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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

The Actions Within

An ambient performance video by r beny

I grew interested in live performance videos of ambient music based on an idea, and perhaps inevitably what came to be of interest to me was in marked contrast with where I started out.

What interested me at the start was the tension between inaction and inaction, between the perceived stasis of much if not most ambient music, and the simple fact that, in live performance, action is taking place. In other words, if ambient music is a balloon floating in air, then performance — that is, live production — is the hands that keep the balloon afloat.

There were other things afoot, too. As someone who writes about technologically mediated sound and to that end fiddles with the technology involved in mediating sound, I was always looking for videos in which the technology was put to use in a manner that was informative. Sometimes this meant tutorials, but often it just meant observing an instrument — a synthesizer module, a foot pedal, the construction of a tape loop — in practice. Problem was, the vast majority of videos employing this equipment usually had music I had no interest in listening to.

So, I started a YouTube playlist, now 79 videos long and growing, by collecting videos of live ambient performance. A regular presence in this playlist is r beny, whose music is richly ambient, and whose videos do nothing to disguise his techniques. Quite the contrary, they are studies in the connection between the action and inaction I was initially interested in. But as time has passed, one of the things I’ve noticed about r beny’s videos in particular, and many other live ambient performances in general, is how much the music comes alive when you pay attention to what’s happening on screen.

On its own, the audio of this video, “The Magnetic Sea,” is a lush conglomeration of sun-dabbled synthesis and warped, sun-damaged tonalities. But when watched live, when attention is paid to what r beny is up to, the interior moments of the piece gain a sense of distinction that was previously hidden beneath the sublime surface (which, if you studied literature in college, is sort of a redundant comment, but more on that another time). You needn’t know what r beny is using in this set, or what the individual controls necessarily do. Much as the lights on the devices give you a sense of interior tempo, his hand actions are synced to shifts and changes within the greater work. “The Magnetic Sea” is a beautiful piece of music to do other things to (read, write, think, sleep), and an all the more beautiful piece to pay utmost attention to — a duality that is at the heart of the definition of ambient music in the first place.

Video originally posted to r beny’s YouTube page. The musician r beny is Austin Cairns, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. More from beny/Cairns at soundcloud.com/rbeny and rbeny.bandcamp.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • about

  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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