruments (the credits name outside musicians on three tracks, including the band Fly Pan Am), but Hecker twists their sounds so mercilessly that Eno's handling of Fripp's guitar seems delicate. There are definitely guitar and piano on this album, but it's sometimes hard to tell which is which. Notes begin abruptly, with the natural attack of pick on string cropped out, and they sometimes stutter or repeat more quickly than a human performer could manage--the musician's fingers have been subordinated to the editor's vision. Even when you're sure you're hearing a guitar, you can't be sure it's being played by a human--it could be a sampled lick or even a purely digital construction. Mirages doesn't contain anything as recognizable as Fripp's reassuring solos on (No Pussyfooting), but it does occasionally place simple melodies in the foreground to similar effect: when they drop out, they lead the listener back to the bizarre textures that make up the heart of the music.

Washer, Zimmer & the Guitar People also draw from ambient styles old and new, but as the name suggests, this German group tilts toward a rock idiom. The "guitar people" on Eat Your Friends (released late last spring on the band's own Keplar label) are Florian Doelzer and Matthias Neuefeind, who contribute unprocessed electric guitar and bass lines. ("Washer, Zimmer" is Andreas Kurz and Henry Ok.) It's almost a shock to hear immediately recognizable instruments on a record like this, but it's not unprecedented: in press releases Washer, Zimmer have openly acknowledged the influence of 90s ambient innovators Labradford, who also used relatively clean guitar and bass sounds.

The instruments on Eat Your Friends move parallel to layers of digital fluttering and churning, sometimes taking the fore, sometimes receding into the background. Warm, familiar analog-style drones provide a stable foundation, while warbling sounds percolate wildly through space. Repeating percussion patterns function as ornamentation here as well, not as a central pulse. Brief, simple melodies repeat several times and drop out, and the roughly four-minute "songs" have recognizable structures that build and fade, with beginnings, middles, and ends. Overall the music feels like a kind of primitive, schizophrenic pop, surprisingly friendly and unified despite its kitchen-sink aesthetic.

On their recent self-titled album on Psych-o-Path, San Francisco duo Axolotl move in a direction far more difficult to name. Like Fripp and Eno, Karl Bauer and William Sabiston use loops made from organic instruments--though Bauer's awkwardly sawed violin replaces Fripp's guitar, and the looping isn't seamless but hiccups at each repetition. Vaguely tribal percussion and drums are the only other halfway recognizable instruments. (A third member, guitarist Brian Tester, doesn't appear on the album.)

Axolotl has percolating digital sounds like Washer, Zimmer and grainy processing like Hecker, but despite these commonalities, it's a much more unforgiving record. On Mirages the elements seem to arrange themselves organically, as though Hecker were conducting a hands-off experiment with a closed ecosystem, and on Eat Your Friends they feel purposefully and carefully aligned. But Axolotl constantly subverts any internal order it establishes; if its construction is purposeful rather than random, then it's deeply perverse. Though the record's metabolism is slow--as in most ambient music, nothing happens too suddenly--the tracks seem to begin and end arbitrarily. Textures jostle uneasily--no effort is made to reconcile the crude violin sound with the digital layers, for instance--and elements enter and drop out at unintuitive moments. Only the warm sonic palette and rich variety of sounds work to entice a listener; everything else seems designed to throw people off. Maybe the band is just trying to stay ahead of the curve--confounding your audience is a predictable side effect of such an effort, if not an inevitable one.

Axolotl's twisted and intriguing aesthetic is one of many idiosyncratic visions that have proliferated in ambient music, spurred both by increasing access to digital technology and by artists' desire to continue to differentiate themselves from each other as the pool of already familiar sounds grows larger and larger. Abstract ambient music has its roots in impersonal academic theory--John Cage, for example, sought to remove the composer from the composition, a stance he famously demonstrated in the "silent" piece 4'33". But as the genre has spread around the world, it's been taken up by musicians with no respect for (and perhaps no knowledge of) those old ideas. At the heart of ambient music is still the desire to create a deeper, more complete kind of attention in a listener, but few people continue to insist that it's necessary to do so with abstract sounds alone. Personality has crept into the idiom, in countless different ways--something that can only be good for the genre's vitality in the long run.

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