Ambient manifesto

I spent last weekend in Boston for the Kranky Records showcase at Brainwaves Fest 2008. Kranky is my favorite label, because they put out long, slow, intensely boring music. Ambient music traces the shape of my heart, filling it with abstraction more potent than words.

Kranky is home to Stars of the Lid, a band I saw twice that weekend—once at the moody Le Poisson Rouge theater in Manhattan, and again at Brainwaves day 3. Stars of the Lid are a rotating string quartet anchored by the creative vision and electric guitar of Brian McBride. They are a perfect realization of concept in sound, with each of their expansive instrumental albums evoking star-streaked galaxies gliding through space.

For their LPR show, SotL played to a seated audience on a pitch black stage with only the tiny blue stand lights to illuminate the score. Behind them, projections of diffuse color in the purple-pink hues of nebulas and dust were cast across the length of the stage, flickering and dimming as the music swelled and burst.

I often wonder how anyone not accustomed to the style of SotL would react to a show. It is not demanding music, though it does require patience. It is not challenging nor discordant, though it is as loud as rock. Anyone could agree that it is exceedingly listenable; but would they catch even a glimpse of the sublime I would feel?

The kind of ambient rock played by SotL is sentimental, dramatic and intense; but so am I, so it suits me well. SotL and other favorites of mine work in long form with less structure and more gradual evolution. They sacrifice melody and lyrics for textures and tones. Ambient is also a fragmented form. This music relies less on bucketing its sounds into verse-chorus-verse, and instead gives us a series of impressions, abstract and indistinct, freed from the rules of song. Each musical fragment defines its own edges and bleeds into the next; sound vignettes smeared across time.

Instrumental music like this does not attract listeners easily. I’ve learned that people often connect with the message in the words from their favorite songs. But for me, lyrics are a distraction that demand their own memories and associations, separate from the music below it. Likewise, highly structured music is its own symbolic language, that tells its story by referencing the song form itself. Both of those things activate my thoughts and interrupt my experience of raw emotion. Words are once removed from feeling, and wordless music bypasses thought and connects directly to sense. It is music that allows you to reach a height of bliss that burns away the chatter, and makes your mind quiet by pouring your heart full.

Stars of the Lid

Stars of the Lid @ Brainwaves Festival 2008 (Brainwashed.com) from nariposa on Vimeo.

Doug Aitken’s Sonic Happening

Doug Aitken "Sonic Happening"
Doug Aitken’s “Sonic Happening” with White Rainbow, Lichens, Arp
@ 303 Gallery, Manhattan, NY 10-22-2008

Doug Aitken showcased his triple screen film installation Migration before an audience of the art hip, with guest improvisors to create the ambient soundtrack live.

Here are my unedited impressions jotted at the event—

Beautiful triple screen wide format HD video, with footage that takes full advantage of the vibrant color and crisp detail. Scenes consisted of stills and abstracts alternating with live animals exploring surreal and unlikely places. The screen was so large and the quality so fine you could see the tiny mesh of a window screen flush with the pink light of sunset, the grain pattern on a desk in an abandoned hotel room, the hairs on a beaver’s back as they caught golden light, and the textured gleam of closeup faucets, door handles, chain locks, and other sleek inanimate characters. The pace of the camera was slow and hypnotic, as movement passed gently from moving frame to now moving subject to now shifting depth of field. It was really art photography in motion—like Koyaanisqatsi performed live.

The film invited such close attention that several scenes are unforgettable.

And the backing music was so beautiful and fitting for the captivating visual presentation. I felt the little gasp that occurs inside, when the first note falls and you realize the show is going to be good—that it is exactly what you came to hear.

It was one hour of landscape sound emanating from beneath the landscape scenery. The music was an electroacoustic landscape for the lush scenery pictured above. It had the same minimalist clarity of subject, with a thin texture and close focus on one or two elements at a time. It captured the same pointilistic stillness as the slow moving austere frames on screen. And both were absent human subject, with the nonverbal vocalizations obscured beyond recognition and the players themselves cloaked in dim light.

White Rainbow played out the end of the set alone. It was the 5th time I’d seen him perform in so many cities over the past couple years. I am in love with his sound and I want to live in it, always.

Wu Fei with Erik Friedlander at The Stone, NYC

Wu Fei

My second show at The Stone, Manhattan’s tiny experimental concert space came by recommendation from a friend back home. This venue reminds me of Austin’s Hyde Park Theater, with its intimate seating, black walls, simple mood lighting and worn hardwood floors. As Wu Fei remarked during her introduction, “the night is cold but the room is warm.”

A staffer told me no photography is allowed, but the combination of lovely white spotlight against the ornate carvings of Wu Fei’s folk harp was too much to resist. I allowed myself two discreet shots taken at two unobtrusive moments.

The folk harp is called guzheng, or zheng/cheng, which is a type of zither. This instrument comes from China. I first heard a cheng performed by Adam Pierce while touring with his band Mice Parade. More recently I’ve been in love with the string music of French musician Colleen, herself a fan of exotic instruments both plucked and bowed. Recalling these points of reference I knew I would enjoy the show.

Sitting in the front row I could hear every feature of her unmic’ed guzheng–the creaks of the bridge as the strings strained against, the fingertips of her idle hand coming to rest on the string, and the faintest notes as they levitated and evaporated against the unlit black.

This was an evening of songs of folk tune length with accompanist Erik Friedlander, using some conventional eastern harmony and some unconventional technique and form.  Erik slapped and strummed his cello like a bass guitar, while Fei worked the back end of the string to accent or alter the pitch from the front.

Before the second piece she said “there it goes–have to tune already!” which is ironic because the following song was particularly full of out of tune notes, both in relation to scale and in relation to temperament.  These free-pitched notes came from the untuned back end of the guzheng (behind the bridge), marring the front end euphony to beautiful, earthy effect.

The third song brought the unexpected entrance of Wu Fei’s dulcet singing voice, with just a few plainsong words to play out the tune. The fourth song gave us more vocals, that you could tell were not words, but somehow still phonetically Chinese.  Coming to a venue that describes itself as experimental and avant-garde, I didn’t expect to hear such folksy and unpretentious cooing, the kind that brings to mind early blues–if such a feeling could be applied to her unique and adventurous musical style.

The highlight of the brief program was a showstopper drone, so moving and intense that I thought, “Who should I have brought to this show?” and “Who should I tell afterwards?”  Cellos are really made for drones, with their capacity for long bowed chords, a low anchoring register, fretless wavering of pitch, and a bright and beautiful tone. It’s a sound that billows out and fills the room, thick and heavy, even as it comes from such a relatively small acoustic source. Wu Fei’s singing over this was slight and silken by contrast, gliding through cheery and sonorous intervals and lingering on the piercing high peaks.  I know the twenty or so other audience members agreed with me, as the song ended with murmurs of appreciation.

The final song was chilly and bare in comparison, full of pointillistic tones each isolated in their own beat, pulled and pushed outside of their home pitch by slow and poignant bends.  I thought the words for this one must tell a life story, one equally bleak as the musical mood.

The set ended early I thought at fifty minutes, though that may be typical for this venue.  I overheard talk of an earlier performance with Brandon Seabrook and Trevor Dunn, and vowed to follow The Stone‘s calendar more closely.  Shows of this sort occur several nights a week, contributing to uniquely New York danger of death by overstimulation.  Wu Fei herself will appear there a couple more times, and she plays again with Erik Friedlander on this Saturday at Barbes in Brooklyn.  I hope to catch her once more for an album and an encore before her NYC stay ends.