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Frozen Music

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

Well, maybe not frozen. How about “gradually evolving”?

In a recent Blogcritics post, Marty Dodge links to another of his posts (a review of Poisoned Dreams The Unquiet Void.) The link text was “recorded bordom”. I’m not here to dispute Marty on his opinion since, well, it’s an opinion. If the ambient quality of that particular release didn’t do it for him, hey, that’s his business.

But…this got me to thinking about ambient/minimalist music in general. Music serves all sorts of different functions for people so it’s not surprising that for every Einstein On The Beach enthusiast (count me as one) there are ten who will just have to leave the room in a cringe-induced funk.

So here some of my favorite minimalist/ambient recordings. They’re not the ‘best’, but ones that I return to again and again when I’m in the mood to induce a ‘zone state’.

Steve ReichDrumming. One simple drum pattern played by multiple players, who then shift things to slightly out of phase. What results is a constantly evolving pattern that spawns more and more ‘sub-patterns’. Every time I listen to this I hear new things.

Mickey HartMusic To Be Born By Originally written as ‘mood music’ to be used during the birth of Hart’s son Taro, this record presents a warm percussive wash using wood flute, drums and bass harmonics. The pattern is altered very slightly throughout. Hypnotic is the word.

Brian EnoAmbient 1: Music For Airports This might be world’s most famous ‘ambient’ recording. Eno’s first entry in the Discreet Music series, Airports has been described as soundscape, Muzak, relaxing, boring…and any number of adjectives. For me, it’s one of those slow-turning music kaleidoscope things. There are almost no recordings that I consider ‘background’ music, as it’s just about impossible for me to not actively listen. That rule is broken here, but somehow I still love this album.

Robert FrippLet The Power Fall Robert Fripp and his ‘Frippertronics’ delivering a full-on ambient assault. How’s that for a contradiction in terms?

Philip GlassMusic In Changing Parts. In my collection, this is the big daddy of repetitive, difficult listening music. This is early Glass form, where the repeated figures are tightly woven and shifted very slowly. Somehow, the organ used adds to the effect. I can only listen to this when I’m alone as it seems to drive everybody else in the house off the deep end.

And there you have it. Go ahead and try one of the above. What have you got to lose? The worst that can happen is that the room will clear (I’ve seen it happen.)

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About Mark Saleski

  • I think the key factor with ambient music is finding the appropriate time and place to listen. A slow day at work where you can let it flow over you is great. A drive to the grocery store is not. And I also think most people tend not to want to invest the kind of time that this music requires. They may also simply not have enough time to let a 20 minute long, slowly progressing track play out. There’s also little “payoff” in ambient – no hooks, no choruses, nothing “catchy” whatsoever. So I think most people are left feeling like they’ve just listened to a half hour of random sound, when instead the music should be encouraging them to focus on the tiny elements contained within it. I’m certain that, were most people to really focus, they would find the music of Phillip Glass pretty enthralling. But it’s often brash, and is so repetitive that people don’t even realize what is going on. That’s too bad, because it’s really pretty exciting (in a mellow way, I guess) to start picking up on how counter melodies and rhythms work together and against each other, often at the same time. I don’t need too much of it, but when the time is right this stuff just kills me with how complex it can be, while seeming very simple on the surface.

  • yea, i realize that the way that i listen to music is not in ‘the mainstream’, whatever the hell that means.

    i mean, the first time i heard the Mickey Hart thing i was totally, totally enthralled with the sound of the plucked bass harmonics.

  • The Theory

    I’ve been a big Reich fan, but I don’t own drumming. I’ll have to pick that up soon.