Ambient Music- A Personal View

As I said last week, labels for genres in music are a subject of huge disagreement, but can be useful (and fun to argue about).

It is perhaps debatable whether “ambient” music is music or not. The term was coined by Brian Eno. He was recovering from an accident; he put on an LP of harp music, then collapsed into bed. The volume was far to low and one channel was missing, but he found himself hearing the music in the context of all the sounds around. It was a different way of experiencing music, as sounds that we “hear but don’t hear” (David Toop). You might even say “listening but not listening” (Mark Oblique).

Ambient Music- Brian_Eno_(Prague,_2017) Brian Eno

Erik Satie, that very eccentric French composer, had the idea of ‘musique d’ameublement’ around the end of the 19th century. It was designed as music to fill the space in conversation, to dull the clatter of knives and forks. When he experimented with it he had to rush round to get people to carry on with their conversations rather than stop and listen. It was an idea before its time.

Ambient Music- Eric Satie by Suzanne Valadon Erik Satie

The background music called Muzak® was also written to be just that: a bland background, usually of strings, to make a softer ambience in shops, cafés and the like. Nowadays it seems to be replaced by pop music played at a very low volume.

But were Satie’s ‘musique d’ameublement’ and Muzak really ambient music? You were not meant to listen to them; in the case of Eno he was listening, which drew his attention to ambient sound. At its most basic, hearing or listening to ambient music could be thought of as just being aware of sounds in the environment. In that sense, would it really be music? Isn’t music created deliberately? Discuss. (10 marks)

Before the term ambient was used, John Cage wrote or conceived his piece 4′ 33”, in which the performer opens a piano lid and then closes it afer 4 minutes and 33 seconds to signal the end of the piece. Is it music? Or is it abstract art? Or is it a con? (10 marks. Use a pencil.)

However, the idea of ambience has given rise to the creation of a lot of interesting (but sometimes bland) music. There is a lot of music labelled as ambient which I feel is far from it. The label seems often to be another term for relaxed, minimalist and chillout music (see last week).

Having said that, the best work can be challenging, lovely or fun. There is a great sampler from the late lamented ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ of Exeter which has a whole range. (See footnote.)

Ambient Music001

At the other end from Eno and John Cage are Kraftwerk, whose track ‘Autobahn’ verges on ambience, incorporating sounds that evoke a late night motorway drive, down to the radio. I just wish somebody would do a very long mix of it, so that you could drive for hours with it on. (I don’t however feel that just adding a few sampled sounds to a track make it ambient, though that is not what Kraftwerk do.)

Ambient Music002

A book called ‘Ocean of Sound’, by David Toop, has an absorbing take on the whole subject of ambient sound and related ideas, with far more erudition and insight than I could ever attempt. I recommend it, although some passages now strike me as what used to be called “purple prose”.

Ambient Music003

I’m not going to attempt a definition of ambient music. I like it that any discussion of it inevitably leads to me listening to the sounds of the world. I used to play music low in the car and listen to the other sounds (tyre noise, engines, other car radios) that go on around it. I don’t think you can appreciate ambient music on headphones.

For fun, ambient sounds I have recently enjoyed include:

  • the hum of the refrigerator accompanied by the hum of my laptop

  • the roar of power tools, with the tapping of a cold chisel as a percussive coda

Oh, look what I did there, completely without thinking. I made constructs of the sounds, in the fashion of musical compositions. It reminds me of how as a teenager, unable to sleep, I’d listen out for the dawn chorus (surely louder then?) and imagine the sounds as a piece of music. Blackbirds, by the way, are sax soloists, repeating neat phrases with variations. But I’m rambling.

Maybe there is a continuum or spectrum involving ambience:

Ambient Music004

…and so on. Perhaps “music” occurs somewhere in between 3 and 4.

Enough of this. Theo Travis and Robert Fripp have a new album coming out which apparently could be labelled ambient. Go listen to that.

