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Susumu Yokota: “Kinoko”

From the album Acid Mt. Fuji (1994)

The music of Japanese composer and DJ Susumu Yokota represents a style that not too long ago I would have dismissed out of hand. It could be described as “ambient techno”: beat-oriented electronic music better suited to ambient listening than proper dancing. (Yokota is also an active house DJ and has also released a number of albums in that idiom.)

Having come around a bit not only on techno (witness my ongoing obsession with Charanjit Singh’s sublime Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat), but also on music conceived for background listening (helped in part by Joseph Lanza’s fine book Elevator Music), I now find much to appreciate in this peculiar genre of music. One of the nicest things is how it can happily occupy different positions on the spectrum of auditory attention: you can play it in the background as a pleasant an unobtrusive sonic wallpaper, but you can also listen intently and discover in certain tracks an unexpected wealth of musical detail. This very quality was one of the fundamental criteria of “ambient music" as theorized by its founder, Brian Eno in the late 1970s.

The defining characteristic of this music is the almost unremitting presence of the four-on-the-floor bass drum. On this foundation, the compositional technique typically consists of the layering of loops within a static tonal framework. In “Kinoko” (“Mushrooms”), this template unfolds slowly, beginning with a soundscape of birdsong underlaid with a deep filter-swept bass drone. What sounds like the Godzilla roar gives the scene a decidedly mesozoic air. An eerie ostinato on a synthesized bell-tone enters, followed shortly by a syncopated tom-tom. When the thumping bass drum makes its inevitable appearance several minutes in, the tableau is complete and the music can run its course. The overall sound-image is strikingly evocative, providing the listener with enough substance to feed the imagination, but not so much that the experience is emotionally overdetermined. 

Played 629 time(s).

August 30, 2012, 9:55pm

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Organum: “Drome Part 1”

From the album Drome (1989)

For nearly 30 years, Organum has been the primary musical outlet of David Jackman, a British musician, artist, and alumnus of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Variously identified as a representative of ambient, industrial, experimental, and drone musics, Jackman describes the sound of Organum simply as “oceanic noise.”

Though primarily a solo project, Organum has also featured collaborations with a veritable who’s-who of the British experimental music scene, including Steven Stapleton (Nurse with Wound), Michael Prime (Morphogenesis), Eddie Prèvost (AMM), and Z’EV.

Jackman’s music, although more “underground” in its distribution and aesthetic associations, belongs to the same orbit of such classically trained and institutionally supported drone composers as Roland Kayn and Eliane Radigue. Organum is perhaps among the more accessible exemplars of drone music, since its tracks tend to be in the 5-15 minute range, as opposed to the hours-long sonic escapades of Kayn and Radigue.

Many of Jackman’s pieces are even short enough to qualify as “drone miniatures,” a seeming paradox in a genre whose effect is so often dependent on the longue durée of musical time, but it’s something that undeniably works, as shown for example on the 1989 album Drome (created with Michael Prime), which consists of two “radio friendly” three-minute tracks. (It feels like much longer.)

Played 119 time(s).

March 23, 2011, 9:41am

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Boards of Canada: “Telephasic Workshop”

From the album Music Has the Right to Children (1998)

The music of the Scottish duo Boards of Canada occupies a unique and difficult to define stylistic position in contemporary electronica.  It’s a creative mix of (among other influences) IDM, ambient, and a brand of sonically expressed technostalgia that seems to flourish in the British isles.  (See my previous post on Belbury Poly.)

Some of Boards’ music is a bit too close to the “sonic wallpaper” aesthetic that, even now, after so many barriers have fallen— I recently learned to love the music of Dolly Parton— I still have a hard time getting into.  I will write more about this later, perhaps after I have undergone a regimen of Brian Eno-dominated musical “reprogramming” a la A Clockwork Orange.

But at its best, I hear this music as the throbbing heartbeat of the technologized world.  Like much of Boards’ music, “Telephasic Workshop” is based on a quasi-minimalist repetition of sound material: in this case, a drum loop, evocative harmonic samples, and strange vocal fragments that never quite turn into speech.  Upon careful listening, one perceives the subtle and almost organic mutation of these basic forms, which allows them to breathe, and— perhaps paradoxically— strengthens the overall effect of incantation through obsessive restatement.

Played 70 time(s).

September 04, 2009, 9:19am

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