3 tracks that shaped my music

Container ships by Volkan Olmez
Container ships by Volkan Olmez https://unsplash.com/@volkanolmez

An Ambient Trinity

When I look back at the music that inspired me to compose in the ambient genre, three tracks stand out, each representing an aesthetic or concept that informs my music:

“Dlp 1.1” by William Basinski

“Dlp 1.1” is an hour-long track from The Disintegration Loops, a series of four albums released between 2002 and 2003 by avant-garde composer William Basinski. For one hour, you hear a cassette tape looping a short fragment of ambient music. With each cycle under the player’s head, the magnetic tape deteriorates. As the quality decreases, the anomalies and distortions increase, until only the ghosts of the original recording remain. The result is a poignant, immersive, void-gazing drone. It is simultaneously outrageous and mesmerising. To me, this approach to musicmaking was a revelation. Basinski opened my eyes to what music could be. Through “Dlp 1.1”, he introduced me to experimental music and specifically, the power of repetition, distortion and texture.

“Container Ships” by Loscil

“Container Ships” is the fourth track on Sketches From New Brighton (2012) by Loscil (Scott Morgan). The album is a series of ambient electronic “sketches” inspired by scenery surrounding a Vancouver shipping port. Throughout the track, a pulsing bass theme surges and recedes like an enormous engine. This is joined by an optimistic tune in a higher register, animating the piece. There are distinct, contrasting layers that seamlessly blend together—methodically assembled, yet unfolding naturally. This is what makes Loscil so impressive: the ability to make the calculated feel organic. His minimal soundscapes are pristine but personal, and their warmth draws you in. “Container Ships” pushed me into making ambient music, and for that I owe its composer a debt of gratitude.

“Repose In Blue” by Eluvium

“Repose In Blue” is the finale of Eluvium’s 2007 Copia album. Matthew Cooper, the man behind the moniker, is known for his cinematic ambient compositions, and this nine-and-a-half-minute track does not disappoint, expertly employing the element of surprise. For the first five-and-a-half minutes, an unassuming, string-laden stream of synths passes unhurriedly along—later joined by the laziest horn imaginable—when all of a sudden, a series of deep, unsynchronised drums begin to randomly explode beneath the surface, like subterranean pyrotechnics! This interruption is nothing short of sublime, given the placid expanse he so carefully constructs, up to that point. If I could convey a fraction of such drama and emotional content in my music, I would be delighted!

FORGOTTEN FIELDS

Godspeed You! Post-rocker

A drum set
Image by https://unsplash.com/@gabebarletta

Not Electronic, not Rock: Post-rock

When I submitted Airship to online music distributors, I had to choose a genre for the album. From the official options, it came down to either “Electronic” or “Rock”. I selected “Electronic”, the closest generic match, but my music actually falls somewhere in between. It falls under Post-rock, a genre that is somewhat difficult to define.

The problem with “post-rock”

Its exclusion from the available options is, perhaps, not all that surprising because as a descriptor of a creative category, it tells you almost nothing about an artist’s sound. It includes so vast a range of musical styles that it is rendered just about meaningless. For purposes of classification, this is a nightmare, but for all others—particularly the creation and discovery of music—it is positively heaven sent. I could, for example, describe my work as “experimental post-minimalist ambient electronic progressive rock” (or something equally absurd and pretentious), but how practical is that melange of identifiers to me, or a listener who hopes to discover it? “Post-rock” is a neat, necessary and welcome contraction. Whilst in its “strictest” sense it is essentially non-traditional rock music made with rock instruments, that definition only considers bands such as Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky and This Will Destroy You, whose music epitomises post-rock in its “purest” form. But over time, through a kind of osmosis, the term has come to encapsulate a host of sub-genres, making up a particular body of experimental music. Today, it includes ambient bands like Hammock, experimental projects like Jónsi & Alex, shoegaze bands like Jeniferever and even dream pop groups like Kyte.