Footnote: The ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ were an offshoot of the Future Sound of Exeter, who put on some great gigs. The offshoot was often known as the SAS, which led to their two taglines: “Chill or Be Chilled” and “Mess with us and you’ll be going home in an ambience”. Both they and the FSOE now seem to be sadly defunct, and I don’t suppose you can get the sampler.

Photo of Eno by Jindřich Nosek (NoJin) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

Minimalist Music- A personal view

As with so many genres, it can be hard to define minimalist music. Obviously genres overlap. It could well be argued that they are irrelevant, but it is often useful to have a label to attach for the purposes of discussion and to aid new discoveries. To make an attempt, I would say that minimalism involves repetition, often at length, of relatively simple musical phrases, which gradually change as the music progresses. This of course is open to endless argument; examples are very useful. Here are my experiences.

Like so many people of my age, my first encounter with anything vaguely minimalist was Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. Some people are of the opinion that this was when minimalism became mainstream. For me, Tubular Bells is more symphonic, for want of a better word, or maybe a suite of connected themes. I still find it brilliant.

Minimalist Music 1

Around the same time, on the John Peel show, that wonderful source of inspiring (and infuriating) music, I heard ‘Fly and Collision of Comas Sola’ by Tangerine Dream. I remember this as swooshing electronic noises, more minimalist than Tubular Bells. At the time it was “interesting” but not really captivating, having much less structure that (say) Black Sabbath and other things I was familiar with. Having a listen to the inevitable YouTube posting of this it doesn’t appear to be minimal at all, as there is a lack of the repetition I associate with the genre.

At some point I bought, completely on spec, ‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ (1979) by Steve Hillage, just because it was by Steve Hillage. It was specially composed for the Festival of Mind and Spirit and was in a very cool transparent vinyl, which I couldn’t photograph very well here. This now seems much more minimalist, being gently moving arpeggios, sweeps and water sounds, although at the time I was disappointed by the complete lack of rock. Now I’ve got it on CD it seems, 39 years later, rather wonderful and beautiful.

Minimalist Music 4

Much later on, I bought (without having first heard it) Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’. This came about because I liked (still like) the band Curved Air, and was curious about the name. Terry Riley is one of the “West Coast” minimalists, and is generally accepted as one of the originators of the movement (if it is a movement) as a whole. I think A Rainbow in Curved Air still sounds modern. It has repetitive keyboard figures, which move and develop beautifully. Minimalism isn’t just repetition. (Embarrassing story: I played three minutes of this to my brother before noticing I had put the speed on 45 r.p.m., rather than 33r.p.m.)

Later we heard Philip Glass, another West Coast minimalist, play ‘Glassworks’ with his ensemble on the TV, and later saw the film ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ with his music as a soundtrack. It’s more challenging music, often with a fast tempo. He has since even composed opera. We saw him with his ensemble a couple of years ago. The concentration his musicians require is astonishing. It’s all live- no sampling or looping here.

Minimalist Music 5

All this prepared me for modern electronic music, although I again didn’t get it at first. The style I am thinking of goes by various names: techno, trance and so on. “Electronic Dance Music” seems to be the current one. There are certainly elements of minimalism in this- repetitive yet changing figures, often in blocks of 16 bars. I love lots of it: System 7, The Orb and Orbital are key names for` the styles I like. However I listen to it, rather than dance, which was its original purpose- far removed from the generally accepted view of minimalism, (Citation required would be Wikipedia’s comment- but I can say what I like, heh heh heh.) From this genre “chill out music”. This is essentially EDM without the beats and is more cool and contemplative, more akin to classical minimalism. ‘Mirror System’, a Steve Hillage/ Miquette Giraudy mirror to System 7, is a great and lovely example.

Minimalist Music 6

Minimalism used to be an acquired taste- perhaps all tastes are. My mother-in-law (a good classical pianist who heard the opening of ‘Tubular Bells’ and could straight away play it) was bemused by a TV documentary on West Coast minimalism. It is certainly not an instant hit; it does need to be listened to meditatively or as background music, almost ambient music at times. But more on ambient music another time. Minimalism can be very rewarding, given a little patience and open ears. If you don’t like it, there’s plenty more music out there.

