“North Wind” is a live ambient music performance on modular synthesizer by Ann Annie. The track is built largely around the sound of a simulated plucked instrument. The strumming and tuning of that plucking bring to mind in particular a Japanese koto, though the overall sci-fi feel of “North Wind” makes that more along the lines of a koto as depicted in some majestic futuristic cybernetic Ghost in the Shell anime. It is echoed, in Annie’s machine, to infinity, or looped back on itself. At times fragments of momentary string sounds flit into glitchy motifs, and at others they nearly evaporate as they become gaseous effects. Throughout, Annie’s tracksuit-covered arms manipulate the synthesizer. For those playing along at home, generously detailed patch notes provide some background on the equipment employed.
Perhaps testing the outer limits of the definition of the word “performance,” this short video from Hainbach has been added to my YouTube playlist of fine live ambient sets. The inclusion can be attributed to its combination of beauty and function. The beauty relates, beyond the elegant visual setting, to a sequence of lulling passages, to layers of momentary drones and shimmery effects, unsettling loops and beatific surface noise, fantastical stereo play and naturalist field recordings. The function comes from the occasional intrusion of Hainbach’s hand, as he raises the prominence of an element, or plays a motif on the device’s keyboard. In a brief accompanying note, Hainbach sets the scene, and attributes some of the sonic source material: “Recorded on the beach the Lighthouse Festival in Porec, in between soundcheck and my performance on the beautiful modular floor there. You can hear birds from Brno, voices from Prague and the sea.”
This seven-minute performance video by State Azure focuses tight on a few modules in a larger synthesizer rig. There is no mess of spaghetti wires. There is a limited set of blinking lights. There is a single hand adjusting knobs on a single device. The accompanying liner note references some on-screen technical details, some off-screen support equipment, and some minor post-production activity. Otherwise, “Starfall,” as the track is called, is just this: a blissfully thin expanse of near-static time, a live ambient performance in which a seeming hush is nudged into the foreground and left to sway slowly this way and that, to pause for a moment, to let little details linger. It’s the music of a planetarium after hours. The lights are simply from the music equipment, not the stars, and those are more than enough.
This lovely video by r beny is a single musical object put to subtle use. The ambient track, bearing one of beny’s trademark naturalist titles, “Western Sycamore,” moves from slowly undulating formless pads to gentle streams of soft percussive tones. The latter are loops of notes rotating through with the momentum of a slow awakening. The note patterns don’t just lend contrast to the track’s longer tones. They give them shape, revealing the pads as akin to a string section that goes at its own pace. Throughout we see, on occasion, sometimes more than others, beny’s hand enter the frame to turn a knob or hit a button, not so much playing an instrument, in the broadly understood sense of the term, as coaxing something along.
When first pulled up on its YouTube page, this video from musician r beny invokes a bit of cartographic misdirection. In the center of the frame is a single black box. The box is packed with knobs and buttons as well as a small, bright screen, which is itself packed with little icons. To the right of the box, in view when beny’s left hand isn’t, is a piece of paper with two columns of information. The circles and triangles on the paper bear more than a small resemblance to what is cycling through on the screen.
It’s not uncommon for musicians, beny included, to post videos of their early experiments with new (or at least new-to-them) equipment, so it would be entirely rational to interpret this piece of paper as a page from the device’s instruction manual, a reference as beny lets the lovely music unfold. The track, titled “Fall Creek Unit,” begins with a little melody against a backdrop of white noise. That melody in turn doubles and triples, notes falling into each other and out of pace until, as the piece nears its end after seven and a half minutes, those individual instances have been almost fully subsumed into a gentle cloud of soft tonality.
And if, at some point, you pull the video into full-screen mode, those two columns of icons are revealed to be not the instructions for the electronic music device on which the tune is being performed, but instead the legend for a larger map on which the device has been placed.
• January 2, 2018: This day marks the 6th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• February 7, 2018: Start of the semester for the course I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
• December 13, 2018: This day marked the 22nd 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: disquiet.com/junto.
• 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.
The Disquiet Junto is an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making space in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto. There is an FAQ. ... These are the 5 most recent weekly projects: