Thursday, February 22

The Ups and Downs of Volume

I've been on a somewhat of an ambient music bender lately. I honestly don't know how exactly how it happens, but sometimes I just end up focused on a particular type of music for some indeterminate length of time. In this case I think it's related to my sudden decision to follow up on some particular artists and labels. I always find it difficult to explain just what draws me to specific ambient works; it's not easy discussing music composed without melody, harmony, rhythm, or words. That leaves you with timbre and texture--not the easiest aspects to write about without resorting to extended metaphors or purple prose. If someone were to ask me what I think makes good ambient music, I'd most likely just say I know it when I hear it.

I have been thinking about another aspect of ambient music, although one imposed by the listener, not the composer. I doubt most people give much thought to playback volume. You turn the volume up or down depending upon your immediate circumstances. Make it louder so it can be heard over the car's engine. Make it quieter so it doesn't disturb your dinner conversation. That volume knob (slider?) is purely functional. But stop for a moment and think about how you're actively altering the artist's work. You are completing the final step in the compositional process.

I've been listening to Harold Budd for about twenty years now. I first discovered him not through some interest in ambient or avant garde music, but through his collaboration with Cocteau Twins. I was caught totally by surprise recently when Samadhi Sound sent me an email announcing a new download-only live Harold Budd recording. Perhaps captures Budd sitting at a piano and improvising for 70 minutes. Call it ambient jazz, if you like. Each piano note is like a Go stone carefully placed onto the game board seemingly at random, loosely defining a territory, and yet part of a greater strategy known only to the musician. Taken one way, the sparse sound particles and tone clusters create a lattice full of open spaces through which your imagination can wander. With Budd, the sounds and the silences are equally important. I found the album most effective with the volume turned down low. Without any concrete structure demanding attention, the music disappears into the ether. But then you briefly stop focusing on your task, or the room around you goes suddenly quite, and there's Budd's piano floating in to fill the emptiness. It's as if the music somehow knows when it's needed.

Far away from the intimacy of Budd there's As Lonely As Dave Bowman, the new Sam Rosenthal ambient project I mentioned a few days ago. Pod is massive, humming, continuous sound. This music doesn't want to hang around and fill in your empty spaces, it wants to become your entire space--a huge sphere of sound. But for that to work properly, you're going to need to turn up the volume. This album does not function properly at low or moderate sound levels. Play it loud, though, and the machine expands and expands until it pushes everything else aside and becomes your reality. It's not a quiet, meditative ambience, but it's still a place where you can hide for a while.

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