Ambience

January 30, 2012

Two listening experiences over the past three days got me thinking about ambience. First, night before last, the Sigur Rós concert film, Inni (at the Cornell Cinema, Willard Straight Hall). Minor keys, minimalist, cyclical, melancholic, slowed way down but always going somewhere, intensely focused. There is something lush about the Sigur Rós atmospherics that I find addictive. We might call them utterly devoid of content, self-serious to a pompous degree, silly in their absorption and relentless prettiness, yet still acknowledge their exquisite beauty. Colossally kitsch, yet sublime, pursuing that fine line to anthemic heights. The chords build without breaking until they transform into something else and you forget you were in a progression, waiting for resolution. In one of the interviews edited in between songs, one of the musicians claims, only half jokingly, that they are a “heavy metal” band. A “wall of sound” drenches musicians and audience one minute, the next has disappeared like a cloudburst, into simple piano keys. After the film I did a bit of Googling and learned that lead singer Jónsi Birgisson sings in Vonlenska, or Hopelandic: a “non-literal language, without fixed syntax.” Vonlenska “consists of emotive non-lexical vocables and phonemes” and “uses the melodic and rhythmic elements of singing without the conceptual content of language . . . a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music.” I remember noting, during the film, how the music consistently made me think of landscape, horizons, skies filled with light, etc. What appeals to me in ambient music is precisely this freedom from narrative, content, linearity (critics might also dub it a freedom from concept). Without content of its own, ambience can fill, or tinge, any space. It thus takes on the echoes and reverberations, the architecture or geology, of various, particular spaces and times. (In the electroacoustic concert situation, and especially the cinematic experience, this effect is of course simulated.) But the echoes and reverberations do not have to be literal: when you are driving and listening to such music, the ambience binds your mood to the landscape you are passing through. (Nor does the music have to be deliberately ambient: when we listen to vocal music without paying attention to the words, our listening is ambient.) I do not know if this is an ideal form, or a dystopian perversion, of the “songline” — the oral version of a map that guides nomads through their ancestral landscapes. The tendency toward what R. Murray Schafer called “audioanalgesia” troubles me, but I do like the partial nature of ambient music: the extent to which it depends on things outside the music to make its “meanings.” I suspect this incompleteness, rather than aesthetic autonomy of the modernist Western work of art, is the cultural norm, for art-making around the world. In this case, the ethics of the practice are not inherent in the aesthetics, but in how we choose to complete the music, what use we make of it.

This afternoon, I attended a concert by CAGE (Cornell Avant Garde Ensemble), featuring two singers, Peni Candra Rini (from Indonesia) and Jessika Kenney, making their sounds throughout the lower spaces of the museum, in response to the exhibition Lines of Control. The music involved improvised percussion on a great variety of instruments (traditional drum kits but also Indonesian gamelan, wooden blocks, bowed instruments and miked laptop synthesizers). A unifying feature was the slow, cyclical drone of Annie Lewandowski’s accordion. The two singers explored a great range of vocalizations (singing, but also talking, roaring, grunting, crying out) together in exquisite echo or synchrony and sometimes separately. At one point the concert moved downstairs and the singers began to wander around the galleries, to sing and sometimes talk to the art works, while musicians took up stations along the central corridor. The audience followed along, filtering in from various directions. The concert ended in the atrium below the north entrance, with a more traditional gamelan setup (though the music was not compositionally “gamelan”). The most moving part of the concert was when the two singers approached one another slowly from either end of the corridor, singing quietly to one another–Peni Candra Rini in a haunting, traditional Indonesian vocalization–until they met in the middle and then advanced together toward the atrium.

In this second experience the ambience was directed — in a decentralized, improvisatory way — toward exploration of the acoustic properties of the spaces. The audience moved casually amidst and around the musicians, following them when they changed spaces, sometimes looking at the art (the sound of the video installations had been turned down, though not off), and the whole thing had an immersive feel. I was torn between wanting to move around the different spaces of the galleries to see how the sound changed and wanting to stay still to help the sounds concentrate; for it truly felt like a group effort, on the part of the audience as well as the musicians. At one point, I followed one of the singers into an adjoining space and began making a few dispersed popping and clicking noises myself, manifesting my impulse to participate vocally. What struck me in this performance, which certainly had its hauntingly sublime and “exotic” moments, was how ordinary it made the music feel. It felt like this was the sort of thing that should be happening in the museum all of the time, that this was how “concerts” should always be–beyond the structural opposition of stage and seating, the absorptive spectacle, almost beyond a distinction between audience and performers. One had a feeling that here was the nature of sounding, listening, hearing revealing itself in all its mundane locality. That one could fall asleep, wake up, and not “miss” a thing, picking up right where one had left off. (My own experience of the concert, I might add, cannot be separated from the somewhat groggy head of someone who had been dancing the Saturday night away just a few hours before.) In addition to the spatial effects of ambience, then, that I noted with Sigur Rós, there is a temporal “ongoingness” to ambient music. This might seem like an obvious point (it’s well-known that ambient music just “goes on forever,” in a looping drone) but where ambient compositions like those of Brian Eno can foreground a “haunting” sense of the uncanny, here I felt focused on the canny, knowing, plainly familiar nature of sound. This might seem true, perhaps, to the ensemble’s acronymic namesake, John Cage. Yet here the individuality of the musicians was not being systematically erased; rather, released from the need to offer “spectacle,” each musician seemed free to apply the ambient sounds of his or her instrumentation to the “Lines of Control” that are the spatial properties of the Johnson Museum, as well as to the content of its exhibits, and in response to as well as away from the improvisations of his or her fellow musicians. And the audience members presumably experienced a similar, pleasing autonomy.

In short, perhaps ambient music decreases the autonomy of the composition in order to increase the autonomy of its listeners. That we may better “apply” our hearing and listening. And ambient sounds find their completion in another time, outside of the music, as well as in another space, beyond that of the composition itself.

JS

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