by Adam Rothbarth
What does it mean to listen to ambient music? And what does it mean to want to listen to ambient music? These are questions that most self-appointed frontiersmen and frontierswomen of musical culture grapple with at one point or another. The most popular account I’ve heard of the attraction to ambient music is that one can put it on while he or she does something else, i.e., one can simultaneously listen to and ignore it. The question then, for me, concerns how to take up a discussion of a particular kind of art whose aesthetic experience involves, for many, the desire to not experience it; or, rather, that experiencing it, for many, requires its subordination to another activity.
The majority of ambient music seems to reside in a form of despair; it exists most often in a state of being, relying merely on the passing of time itself to serve as its dramatic momentum, engaging the listener in a largely static sonic-auratic experience. Music like Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports (et al) leaves one suspended in a state of arrhythmic buoyancy, less giving the feeling of a journey than one of floating out in space or in water. I can see why works like this are attractive in certain contexts, and I would be remiss if I claimed never to listen to this kind of music when doing homework or closing my eyes, but I nevertheless always get the feeling that, like the music of Erik Satie—arguably the godfather of ambient music—these works aren’t meant to be listened to and thought about, but felt and, to some degree, ignored.
If great art today should be, as Trotsky said, a protest against reality, then, ideally, popular artists would seek to distinguish themselves by addressing the status quo aesthetic experience, which would mean investigating the act of listening in a unique way. And, of course, this is what the ambients sought to do, to take back time, so to speak, by shifting the focus of the music to its tone, atmosphere, mood, and seeming improvisatory autonomy. Many popular ambient composers rallied against the strophic, repetitive nature of popular music, relying on the predisposition of the modern subject towards constantly hearing music but not actually being able to listen to it. However, instead of attending to the category of tonality as something to be transformed or further critiqued, the ambients and the minimalists—as well as the diaspora of serious postmodern composers after WWII—offered up their own response to the modernist critique of tonality as first nature (the modernist composers critiqued the belief that tonal organization was an a priori musical form). What the modernists such as Schoenberg, Webern, and Stravinsky did to music was akin to what Pollock did to art: they questioned the methods and techniques that had been taken for granted and sought to work through those art forms from within. The response of the ambients and minimalists to these developments seems, however, to gesture more toward submission to the elements of music rather than domination or radicalization of them. What connects the ambients to the modernists, in this case, is that the ambients took themselves to be doing something critical.
Many postmodern ambient and serious composers continue to ruminate on what tonality means, and their tendencies still are often oriented at examining the subject’s reaction to prolonged arpeggiated tonic triads, profoundly extended dominant prolongations, and the slow-motion acoustic or electronic tones and overtones. Some modern ambient composers that engage the latter category seek to penetrate and illuminate the overtone series, to present it as a frozen glacier that one can examine from the outside. Some contemporary composers that have bordered on ambient, like Keith Fullerton Whitman with his Playthroughs and Multiples, actually aim to penetrate tonality itself, investigating what lies in between the waves of single tones. These works are original, then, as they aim to investigate tonality from within, literally. The difference between the Eno school and someone like Whitman (as well as numerous other electronic composers) is that one asks the question “How can tonality be organized after the developments of the first half of the 20th century?” when the other asks “What happens within tonality and do we have the technology to begin to understand it?” While the latter is preferable to me, both in terms of taste and what I believe to be its truth content and critical capacity, it is perhaps the former that advances an immediate truth about music after 1950 and the poverty of postmodernism. Ultimately most of the works in this category throw adherence to formal law out the window, mistaking the appearance of freedom for the actual formal essence of it. There is no envisioning of becoming or of the other, only new methods of being.
Tim Hecker’s Love Streams is a rich and unique investigation of the intersection of ambient, electronic, and noise music. If one of those categories had to be predominant, I would call it ambient (this is certainly the approach of his live shows). Love Streams isn’t strictly electronic because there are acoustic sounds, including vocal parts, and it isn’t strictly ambient because there are functional passages and many of the songs have some discernible rhythm, even if, in some cases, the rhythm is only given by a fraction of the synthesizer voices or, more frequently, the bass or soprano voice during harmonic sequences. There are numerous classic noise stretches on the record, pointing back to his two most recent LPs Ravedeath, 1972 (2011) and Virgins (2013); “Castrati Stack,” for example, opens with sputtering noise moments, which are given context by the increasingly focused vocal parts orchestrated above, creating a sort of neo-wall of sound effect. Bach, the consummate liturgical composer, conceived of the apex moments of his counterpoint as the point on the holy crucifix where the two straights transversed. In Love Streams Hecker is focused most on the moments where tonality and noise enter into confrontation.
The record is, in fact, often tonally organized, containing both diatonic and modal cadences. It also takes a unique approach to intonation, which frequently includes beautifully detuned synthesizer sounds, blurring the lines between the 12 established tones of classical tonality, entering into the tradition of 20th-century microtonality. The modal aspects of the record point towards Hecker’s proclaimed interest in 15th century counterpoint and the music of Joasquin Des Prez. The primary difference between the Renaissance counterpoint of Des Prez and that of the subsequent Bach’s Baroque music was the question of tonal organization: in the Renaissance the focus was on the individual melodic lines and an attention to the rules of counterpoint, and any resulting harmony came from the points of vertical intersection between the lines. This is to say that for Des Prez, harmony was a function of counterpoint, whereas for Bach, it could be argued, the counterpoint preceded more from an attention to harmony.
Songs like “Bijie Dream” reach a level of complexity that is, for me, the ideal of this type of electronic music: to create sounds whose origins seem incomprehensible to the untrained ear and temporalities that feel unfamiliar. The track opens with various synthesizer tones played over an ambiguous bass, all of which come into focus when an ominous, pointillistic sound cluster enters. Perhaps other electronic musicians will understand how Hecker achieves these kinds of sounds, but for the lay listener, it is mysterious and new. In that sense the record evokes moments from Aphex Twin’s recent album Syro—one of the most complex and intricately composed electronic records in recent memory. What is most interesting about “Bijie Dream” is that the synthesizer notes don’t really form any conventional melody, while the sound cluster, in its functionality, could be said to function as both the harmony and melody: the tones that come through to the ear most are the lowered leading tone and tonic, and it is not even clear where those tones are coming from.
In Love Streams Hecker plays with how the subject makes sense of sound in time and questions which faculties are engaged when one is not given a distinct beat or harmony. These are not altogether new interrogations—they are ones that the ambients have been striving for since the 1970s or earlier. Love Streams doesn’t necessarily transcend ambient music, but it does point up some of its possibilities in a unique, and ultimately quite successful, way by synthesizing electronic, acoustic, and noise elements imaginatively and tastefully.