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Tim Hecker

Tim Hecker’s work is more clearly ambient than Christian Fennesz’s. Greater use of conventional instrumentation with the judicious use of noise makes it possible for his work to fade into the background, while still being compelling.

Prism

Hecker is concerned with timing, placement, and taste. Often there is one overriding idea. Prism, from Virgins is an example. It starts with a processed organ pad (?) that gets interrupted by a seven-beat phrase at regular intervals.

The seven-beat phrase itself is attention-grabbing in its combination of simplicity and strangeness. It’s essentially an uncomplicated melody that’s sliced somewhere in the middle and time-shifted slightly, giving it an arresting quality. Bits of the phrase continue ghost-like after the fact. The ear tries to capture these, and the listener becomes an active participant.

Try to hold the organ pad in your ear, and you’ll hear it evolve slightly. Or is that just an aural hallucination?

 

Smearing

Imagine a painting, something representational, a landscape or a portrait with undried paint. Now imagine smearing the paint across the canvas.

Hecker uses this effect aurally by creating upward gissandos with entire organ chords beginning around the two-minute mark. The effect is a wiping away of some of the existing sound. The ghost of the seven-beat phrase remains.

Tim Hecker is an ambient composer who creates music that encourages you to listen to it. While it’s possible to ignore, it never becomes aural wallpaper.

 

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Christian Fennesz

Take a listen to Ferment_action_OZmotic on Christian Fennesz’s album Aireffect. This is along the lines of what I’m thinking of as fractured ambient. Maybe a better name for this is noise ambient.

This is part the process I engage in when I’m forming ideas: close listening to stuff that I like. It gets inside clarifies my own way of doing things. Pretty common approach, really. But a lot of people don’t write it down.

Ferment_action_OZmotic

Brian Eno described ambient music as being “as ignorable as it is interesting.” This piece is interesting, but ignorable? I’m not sure.

The piece begins inside what sounds like a faltering airplane engine. A tearing sound after 20 seconds forms a boundary between that and (in order of appearance) granular raindrops; a chirping metal sound; a rusty, clockwork machine; and a bassy synth replaced immediately by a metallic scraping.

Bass synth balloons out from there, followed by a pedal-tone (guitar?), and obsessive morse code bleeping. These elements recede and emerge.

All this in the first two minutes of a six minute piece.

Can we call this ambient? It’s certainly textural (as ambient music tends to be). It’s also interesting. Ignorable? Probably not in a quiet space where it would stand out.

 

Moving on

Around the 2:23 mark we get a sloshing sound and synth pads, followed by what sounds like cutlery on plates, dog barks, bell-of-the-cymbal strikes, a bit of farting static, and at 3:37, a gong repeated three times, accompanied each time by a change of harmony in the synth pads.

Sounds like he’s moving toward something more conventional…

Large bass synth at 4:10 with random drum synth-produced woodblocks and metal, and another bass note at 4:23. More drum synth, and more bass at 4:36, 4:45, 4:54, 5:00, followed by huge synth pad swells that consume the bass. Continue drum pad, add static, dial down synth pad, end with static. The granular raindrops from the beginning never go away.

Ok.

 

Ambient?

Is this ambient? There are clearly marked sections (the gongs starting at 3:37, the bass synth at 4:10), and a variety of different sounds that don’t evolve. This runs against type. But the slowly evolving sound structure – the gradual addition of similiar types of sound (metal) in the first 2 minutes – reminds me of ambient music.

So I’m thinking of it fractured or noise ambient. The evolving sound (granular raindrops, metal sounds) is interrupted (fractured) by sounds alien to the existing, noisy structure. These sounds – gongs, bass – are more conventional, and send the piece in a different direction. Previous elements remain as what can be thought of as an ambient structure.

I know I’m pushing it. It’s as easy to reject this as ambient altogether, as it is to call it fractured or noise ambient. But taking a close look at stuff that might be described as ambient – textural, or timbre-based music – and trying to squash it into an ambient box – is one way to clarify for myself what it is I’m trying to make.

