Column: Musics

by Matthew Sage

Marginalism, Not Vacancy
Ambient music—a loosely defined genre of electronic music generally characterized by droning, long-form compositions focused on pure melody, texture, and occasionally silence—hinges enormously on presentational aesthetics and delicacy; the balance of negative space and subtlety; the art of sparse, but precise, embellishment. Brian Eno is, in essence, the founder of this style of electronic music. His recordings draw attention to the incredible possibilities that minimal music can afford when created with modern tools, and his choices in album artwork have marked the genre forever as one concerned with the margin. Evening Star (Antilles) serves as the model. Released in 1975, this set of ambient pieces composed by Eno and Robert Fripp represent the cornerstone of this aesthetic, an aesthetic curious about empty space, but not emptiness.

Wordlessness is not a creative motivation in and of itself, just as whiteness is not the root concept of minimalism in art. Rather, wordlessness in modern music communicates interest in addressing concerns that are not necessarily designed for the application of language. Given that records are a commodity, something to be consumed by a listener, it’s fitting that the packaging should follow suit by presenting itself bold, and naked, with a distinct and yawning whiteness embracing—or marking—the façade of the packaging. Though minimalism has always had a fetching quality about it, one of the traits of minimalism is to be aesthetically pleasing while utilizing the least amount of content—to invite the viewer to purvey the blankness, and to distinguish their own stake in the margin. This essay is by no means intended to review four albums, but rather to account for an aesthetic harmony that resonates in this genre.

Sean McCann is a producer and composer based in California. After releasing a rather daring canon of melodically infused “noise” music through myriad tape labels, McCann has recently focused his attention on sound collage rooted in neoclassical compositional elements. Prelusion (Root Strata) is a stunning slab of ambient music. The cover, the plain white sleeve marked centrally by digitally overlaid textural washes of color and organic patterns—perhaps an obscured still-life oil painting—couples marvelously with the lilting tonal phrases that fill this recording. This album, which is largely focused on washes of pure harmonic tone, accented by slight variations, is very much rooted in Eno’s foundation. The thread has easily been traced through the labyrinth’s blank walls.

Willamette’s Always in Postscript (Own Records) is a unique and haunting collection of eight brief pieces of neoclassical-inclined electro-acoustic music. The trio of Joseph Edward and the brothers Chong (David & Kevin) compose their ambient recordings by sharing files digitally across great distances between the U.S. and Canada via the Internet. Whispering textural waves of melody blow across the recording, slowly and delicately, flourished by passing notes from cello or piano, this is music for uninhabited spaces—for vacancy. The cover displays an antiquated dining room, a candle chandelier hanging from the ceiling. One candle is noticeably crooked. Their tips have been lit, barely charred, ignited to give the room some sense of life. The light from these candles, like these tracks, disappears into some blankness. The image of this moment is maintained by the artwork. The artwork is that moment, passing into the margin. Dipping its toes into the silence of whiteness.

The last, and most recent, record that caught my attention in this regard is Hell on Earth (Bathetic) by Earn, the moniker of Matthew Sullivan. Comprised of stark, hauntingly massive and beautifully hovering ambient compositions, the record stands out not only for the gorgeous qualities of the sound, but also for its incredible presentation: highly detailed macro-photos of stone sculptures, high contrast detailing of stillness and decay, and a cropped photograph of the sound of a stone visage being worn smooth by countless days.

Given the ruckus, the indeterminate melee of stimulation, the mode of modernity, this style of music is particularly inquisitive. There is peace in witnessing the chaos from afar and considering it, in listening to a sound for the sound, for the space around the sound, for the margin it is designed to afford. The work is deliberate in leaving room to allow listeners to sit on the edge and witness. What they witness is their own—this is the unique trait, as echoed by the album artwork and packaging. Some would argue that this is just music for vacancy, for swooning quietly in the background. This is not vacancy; it is a pregnant margin allowing for unusual vantage.