Footnote: Steve Reich and Michael Nyman are other major minimalist music names; the latter is especially accessible and might be familiar from film soundtracks such as ‘The Piano’ and ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’.

10 Most Influential Albums

You have MSC to blame for this one. He did this list on Facebook and (sort of) challenged me to do it. So I have, but on WordPress. Pure self-indulgence……

These are not necessarily my favourite albums…. Although some are! They are the albums which I think have most influenced my musical taste. They are roughly in order of how they occurred to me. So……

Swing ’35- ’39 by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France

10 Most Influential Albums 4

There are probably more representative albums by the quintet. There are probably albums with better sound quality. All their work was originally recorded on 78 rpm shellac discs; I only have this on vinyl.

It starts with ‘Limehouse Blues’. They play the main tune sedately, twice. Then they’re off, ripping into some of the most brilliant solos ever, played by Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grapelli. I won’t go on; look them up, but listen to them. Jim Hodgson, our music teacher, played this to us one Christmas. I’m eternally grateful.

Master of Reality by Black Sabbath

Sorry, I can’t find a copyright free image.

I bought this purely on spec; I think I must have seen it advertised. It starts with the guitarist coughing on a huge spliff (so I have read); then there are two LP sides of definitive heavy metal riffs. It was the first time I had really heard music which was out of the ordinary; a rebellion if you like. It was my entry into what was then modern music. However, I never, ever played it loud, which probably resulted in a very different experience to most heavy metal kids. Then I sold it. I still don’t know why.

Live ’92 by The Orb

10 Most Influential Albums 3

Again, I bought this purely on speculation, along with ‘Trance Europe Express Vol 2’. It totally changed my perception of music. It introduced me to samples, drum machines, sequencers and, I suppose, ambient music.

Angel’s Egg by Gong

10 Most Influential Albums 1

There’s a theme emerging here. I bought this without hearing it after reading an article about Gong in a music magazine, on the same day as I bought ‘Swing ’35-39’. It totally changed my ears, changed the way I heard things. I suppose I first loved the fantastic musicianship: the Steve Hillage guitar solos, the Pierre Moerlen drumming, the Didier Malherbe sax playing (the first time I’d ever really got a saxophonist); then the incredible mythology and indefatigable positivity of Planet Gong; not forgetting Tim Blake’s futuristic synthesiser sounds. It started a love affair with Gong that has lasted more than 40 years.

Pick a Dub by Keith Hudson

pick-a-dub

I just picked this up at a record shop in exchange for some old albums, including ‘Master of Reality’ (exclamation mark!). Again it was utterly revolutionary for my ears, introducing me to a genre (Dub Reggae) which I had never before heard. It has to be heard on a decent sound system to appreciate the bass/ drum foundation, on top of which and around which the producer (Keith Hudson) makes his magic, dropping instruments in and out, applying deep echo, generally creating a sound world like no other. My original vinyl copy (for some strange reason attributed to the 2nd Street Dubs) was nicked but I now have it on CD.

Water Music/ Music for the Royal Fireworks by Handel, played by the London Symphony Orchestra

10 Most Influential Albums 6

This was the very first. They played it in assembly at my junior school and it has stuck with me ever since. The original LP was two suites, one on each side. I now have the complete Water Music on a CD, played by The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It’s music that makes me feel I can deal with anything; I may go down, but I will go down to glorious sounds.

Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

10 Most Influential Albums 7

I had heard quite a bit of Bob Dylan before this, mostly from two ‘Greatest Hits’ collections. This made me realise how creative he can be; here he produces a coherent two LP set of songs with that “wild, thin, mercury sound” and evocative lyrics. Besides, it’s got ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ on it, which totally changed how I saw love songs.

