on being weird: wetness
Contemporary romantics have been rediscovering the epic song of nature as of late, well our whole culture has taken a shine to it ever since the all too perfect marriage of Planet Earth and Sigur Ros. But then Iceland has often been attached to the epic, how could they not dwelling in that mountainous and glacial region sitting just outside the Arctic Circle? Within such easy reach of great tracts of visually arresting imagery the epic must come easy to them, just as London produces a wealth of urban music relaying the mix of decadence and depravity of city-living. The environment surrounds them and turns their gaze upon it, it is simply a natural reaction to their own landscape. The localisation of the epic causes further contemplation. When the Romantic poet Shelley visited the Chamonix Valley in 1816 it was the localisation of the epic, or to put it another way the soul gazing deep into the infinite, that caused him to write his poem Mont Blanc, below is an excerpt:
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears,-still snowy and serene-
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven
Heaven is linked indefinitely with the towering mountain, its form is innavigable to the human mind, expressing as it does the vastness of time and the boundless creation of nature. Now I’d like to impress upon you the path of the river, from the mountain to the sea, from stream via numerous tributaries to a mighty river surging forward on and on heedless before finally reaching its destination and becoming part of a greater complex system of ocean current, weather systems and climate. The river, like the mountain, is an agent of the sublime, existing as a constant force congruous with the landscape it has helped to shape, always pushing forward under the same force that has existed for millenia. As the river snakes its way down from the mountain and into the ocean it settles itself, the current becomes weaker and its impression upon the landscape much less noticeable. It becomes then much less about the danger or the vast terrifying nature of the sublime and more about the immersive qualities of the sublime. As sound the river’s almighty roar as it tumbles down the mountainside or like that of a waterfall is deafening but as the waterways wind down the immersive qualities turn to less dramatic displays of power. The sublime once reached for by Shelley gives way to the sublime within man, not without him, it is the movement of the everyday, the gentle submersion one gets from bathing within water like the submersive countenance of the busy street or the relentless carriage of the motorway. We are all submerged within water.
What has had me submerged most recently is Caribou‘s Swim. Daniel Snaith declared of the album that, his intention was to make “dance music that’s liquid in the way it flows back and forth, the sounds slosh around in pitch, timbre, pan… Dance music that sounds like it’s made out of water, rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does.” This seems to me to be a wonderful explanation of his creation and yet it is very synaesthetic. It almost describes music as a purely sensual force flowing with an energy of its own. Yet it is technical and man-made, especially within Snaith’s world of digital software and electronic equipment, as well as his use of poly-rhythms. However through his application of technical processes he has managed, rather counter-intuitively, to create a large degree of natural feeling within Swim. Kaili swirls about losing and regaining power and drive through the use of panning sounds, changing volumes and instruments. It is probably his most effective capturing of the sound of water. It seems to follow the course of the river forming up and drifting away, eddying upon the banks before moving on and submerging you under the current.
In 1986 Arthur Russell, composer, singer, artist and cellist, completed a similar experiment with his album World of Echo. It’s a remarkable and radical piece of music, composed nearly entirely from the cello and Russell’s voice. It is also heavily reliable upon random modulation, phasing and reverb, giving it this other worldliness that seems to find a certain amount of comparison within Caribou’s Swim. Like Swim it has a quality to it that is sensuous, relying on the listener to immerse themselves within it to find the transforming effect that music can have on us. It is a sonic baptism firing our minds, not with salvation but a freedom from rigid pop formula and the 4/4 beat. Arthur Russell would later say “I think, ultimately, you’ll be able to make dance records without using any drums at all.” Freedom from the beat would involve sonic immersion and that would cause “the most vivid rhythmic reality” says Russell. Again Snaith’s attitude to his new album reflects this: on discussing his previous effort under the name Daphni in relation to Swim he said “It just happens that some of the tracks that were supposed to be dance-y were the most interesting to me. They had elements that dance music wasn’t supposed to have, or had sounds dance music doesn’t traditionally have in it, or some beat or tempo that wasn’t characteristic of dance music or whatever”. Dance music resisting dance music because its immersive nature does not allow for slowing down but all ways for progress and gradual transformation.
