As the days gradually shorten and thin, languid, woodsmoke-laced scents permeate the air signaling the imminent arrival of fall, I often return to Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s 1984 collaboration, The Pearl. The record is a sort of personal soundtrack to the slowing-down of the world, and it has come to represent the beautiful sadness of the changing seasons to me. It’s also one of the best albums in the canon of what Eno himself dubbed ambient music – music that is “intended to enhance [environments]… intended to induce calm and space to think… able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular… ignorable as it is interesting.” That definition has certainly expanded and warped over the nearly four decades since Eno used it in the liner notes to his pioneering Music for Airports album. It seems nowadays that it’s haphazardly applied to anything vaguely repetitive, gauzily electronic or otherwise ‘experimental,’ but I always find that some of the most interesting new ambient records can somehow fit within the definition as Eno wrote it, bending the boundaries, but not breaking them – those that can dissolve into the background as simple textural addition to an atmosphere but also open up with subtle complexity the deeper one delves. 2014 has been a great year for that sort of record, and here are a few that have been constantly present on the turntable:
Kyle Bobby Dunn – Kyle Bobby Dunn and the Infinite Sadness (SOD107)
The latest release from Kyle Bobby Dunn is a massive three LPs of ambient drone. That statement might ostensibly suggest monotony, but Dunn does well to present his ideas with a great deal of dynamism. Shorter pieces that develop quickly provide balance to those that patiently unfold, creating an ideal setting for the listener to find meaning between each end of the spectrum. And with titles like “Duck Faced Fantasy” and “Boring Foothills of Foot Fetishville” that lighten the mood but still aptly describe the music, it seems to suggest that Dunn might look at the world a bit like Kurt Vonnegut would have – yeah, it’s cruel and heartless place, but we might as well poke fun at it on the way down.
Christopher Bissonnette – Essays in Idleness (KRANK187)
On his latest album for the Kranky label, Christopher Bissonnette built an analog synthesizer and used it exclusively for the recording of Essays in Idleness. It eschews the usual repetitiveness of ambient music for a wandering exploration of sound and harmony. It makes a statement and then moves on to the next idea. Harsh, jagged tones mesh with meandering oscillations. It isn’t the normal soothing collection of swells and drones, but it nonetheless exudes a certain kind of calm, combining the expansive and personal in the same landscape.
Bitchin’ Bajas – Bitchin’ Bajas (DC592)
Bitchin’ Bajas is the closest this list is going to come to recommending any sort of New Age ideology. True, the band’s self-described raison d’etre is to create music that is relaxing and soothing, but somehow the bubbly synthesizers and sparkling melody lines don’t evoke images of self-help sessions presided over by unicorns or soft-focus scenes from Legend (though I suppose some Tangerine Dream comparisons might be appropriate when stripped of that imagery). Rather, it creates a path for a journey and suggests imagery along the way. Of course, if these embellishments are too much for your palette, the band has simultaneously released a Relaxation Mixes version of the record that dispenses with all that activity. Turn off your mind and float downstream, indeed.
[For Field Note Stenographers, 2014]