Archive — Ambient music

VexationsErik Satie

Erik Satie portrait

Erik Satie’s Vexations is shrouded in mystery. It was not published during Satie’s lifetime. It’s thought it was composed in 1893. But it went undiscovered until 1963, when John Cage first performed it publicly.

It is just three lines long, but is accompanied by this ambiguous instruction (translated from French):

In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities

While this is usually interpreted as an instruction to repeat the music 840 times to complete a performance, it’s not clear if this was actually Satie’s intention.

The tempo instruction is “Très lent” — very slow. In the words of Wikipedia, this “could mean anything”.

Cage’s first performance lasted over 18 hours — longer than he had estimated. The CD recording I own lasts only 23 minutes — a tiny fraction of the full experience. The liner notes to that CD flags up the following:

A 70 minute performance (40 repetitions) of Vexations by Alan Marks is available on the CD Vexations (LTMCD 2389)…

Despite the repetitive nature of the music, it never seems to get boring. There is something disturbing yet irresistible about it. I always imagine falling very slowly towards an uncertain destination. It feels like being trapped in an Escher painting.

This piece predates muzak and ambient music by at least 50 years. The CD liner notes say it “provided minimalism with an important historical precedent.” It even predates Dada.

This YouTube video contains a full performance, albeit one performed seemingly too fast.

You don’t hear this on adverts quite as often as Gymnopédie 1

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I’m 49Prefab Sprout

I Trawl The Megahertz cover

I’ve been aware of Paddy McAloon’s 2003 album I Trawl the Megahertz for a while. While I’d always meant to pick it up, I never got round to it. In a sense it’s just as well, as this year it was re-released, remastered, and repackaged as a Prefab Sprout album.

Suffering with health problems, Paddy McAloon spent his time at home, listening to radio phone-ins. This formed the basis of the material on the album. The stunning 22 minute long title track features a splicing together of fragments of these broadcasts to tell a story in spoken word.

Most of the rest of the album is instrumental, but I’m 49 returns to the radio broadcasts, this time sampling them directly.

As pointed out by Paddy McAloon in this reissue’s liner notes, it’s not the first time the musicality of found voices has been exploited by a musician. He namechecks Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Steve Reich’s Different Trains also springs to mind. Musically, the albums seems to take a clear cue from American minimalist composers.

The story of the making of the album — centred around Paddy McAloon’s ill health — also reminds me of how Brian Eno is said to have pursued ambient music. It is said that Brian Eno was in bed, unable to get up to adjust the volume of his radio, and ended up being inspired by the sparseness of the resulting sound.

I Trawl the Megahertz has a melancholic vibe. “I’m 49, divorced.” What makes ordinary people bare their souls to radio hosts? This seems to be the question asked by the album. But the album also provides an answer — to adversity. Faced with illness, like Brian Eno, Paddy McAloon created some wonderful music.

Now I only wonder why it took me until now to discover it properly.

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Photo — 2018-11-27

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports playing on my record player, with the record sleeve in front of it

The newly issued half-speed remastered edition of Brian Eno’s Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is very welcome.

The CD version I bought about 15 years ago sounded rather poor quality, with a distracting tape hiss running throughout. A bit frustrating when it’s one of the greatest and most important pieces of music of the 20th century.

It was a bit of a mystery to me why some other Brian Eno albums got this lavish remaster treatment first. The new version is spread across 2 LPs of heavyweight vinyl, played at 45rpm. This means each track luxuriously has its own side.

I don’t know much about the science of remastering techniques. But there’s no doubt to me that this sounds fantastic.

I’ve never been so pleased to hear a remastered album. The tape hiss is all but obliterated, and there are lots of details I hadn’t heard before.

40 years on from its original release, one of the most pleasing pieces of music now sounds almost perfect.

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1/1 — Brian Eno

Ambient 1 / Music for Airports is 40 years old this month.

1/1 artwork

It is spurious to claim that Brian Eno invented ambient music. Erik Satie’s furniture music deserves mention. Eno himself recognised the role of Muzak.

Music for Airports is not even Eno’s first ambient album, despite its Ambient 1 moniker. But it certainly is the most important.

Music for Airports is both experimental and timeless. Bold yet gentle. You can consciously listen to it. But it may also affect your mood without you consciously being aware of it. Or in the words of Eno, “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

It was a genuinely new idea. It introduced the notion of designing music for a specific purpose, yet was still packaged as a pop album. A stunning concept.

But how would we feel if music like this was played in an airport? Would it be a calming influence? Or would it grate like Muzak?

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