On June 8th Ratatat‘s LP4 will be released on XL Records. Ratatat provide us with a slightly different perspective on things. Here we have a much more beat-focused group, who, as we have heard in their interviews, often use beats as a starting block for the creation of their songs. Their love of hip-hop (their remixes range from Missy Elliot to Method Man and Notorious B.I.G to Kayne West) and Queen envelop their music allowing for big beats to sit perfectly well next to dripping synths and layered guitar parts. Most strikingly the duo have managed to create their 3 released albums forgoing all vocals. It is quite remarkable that they have managed to achieve as much success as they have, and to have remained fresh all this time without this seemingly necessary instrument. This is what I believe makes them such an interesting band. It was on LP3 where they really began to stretch the possibilities of their music. Having relocated for the recording session to upper state New York, Catskill to be exact, where they rented Old Soul Studios for 40 days and 40 nights. Within this studio they found many instruments, Wurlitzers, Harpsichords, Mellatrons, etc, that they had never had the opportunity to use before and it is this new sensory adventure that Ratatat invite you on when listening to the record. It is deeply absorbing and moves further away from the hip-hop inspired albums Ratatat and Classics that they were known for. LP3 as a listening experience swallows you, it is a sort of ambient club music, just danceable and upbeat to move to, but collected and contemplative concomitantly. It seems that the intense process of writing in an atmosphere far removed from bustling Brooklyn allowed a certain natural force into the music, from the bucolic ‘gipsy’ (sic) beats to the engulfing, oncoming synthesisers. Today I read a rather remarkable piece of writing on repetition within music, and I’m going to reprint the first paragraph (and a bit more) here because I rather think it attaches itself quite well to the sort of music Ratatat make, this is from a strange little essay called The Birth of the Loop by Michael Peters, enjoy:
Looping Music today typically employs tape delay/feedback systems, digital delay devices, or computers to create repetitions of sounds. These repetitions can either remain limited to simple repeated phrases, or they are allowed to add up to a complex sound texture which either stands for itself or is used as an atmospheric or rhythmic background for soloing or other musical expression…
Vibration and regular repeating patterns are the foundation of matter and energy. On a scale more accessible to humans, rhythmic repetition, oscillation, and pulsation are dominant qualities of nature known to everyone: Waves on a shore, moon phases, day and night, the seasons.
New single, Party with Children:
Running through Ratatat’s music are the sort of pulses, repetition, oscillation, vibration and patterns that Michael Peters expressively talks about. It has an energy to it that can only be formed from layers of competing sound all swallowing each other up like the river tumbling down the valley. Again it is immersive but at an oblique angle to Caribou. It is the heavy phrasing more commonly associated with club music than the more ambient nature of Swim. I suppose melodically it fits in a slightly different category, perhaps nearer to M83 or Wax Stag, or even The Knife, than the ambience of Caribou, however the immersive nature remains.
One of the most prominent and innovative immersive musicians is Brian Eno who did a lot to bring ambient music in to the collective conscious; on the back cover of his album Discreet Music he recalls his tendency towards this form of music, re-written verbatim:
In January this year  I had an accident, I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th Century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambient environment just as the colour of light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.
Environment is key to every type of listening experience and even at the very hinterland of your listening experience (imagining for a second that the most noisy and rawkus of music happens within your city environ), where the most quiescent and taciturn sounds exist gently motioning upon the breeze, environment and music sit peacefully together. Ambient music is a treatment of music that exists as part of the world not separate from it. It is comparable to Heidegger’s theory of Dasien, or commonly translated as ‘Being-there’. It’s a presence within the world that co-exists externally and internally, uniting us with the world and helping us to understand the world. Ambient music, especially in Eno’s case, tries to capture that part of being-there that is unified with the world, using obscure sounds that emanate from technological manipulation – for instance Discreet Music uses a technique he developed with Robert Fripper for the album (No Pussyfootin’) called tape-delay (by borrowing ideas from previous tape-delay systems) which sends out a slightly delayed signal concurrent to the master recording giving the whole record a slightly weightless feel. Ambient music becomes the sound of the rivers, the mountains, the office and the street, it is a passive listening experience that doesn’t warrant your attention but exists within and without you. To understand the technological approach that Eno uses it is important that we are conscious of him not as a musician, but as he says in his own words a “non-musician”. As Eno points out, again on the back cover of Discreet Music:
It is a point of discipline to accept this passive role, and, for once, to ignore the tendency to play the artist by dabbling and interfering… I was trying to make a piece of music that could be listened to and yet could be ignored.