A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley

10 Most Influential Albums 5

This is again a different way of listening. It’s one of the first big minimalist pieces. It’s very melodic; the melody is repetitive, soothing and uplifting. You could meditate to it, listen to it while chilling, or just have it as a beautiful background.

The Essential John Renbourn by John Renbourn

10 Most Influential Albums 2

Magic. Lovely, skilled guitar playing; he is incapable of producing anything that is not pretty. Still underrated in my very humble opinion. This made me realise how great guitar playing does not have to involve pyrotechnics. (I just listened to this again and confirmed my opinion.) I saw him play three times and count myself very privileged.

and finally………

Bird’s Nest by Charlie Parker

10 Most Influential Albums 9

Charlie Parker, children, was a jazz alto saxophonist. I bought this in a spirit of adventure. I’ve read that Charlie Parker was a “towering personality”; a totally distinctive voice; a genius. I’m sorry to say that I JUST DON’T GET IT. I’ve tried and tried and given up. It has the same effect as opera: I can admire the skill and genius, but don’t enjoy it. I put this one in to point out that influential albums can be a negative influence as well as positive. No more bebop for me. (So why do I love the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and not this? I suppose I find it easier to follow the tune with the quintet.)

I enjoyed doing this, even if you didn’t enjoy reading it. It’s interesting that I bought most without having heard the artists first.

Thanks, MSC, who said he was sure most of the list would be albums I’d heard when I was young. That’s true, apart from The Orb and John Renbourn. How sad that more than half of the main makers of these albums are dead.

There are some omissions that might seem strange; but this is, as I have said, a list of influences rather than favourites. The Beatles? They were always there. Steve Hillage and System 7? They crept into my consciousness through Gong. What about God’s house band- The Penguin Café Orchestra? God’s composer- Bach? Hawkwind? Richard Thompson? The Moody Blues? I love them, but they perhaps did not rearrange my ideas in the same way. (The Desperate Bicycles did, but that was through a single.)

I’m looking forward to reading your list…..

 

 

‘Searching for the Spark’ by Steve Hillage

There’s no way I’m going to buy a £200, 22 CD box set, even if it is the work of one of my favourite musicians ever. I mean, when will I ever find time to listen to it all? I mean, I’ve got two of the CDs already, and more in vinyl form. No, I won’t be buying that….. Oh. I appear to have bought it.

For those who don’t know, Steve Hillage was firstly a guitarist and songwriter, who later developed into a maker of electronic music (and production). He came to prominence playing with Gong, the archetypal psychedelic band, who are still going strong, albeit in a very evolved form, and who are beloved by many (like me). Mr Hillage left Gong and had a very successful solo career, then formed System 7, a techno outfit, which has again been very successful. For many years he has worked with his long-time partner, Miquette Giraudy.

The box set has CDs ranging from his earliest work with the bands Arzachel (an earlier band called Uriel under an assumed name) and Khan, then all his solo albums up to the first System 7 CD. It also has live recordings and four fascinating collections of demos and private recordings.

Being a man who defers his pleasures (I feel there’s a blog in that) I took my time unpacking this set, which is part of the pleasure itself. There’s a book- a signed certificate- posters- another book, of photos- lyric booklets- and the CDs. Oh, and a badge. And a plectrum. Which you can use to prise out the CDs. All in a sturdy box, separated by foam layers.

Searching for the Spark

I’ve been attempting to listen to the CDs in chronological order. I’m only up to about number seven, but feel I can start to comment.

The LP versus CD versus download argument has been conducted on many occasions, but some of this collection makes the case for CDs very well. The sound is crisp and clear. It’s been remixed,and Mr Hillage is renowned for his high standards of production. There is a fresh feeling to old material. It enables one to trace the progression of the music.

The ‘bonus’ material is- yes, really- interesting. Much of the the live recordings and out-takes gives new insight into the evolution of songs, tunes, or even solos. Perhaps listening in a chronological way might result in fatigue; some songs must feature three or four times. There are a couple of live tracks where Steve’s voice sounds tired at the end of a tour. However, these are minor criticisms.

