There are many places where ambient music and contemporary classical music collide. Among the more fertile intersections is where the latter is a chamber work, and the collective impression is considerably less than the sum of the various parts. This isn’t to suggest any disappointment, quite the contrary — simply the controlled intensity of many instruments taking considerably limited action for an extended period.
“Euphorbia,” composed by Ylva Lund Bergner and performed by the Curious Chamber Players, is just such a work. It has the attenuated tension of Morton Feldman scoring a Mission: Impossible movie, the mix of chiming strings and droning horns and chattering noisemakers proceeding at a deliberate pace in which the drama is implicit rather than explicit.
The composition’s title, “Euphorbia,” we’re informed by Bergner, is from a poisonous plant in Denmark, where she lives (she’s originally from Sweden). She writes: “It is beautiful and very common. In the piece I wanted to transform the poisounous effect the plant would have one a human into music.” Her music is beautiful and by no means common.
Like violin being practiced at an electrical substation, “Time Goes More Slowly” by Chrissie Caulfield initially features a healthy contrast between the cautiously bowed instrument and a mix of clank, drone, and distortion that suggests some sort of unmanned municipal outpost. As it proceeds, the violin dissipates — or enters the drone entirely — in favor of an ominous metronome and white noise. Collectively it’s a kind of infrastructure incantation.
The track “Augmentative” by Suss Müsik is described in a brief accompanying note by its composer-performer as “Post-classical ambient minimalism for crepuscular airports.” The intention is clear. The “post-classical” aspect is the presence of static violins and receding timpani. The “ambient minimalism” is the overall sense of hovering waveforms in favor over active, self-evident melodic or thematic development. The “crepuscular” is the way such a still piece can bring to mind moments in the day, such as that of twilight, when things seem to pause on a psychic, emotional, and sensory fulcrum point, with an underlying and intense momentum toward what might come next. And then, of course, the “airports” is a nod to Brian Eno’s foundational work, where he likewise likened the travel portal to a unique mental juncture. At nearly 18 minutes long, “Augmentative” plays like the score to a short, word-less film of constant transitions that lead nowhere in particular, a dream-state in which a vision of travel is, in fact, a metaphor for some entirely other deeply rooted anxiety.
“Musick to Play in the Dark” is a mini-suite of shifting elements, from Vietnamese singing to antic percussion. It is by Luong Hue Trinh, a Vietnamese national who studied in Japan and has traveled widely. Opening with high-tension strings before the singing kicks in, it slowly becomes a majestic, maximalist work, heavy on hypnotically rhythmic percussion. The beat, heard as if from inside an old alarm clock, has a back and forth sway that creates intricate patterning, especially as it is set against distant pounding and sonic effects.
There’s also video of her performing an excerpt of the piece at the Onion Cellar in Hanoi, making it clear she’s working largely on a laptop from prerecorded field recordings and sampled music:
Classical composer Marti Epstein has produced a series of choral pieces, each of which takes as its theme a different weather pattern. The quintet of segments includes “Snow,” “Heat,” “Tornado,” and “Rain.” The second movement in this micro-suite is “Mist,” which layers, true to its climatic conceit, vocal utterances in a shifting, gentle, lightly flowing manner. They combine with a cello, here played by Rhonda Rider. The vocalists are the Master Singers of Lexington. The text, not that my ear can make out the words, is credited to Jonathan Eichman. According to the “works list” on her website, martiepstein.com, it dates back to 2009.
• November 7, 2015: At 7:30pm I'll be discussing the Disquiet Junto with Fusion's Alexis Madrigal as part of the Real Future of Sound event in San Francisco at realfuturefair.com.
• November 9, 2015: A short essay I wrote ("Bassel K") will appear in the book The Cost of Freedom, dedicated to Bassel Khartabil, who's been detained in Syria since March 15, 2012. Details at costoffreedom.cc.
• Around November 30, 2015: Jeff Kolar's album Doorbells will be released by the label Panospria. I wrote the liner notes. In the meanwhile you can listen to his previous album, Smoke Detector.
• December 13, 2015: The 19th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: soundcloud.com.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.