 

 

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Fractured ambience

I’ve taken to calling my electronic work “fractured ambient.” I like the phrase, but right now that’s all it is. A phrase.

And I’m deciding whether or not it really works. Looking at history usually helps sort things out.

 

A (very small) bit of history, plus a definition

Erik Satie is often invoked as the originator of ambient music. Listen to Music D’ameublement, though, and you’ll wonder why. But then listen to the Gymnopedies and it’s pretty obvious. This is serious chill.

Brian Eno coined the term “ambient”. Eno’s concept of ambience is music that can be either actively listened to or used as background, depending on whether the listener chooses to pay attention or not. It’s been a highly influential if not entirely original idea, at best informing the resurgence of electronic ambient via the dance world, at worst being taken to its passive extreme by many creators of “relaxation” music.

If you want a straight up definition, here’s Wikipedia: “…a genre of music that puts an emphasis on tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. Ambient music is said to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual”[2] or “unobtrusive” quality.”

 

A nice description

Here’s how Joshua Rothman in his New Yorker article “The Discreet Charm of Ambient Music” describes the experience of listening to Eno’s “Lux.”

… you’re equally aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing and making: the traffic in the street, your own breathing, the keys on the keyboard, the creaks in the floorboards, the rustle of your clothes when you move. You’re also more in touch with the small inflections in your own moods. Each key change, and each new instrument, with its new timbre, is an opportunity to measure the difference between the feeling of the music and your state of mind. “Lux” is fascinating as music. But it also makes the world more fascinating. It’s a catalyst for consciousness and self-awareness.

 

Fractured ambience

Fractured ambience subverts this to some extent by introducing noise, environmental sound, and spoken word. So is it still ambient in any conventional sense? Is it – as Wikipedia says – atmospheric, visual, unobtrusive?

It’s definitely atmospheric and visual. Unobtrusive? I’m not so sure.

More than a lot of ambient music, it pulls you towards it (resulting in a less meditative, take-it-or-leave-it type of experience). But it still immerses you in a sonic texture that, as Rothman says, makes you aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing.

In my next posts, I’ll look at artists who I think are taking a fractured approach.

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Guitar machine

I described a connection in my last post between myself and the guitar. This connection doesn’t by itself differ from connection between humans and other musical instruments. All instruments are pieces of technology that communicate thoughts and feelings originating in their players’ bodies.

But the electric guitar is the first musical instrument designed specifically to create sound by connecting to electronic technology outside of itself. Orchestral instruments are able use electronic technology, but doing so isn’t their normal way of operating.

For the electric guitarist, electronic technology (on-board electronics, amplifiers) is integral to its origin story, and that story has evolved over decades to include effects pedals and digitization.

The electric guitar doesn’t exist without this technology, a technology that represents a basic otherness, a machine-ness outside of human experience.

 

Blurred boundaries

The electric guitar blurs the boundaries between human and nonhuman, and expands the concept of what it can mean to be human. This can be said about any instrument, but the electric guitar foregrounds this idea in its extreme and varied use of technology.

And this extreme is normal for the guitar. Not so for orchestral instruments.

Given this normality of extremes, the electric guitar is more obviously a machine than other instruments. It becomes the standard-bearer for human-machine collaboration in a musical context.

With the guitar, a machineness outside of human experience changes to become a natural part of what it means to be human. This given the the fact that it is the machine that allows us to demonstrate our humanness by allowing us the possibility of emotional and intellectual expression.

 

Guitar-machine

If we connect to a machine (the guitar) in the way I describe here, then it makes sense that we change how we think about ourselves.

Essentially, when we play the guitar, we become part machine. We forget ourselves. Sometimes we forget the guitar. Our experience is reduced to sound, and that sound is what’s left in the fusion of human and machine.

Which is kind of cool. And kind of scary. And kind of what musicians have always done.

 

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Posthumanism and the guitar

Is the electric guitar posthuman? Is that a weird question?