The book does give an informative view of the history of the music. It’s interesting to compare it with the more ‘out there’, creative approach to some of the same topics of Daevid Allen, founder of Gong, in his ‘Gong Dreaming’ books. (There’s another subject for a future blog.) It gives insight into how Miquette Giraudy played a larger and larger creative part in the music, leading up eventually to System 7. It emphasises how deeply committed and spritual Hillage is. The lyric books, and book of photos, are fun. The posters are…. of their time. I don’t feel they will be appearing on my wall any time soon.

Why have I written this? I don’t suppose anybody who reads it will want to buy ‘Searching for the Spark’, although it gets five stars from me. Maybe this is just a tribute to the man whose music has so often been a soundtrack for my life. If I get a choice, I will have ‘Fish Rising’ playing as I die.

Finally……

Oh me oh my, there’s a light in the sky.”

Grime: An Oblique View

Grimes

I have been challenged by Mr Oblique Junior to explain why I think he likes the musical genre of Grime. I had intended to write a post about Grime anyway, but this gives me a way to approach it.

Now listen carefully if you don’t know anything about Grime. According to Google, it is “a form of dance music influenced by UK garage, characterised by machine-like sounds”. It is not hip-hop, which features “rap with an electronic backing”; but apparently, our researchers tell us, it “draws influence from dancehall, ragga and hip-hop” (Wikipedia).

Clear? No, of course not. A curse of modern music is the continual argument about what defines a particular genre, to the extent that there have even been fictional genres created and believed. I like the idea of “Progressive Death Country”, although William Gibson was ahead of everybody else with fictional bands “Dukes of Nukem”, “Lo/Rez” and their ilk. No, I won’t explain. Go read William Gibson.

Grime is a particularly English genre. Prominent figures are Stormzy, Skepta and Dizzee Rascal. To appreciate what it is actually like you of course have to listen to it. To me, after some limited exposure, it’s characterised by a very bare, stripped down musical sound, almost minimalist dance music with often clever elements of electronica, with lyrics rapped in what seems to me frequently to be a very slow style across the top. But, as I said, you have to listen to it to appreciate what it is.

What seems to characterise it lyrically is a preoccupation with sex and violence, and usually a focus on the personal life- even the life as a celebrity- of the writer. I am not necessarily referring to any of the artists  named.

There really is in some of it a very dismissive attitude towards women and what really grates on this middle-class, late middle-aged, rather liberal-minded, white male listener is the frequent use of the N-word and the B-word. Oh, go on, you know the words I mean.

I’ll probably keep my f***ing b*****s ’til I’m 49”

goes the lyric I’m being played at the moment. Although that may not be grime, I believe.

“I make her think I love her, so I can f*** her when I want.”

However, to put my point of view was not the aim of this blog. Why does my 21 year old son like Grime?

He is very open about music, and will patiently listen to my choices, to the point of planning to come to a techno gig with us. I wonder if to some extent the fact that I am uncomfortable with the lyrics is a factor in his liking for it. Although we might deny it (I certainly did- but see “An anecdote” below) there is perhaps for all of us a wish to move on from the music of our parents and perhaps to shock them; or just to find something that is our own, and definitely not theirs.

I am sure that this wish is often unconscious, and I am sure that this is not the only reason or the main reason for Mr Oblique Junior liking Grime. The music is very striking, bare, new and challenging. It is a very fresh and young form of music; I wonder if anybody over 30 makes it or really gets it. It’s rebel music for a new generation. I speculate that this is the appeal to him.

So there you are. It is of course about the music, but it’s also about the cultural aspects. Popular music is all about change, and all about moving on from the choices of previous generations. Disco (still don’t really get it), punk (oh yes), and then electronica (definitely) were all new forms of music that moved me on from the rock music of my teenage years. But certainly for me, Grime is beyond the point at which I can understand my children’s choice in music. No, I don’t really understand why Mr O. Jr. likes it. Try asking him.