Close-up of a musician on stage
Image by https://unsplash.com/@sztuu

In praise of post-rock

Post-rock is therefore almost a necessarily nebulous term. In his Treblezine article “10 Essential Post-Rock Albums“, Jeff Terich describes post-rock as follows: “It’s a genre in which texture, tone and atmosphere has a more prominent role than hooks or verses and choruses. Its song structure can vary widely, or in some cases be nonexistent. There is both more improvisation and more complex editing techniques. Sometimes it’s all instrumental, and in other cases it’s built on samples or spoken word passages. The rules are pretty pliable, as long as it’s not really a straightforward rock song.” You can tell by his description that there are hardly any rules; and post-rock artists break whatever rules there are in every conceivable direction, rewriting them in their own image. This creates a treasure trove of musical experimentation, a genre that introduces music lover and maker alike to a plethora of ingenuity. It delivers everything from the clean, natural compositions of Balmorhea, to the texture-laden, synth-driven depths of Belong; it embraces the vast, rock-instrumented symphonies of Mono and the sublime, cinematic soundscapes of Eluvium; but it also celebrates the melancholy strings of Stars of the Lid, to say nothing of the aching lamentations of Sigur Ròs. It is a universe of the new, the interesting and the strange.

A post-rock novice

A newcomer to the field, I tentatively describe my music as “ambient electronic post-rock” because those are key themes I can identify. Within these parameters I can explore and develop rules of my own. The process is challenging, even intimidating, but that is the nature of exploration—and I would like to think that I am here to explore.

FORGOTTEN FIELDS

From Forgotten Fields to Obsolete Worlds

Spectre by Obsolete World

The soul of a thing

I only recently discovered the genius behind the art of post-rock band Eluvium. Over the years, the work of Jeannie Lynn Paske, labouring under the moniker Obsolete World, has graced the covers of a number of Eluvium albums, capturing their sound, aesthetic and emotional content in curious drawings and paintings. It’s easy to see why they would choose her work: she has that elusive ability to communicate the very soul of a thing in the simplest drawing. Consider her artwork for False Readings On, Eluvium’s 2016 album (pictured below); I look at that dark, featureless, disintegrating figure and cannot help but see myself, destroyed by the beauty of Eluvium’s music in one breathtaking image. It takes a special kind of imagination to produce something so modest and yet, so powerful, and in Obsolete World, Jeannie has successfully brought that imagination to life.

Obsolete…

I took a particular interest because Jeannie’s most recent work with Eluvium has reached a new level of sophistication. She has simplified and refined her style, removing the superfluous, focusing only on the essentials of her otherworldy creations. Her works are now more haunting than ever before; and this at a time when her menagerie of creatures have become less fantastical then ever before. This is not a criticism. This development has brought about a revolution in her work in terms of quality and intellectual and emotive content. You see, Jeannie’s artworks are places of refuge for beings from her (and our) childhood imagination. She calls this place of asylum “Obsolete World”. Here, these imaginary creatures live out their exile from our adult minds. They may no longer be needed by the minds that created them, but this world is theirs and here they are remembered. However, Jeannie has now replaced the fantastical monsters with simple human figures, thereby making the creators themselves the exiles. She has turned the tables on us and it makes for fascinating visuals and food for thought.

False Readings On by Obsolete World

… but not forgotten

I draw parallels, however loosely, between what Jeannie is trying to do in her art and what I am trying to do in my music: collecting and conserving the abandoned. My own childhood spectres still haunt my grown-up world and writing music is my way of giving them a haunt of their own. As a child, I created many ways of coping with the fears that come with abandonment. I liken those fears to the melancholy denizens of Obsolete World. Now that I am an adult, I begin to see them for what they are: imaginary childhood creations I must exile from my mind. But, despite the havoc they caused, they helped protect me when I was helpless and lost. Creatures like “Hide-Your-Emotions” and “Be-Perfect-To-Earn-Approval” helped me feel loved and accepted, no matter how twisted they would become. So, I must not hate them. They were products of my childhood mind trying to make sense of the world. For better or for worse, they shaped me. They deserve not to be lost. And so, I let them live on in my music, where forgotten things are remembered and abandoned things are cherished.

Forgotten Fields

Thanks to Jeannie Lynn Paske for allowing me to use her images. Take a trip to Obsolete World for more captivating work.

First image: “Specter”, 2015, in graphite, charcoal, pastel, powdered pigment and ink
Second image: “False Readings On”, 2016, in watercolour, charcoal, pastel and ink