While he skips the backward-masky quality of the original, SineRider’s electric-guitar cover of the Boards of Canada miniature “Over the Horizon Radar,” not even a minute and a half in length, is true to the source material’s pacing and mood. The video was recorded live, and the gap between what is seen and what is heard is worth reflecting on. The notes are plucked, but the sound really owes its quality to the (unspecified) guitar pedals that are, like the musician’s head, offscreen. A given pluck happens noticeable split seconds — we need another term for “split seconds,” as it suggests speed when what is in fact meant is a discernible gap — before the full impact of the playing is felt.
The video’s reveal comes 33 seconds in. Up until that point the camera has been slowly gazing around traditional Kyoto, Japan: the vaulted roofs, the red gateways, the concrete structures, the sculptured foliage, the constructed waterways. The wide-angle, perfect geometry of the shots, and the slow motion in which they appear, at first have the feel of a video-game cutscene, but for all the perfection, this is real. This is Kyoto, in all its preserved beauty. The stroll is accompanied by a beat, the heady semi-swagger of solid instrumental hip-hop, the way instrumental hip-hop can be tinged with nostalgia. The nostalgia of instrumental hip-hop may often be for the very early 1990s, and the nostalgia of Kyoto may be for several centuries earlier, but they pair well. Hip-hop and Japan have a longstanding relationship, a sense of mutual regard, so the matchup makes sense. And then at 33 seconds, into view comes British producer Ally Mobbs, propped up on the edge of low wall, pounding gently if insistently on an MPC 500, the portable beat machine, his head bobbing. He’s as lost in the music as we are. The difference is, he’s making the music. We get barely five seconds before he disappears from view, the camera wandering back on its own way. At 51 seconds he appears again, and remains in view, until the very end (the video is 1:34 long, but the music is over at about 1:28). There is no sound besides the music, no footsteps or birds. The headspace of the music is the headspace of Mobbs himself, who’s performing the track — recording the track — live while the camera is filming.
This is the second one-chord piece of music this week on Disquiet.com, the third and counting if you include the week’s Junto project. What’s going on in this orchestrally grand, yet intimately performed piece, is that guitarist Andy Othling is passing a single chord — as identified in the title, “Sketch #44 – Drone in B Major (05.05.16)” — through an array of effects and in the process producing a gorgeous, shimmery dawn-break flood of atmospheric splendor. What’s great about a performance video like this one is you can observe the thinking process, the gestures that lead to the exaggerated sound, the manner in which small touches yield vast expanses. In the video, long stretches pass during which Othling barely touches his guitar at all, and he probably touches the guitar and his effects in equal amounts. He is, in a manner, as much the audience for the work as he is the producer of the work.
This weekend I introduced a new playlist on YouTube. Titled “Ambient Performances,” it’s slowly amassing a collection of videos of people playing ambient music live. There’s an interesting tension there — several tensions, really. The main one, perhaps, is that ambient music often supposes stasis, while performance suggests activity. The videos I’m focusing the playlist on explore the activity required to achieve a semblance of stasis — the motion necessary to give the effect of immobility, you might say. Now, all music takes place over time, so it’s false to suggest ambient music is truly still. What ambient music is is more still than other forms of sonic expression.
This piece, by the Austin, Texas–based Amulets, is a great example of what the “Ambient Performances” playlist is all about. To begin with, it adheres to the two main rules of the playlist:
Rule #1: I’m only including recordings I’d listen to without video.
Rule #2: I’m only including recordings where the video gives some sense of a correlation between what the musician is doing and what the listener is hearing.
What Amulets is up to in the piece is engaging, even as the music being produced provides a sense of disengagement. As described in the brief text accompanying the video, what Amulets has done is record four notes that make up a chord, each note assigned to a different track on the four-track recorder. He then effects change on each of those notes separately as the tape plays. The result is, as he puts it, “a droning, evolving, ambient soundscape.” I recommend using the listenonrepeat.com service to, indeed, play it on repeat.
This video shows Lee Ranaldo, of the late Sonic Youth, earlier this year performing a short, two-minute improvisation for looping pedals. It’s a test run of a piece of equipment, a hardware looper made by the company TC Electronic, and I was watching it to consider including the clip in the video playlist of ambient performances I started yesterday. The playlist grew out of my increasing attention to YouTube videos over the past year or so. That attention coincided with my getting into making music, into learning more about the tools and techniques employed by the musicians I write about and increasingly, through the Junto and my projects as a music supervisor, work with.
I spend a lot of time watching video tutorials. Often the music in these tutorials — for hardware and software — isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t remotely what I’m interested in myself trying to play. Given much the equipment I’ve been exploring (the OP-1, a small DJ console, a Monome, and a modular synthesizer rig, for example), it’s often glossy EDM or strict-meter techno that I find myself required to listen to while learning what a given knob on a piece of equipment does. Guitar pedal videos in particular are given over to arpeggio-crazed pop-metal and roots rock. (I have the lowest-cost version of the looper Ranaldo is testing in the video.) Occasionally, though, you’ll find someone like Ranaldo, an outsider to rote pop techniques, in the YouTube feed.
The “ambient performances” playlist began as me working backwards — rather than locating ethereal/ambient/experimental videos in the channels of equipment companies, I would instead look at live performance videos of ethereal/ambient/experimental musicians and pay attention to what equipment they’re using (often enough the comments to a given video will surface such factoids — the Ranaldo video comments, for example, unpack other equipment at his feet). I’m not sure the Ranaldo clip will make the Ambient Performances playlist, as it gets a little raucous toward the end, but no matter. It’s enticing to watch him develop the piece one layer at a time.
• 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.
• November 21, 2015: Start of semi-annual social-media absentia (through January 4, 2016).
• Early December 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.
• January 4, 2016: End of semi-annual social-media absentia (started November 21, 2015).
• February 3, 2016: First class session of the 15-week course I teach at the San Francisco Academy of Art on the role of sound in the media landscape.
• May 18, 2016: Final class session of the 15-week course I teach at the San Francisco Academy of Art on the role of sound in the media landscape.
• 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.