Please note: I almost certainly don’t understand the nuances of the N word as used in grime and hip-hop. Apparently the spelling, with an -a rather than an -er, makes it acceptable when used by certain groups.

An anecdote: When I was a teenager, I only used to listen to records when my parents were out. When they came back from the shops one day, Tony McPhee of the Groundhogs was concluding a rather noisy feedback guitar solo on that catchy little number, ‘Split Part 4’. My father and I had a very rare parent/ teenager spat:

HIM: Do you call that music?

ME: It’s better music than your silly old Beethoven.

Ho-hum. He did later go in with me on a new hi-fi system we could listen to away from the living room.

 

A Literary Wedding

DSCN6753Briefly- We went to a lovely wedding the other day, where there was something of a literary theme: hearts on the table punched out from a copy of Pride and Prejudice, paper bouquets made from books and magazines, themed course names, and so on.

 

 

DSCN6752I particularly liked being asked to choose a present for myself: a book from a selection made by the bride and groom. The idea provoked discussion and pleasure. I know it has motivated some guests to read, or to read something new. I chose ‘Underworld’ by Don de Lillo, as the groom particularly recommended it. Looks like a cue for a blog review. Eventually; it’s huge. Thank you, Michael and Christy-Anne

To be a hippy, 2017

We were passing through Glastonbury, for the first time in many years. I was pleased to see that it still had shops selling healing crystals, joss sticks and, for all I know, kaftans. There were still colourfully dressed types walking through the streets, some of them looking a little dazed and out of touch with the year 2017.

What does it mean to be a hippy in 2017?” I asked Mrs Oblique.

She thought carefully.

Well, now it’s making a statement. It used to be just…. being.” Which got me thinking.

A hippy was, I believe, somebody who espoused freedom, rejecting the conventions of the time and living according to their own ideals. This inevitably led to them developing new conventions of their own, typically an acceptance of drug use and sexual freedom. Hippies also had a certain convention of dress, typically colourful and loose. Hair was worn long. “Flower power” was the key phrase.

New conventions perhaps now had to be followed to be a hippy, which of course ran counter to the ideal of freedom. (I am sure some of the original hippies would object to this reading.) I suppose that 1967 was the high point of the movement. It couldn’t last, despite ecstatic welcoming of the “Age of Aquarius”. It turned into a fashion style, rather than a lifestyle. Eventually, musically at least, punk came along and rejected it, in characteristically energetic style. Unfortunately some punks had an aggressive approach to life; Daevid Allen, leader of the ultimate psychedelic band, Gong, and probably an archetypal (and certainly peace-loving) hippy, was allegedly nearly lynched at a B******* R**** concert when the singer, one B** G*****, saw him and urged the audience to “kill the hippy”.

Mrs Oblique, upon further discussion, said that she thought originally hippies did not necessarily call themselves hippies; they just were what they were. I’m not sure if there is anybody who calls themselves a hippy now; but what does it mean to be a hippy in 2017 if this is not just a fashion statement?

I would say that a hippy is still someone who espouses freedom and lives according to their own ideals. This cannot mean, and has never meant, that they have no morals or responsibilities. We live in a hugely interdependent and interconnected world. It is almost impossible to live “off the grid”, at least in the UK, if that is your idea of freedom. It is also certainly wrong to interfere with the freedoms of others. In this I am with the duchess, who, I seem to remember, on being told of the activities of Oscar Wilde, said: “My dear- as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”

It is, however, possible to live something of the hippy ideal; going your own way; perhaps being as independent as possible; perhaps being as self-sufficient as possible. I am exposing my own instincts here, but sadly I don’t follow them.

Incidentally, since writing this, I saw a mention of “rich hippies” in a newspaper. Clearly I have a different view of what the word means; or perhaps it is now just a fashion statement. Do a search for images on the word “hippy” to see what this means.

I finish with a cartoon by Mrs O. This is a reimagining of an original idea I saw in a music paper long ago. Please contact me about any copyright issues!

Hippy and mother