Discreet Music #1

Navigating the “ambient” music landscape can be a perilous undertaking. The peaks reveal brilliant recordings whereas the valleys can often be home to “supermarket” or “new-age” music. It’s tricky.

On reflection I heard my first ambient (or minimalist) music listening to Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies on vinyl in my parents house. Satie’s intention was for his music to create a background atmosphere for an activity, dining for example, rather than have the music be the main focus of attention. Brian Eno had a different interpretation. For Eno, ambient music could be either “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener”. The music existed on the “cusp between melody and texture.” This interpretation feels right for me as in the case of Satie I find his music so powerful that it is impossible for me to ignore it. It may take me to another place but the music is firmly there with me, shaping that place. I also like that Eno, who is credited with coining the phrase “ambient music”, apparently chose the word because of the Latin term, ambire, to surround. This feels right too.

This week I discovered Keith Fullerton Whitman and in particular his album, Playthroughs (Kranky, 2002). In terms of ambient, electronic, minimalist music the closing track, Modena, is astonishingly beautiful. It is a constantly evolving piece of music yet the shifts are subtle and when extended over its 17 minutes 4 seconds duration they are almost imperceptible. You will find yourself at some point in the track and things will be vaguely different to the way they were before but just as compelling. It is a mesmorising piece of music. Enjoy.

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1 reply »

  1. Kranky is such a good label, its actually worth exploring almost every name on it. That’s a lovely 17 minutes. Most enjoyable. Love the video too, (but are you allowed to record on a plane when it is landing? i think not!).
    Interesting to hear Eno’s ‘actively listen or easily ignored’ line. I always thought he wanted to fill the background, with all those ‘music for airports’ albums. Not the case obviously…

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