Ten years ago it might have been. Now I’m not so sure…

 

Posthuman, transhuman

Bear with me here. I have to lay a little groundwork.

Unlike transhumanism – the desire to augment humans physically and intellectually – the posthuman (related to posthumanism) is a human that has gone beyond humanism. And humanism approaches the world by emphasizing human interests over the interests of non-humans.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t recognize a connection between human and non-human. We’re up here, they’re down there. And if we think that way, we close down different ways of thinking that might lead to useful insights.

After all, we learn to know ourselves through daily interactions not just with other people, but with animals and with things. Things like the guitar. By trying to get better at it, we test our limits and learn about ourselves.

 

Talking to the guitar

A posthumanist attitude places humans and machines in a relationship that recognizes connection. So how does this connection change how you approach that machine we call the electric guitar?

Think of it this way:

 

Question: How do you connect to (or communicate with) the guitar?

Answer: With your thoughts and feelings communicated through your fingers.

 

How does the guitar connect/communicate with you? Through the sound it makes; this sound is its feedback that you use to learn about yourself.

That feedback could be…

 

  1. That sounds great.
  2. That doesn’t sound great. Which leads to…
  3. You need to work on whatever doesn’t sound great.

 

The guitar is almost like a mentor, taking input from you and giving information that enables you to get better.

Try it. Play something, and see what thoughts arise in your mind. Think of those thoughts as the guitar communicating with you.

Am I insane? Deluded? No, I’m a guitar player totally engaged with the instrument.

There are reasons I do things like this.

 

Openness

When I think of playing the guitar as creating a connection, I feel a sense of openness and possibility. The guitar is no longer just a thing; it actually feels like an extension of me, integrating information it receives from my body, coordinating it and organizing it into a stream of non-verbal communication.

Because of this, I feel more connected to the sound I’m making. And because of that, the expression of that sound feels deeper, more meaningful. When I pick up the guitar, it becomes a collaborative venture instead of a human manipulating a tool.

This change in perspective has changed the quality of my time with the guitar. It feels more positive, and the things that I make feel more like what I want to make, instead of what I think other people want me to make.

I find a bit more of myself every time.

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Why composers don’t write for electric guitar

Because it’s too hard.

First they need to figure out what’s technically possible.

Then there’s dealing with different effects units and different brands of effects.

 

Technique

Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XI for classical guitar is an example of technical difficulty. When he wrote the piece, Berio consulted Elliot Fisk to see what’s possible on the guitar.

What’s possible for Fisk isn’t necessarily possible for other players. Fisk’s hands are enormous. It wasn’t physically possible for me to play the second chord, and I have a pretty good stretch.

Hand size isn’t a consideration when writing for most instruments. Because of this, composers often forget to consider it when they write for guitar.

 

Effects

If a composer decides to write for effects, which ones does she use? Delay is the easiest. You can specify what you want and it will reproducible on any delay unit.

Distortion is another story. Is it distortion you’re looking for or overdrive? Amplifier overdrive or stomp-box overdrive? If it’s distortion, then what kind of tone? How much distortion?

Reverb is tricky, as well. The composer has to be specific; some players like lots, some like a little. If you just put “reverb” on the score, you really don’t know what you’ll get. This goes for most effects.

You have to sit down with the player, and go through their effects in detail. But then you’ll only get that player’s range of effects.

 

Guitars and amps

Even saying “clean tone” is a problem. Clean with a Fender Telecaster is different than clean with a Gibson SG.

Same with amps. Every one sounds a little different. What you’re hearing in your head isn’t what you’ll get from every player.

 

Multiple pieces

So, you can try to nail down the sound you want from the electric guitar. But since each player’s sound is defined by a different guitar/amp/effects setup, you’ll only get what you imagined from the player you consulted.

For a lot of composers, this is a serious problem. They want to communicate accurately what’s going on in their ears, and they want the piece to sound the same regardless of who plays it.

This isn’t really possible with the electric guitar. But personally? I like the idea of a piece that changes each time it’s played. All pieces do. It’s just more dramatic with the electric guitar.

 

 

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