And so we get this wonderful passivity of both artist and listener; the artist letting the technological process create the music, the listener allowing this technological process to wash over him. It is salient because it seems like the most natural way of listening to music, as if it were simply the world moving about him, and yet it seems almost a contradiction to allow this technological process to conclude in such natural results. The damned irony of it all!
Karlheinz Stockhausen played an important part in this leap towards a natural/progressive style of technological production. In 1958-60 he composed a piece of music called Kontakte which was revolutionary in the way it was formed. Unlike Eno who utilised technology to effectively create music for him, Stockhausen found a way of controlling the process in what is called Total Serialism, essentially a system which allows total control of the parameters of music – timbre, pitch, intensity, duration. However the results feel almost the opposite. It becomes more natural because of the apparently random style it works to create. It feels more natural rather than less natural due to serialisation; noises come in waves, the river flows, then ceases, calming, but all the time underneath the current bubbles away churning up the mud and biting away at the banks before its last gasp effort towards the ocean. As Michael Clark writes:
The most famous moment, at the very center of the work, is a potent illustration of these connections: a high, bright, slowly wavering pitch descends in several waves, becoming louder as it gradually acquires a snarling timbre, and finally passes below the point where it can be heard any longer as a pitch. As it crosses this threshold, it becomes evident that the sound consists of a succession of pulses, which continue to slow until they become a steady beat. With increasing reverberation, the individual pulses become transformed into tones once again.
The piece feels like it lacks control rather than demands it, but this early form of technological manipulation would be turn out to be incredibly prescient. By serialising music and its parameters it would pave the way for the first synthesizers, increasingly complex production and electronic music as developed by the likes of Eno. Stockhausen wasn’t only influential in the technical sense but cast a large shadow over the new Germany that had come out of wearied and beaten from the Second World War. He would eventually teach the likes of Holger Czukay, the influential co-founder of Can, who got caught up in the emerging German psychedelic/experimental rock scene that spawned the likes of Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream. Later coined Krautrock by the British press the scene brought together young, artistic Germans who were interested in developing a new understanding of Germany, apart from nightmare of the fallout of Nazi Germany into which they had been born. They wanted to express a forward thinking, free, progressive society of Germans and music was their force. Cluster were one of these bands and, formed in 1971 by Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Dieter Moebius and Conrad Plank, they spearheaded the electronic and later the ambient side of Krautrock. In 1977 after 4 albums, Cluster teamed up with Brian Eno – they had previously met him under the guise Harmonia in ’76 – to release Cluster & Eno, an album steeped in the kind of ambient noise Eno had previously drawn upon for Discreet Music. Here however Cluster provide a unique sense of rhythm and repetition that was absent in Eno’s ambient work but was entirely prevelent within the Krautrock scene. Developed from Neu!s simplification of the rock beat, often called Motorik, and then enhanced further by the use of drum machines within both Harmonia and Cluster, the repetitive nature of Cluter’s sound is that last link between the futurist and the naturalist. Technology mimicking the sounds of nature – the persistent bird call, the constancy of the rain beating down, the trickling stream – industrial noises becoming a simulacrum of nature. Ambient music pushed against the drone of industry, and simultaneously the natural, to create a being-there for the modern world.
To close, something fitting; Popol Vuh were on the fringes of the Krautrock scene, creating avant garde, experimental soundscapes most famously for the films of Werner Herzog. In Aguirre, Wrath of God, Popul Voh hang their musical frame over a most bizarre picture. A film depicting the Spanish conquest of the South Americas, in particular the search for El Dorado, the mythical City of Gold. In this opening scene which sets a striking balance between the forces of nature and man, set to the ambient electronica and hymnal creations of Popul Voh (a most brilliant contrast if ever there was one), Herzog depicts the Spanish forces marching downhill through the sludge of the rainforest, next to them the mighty Amazon. Herzog focuses on the river for nearly a minute as the sounds of the Amazon and Popul Vuh play off in harmony together, a beautiful moment in film history and an agreeing symphony in which to end this piece: