Sunday, August 23, 2009

Recovering Ambience

Thanks to the good graces of the Downtown Music Gallery, I have been recovering several instances of favorite material that I had given up when I got rid of all of my vinyls. Many of those recordings were produced by Brian Eno as part of his Ambient and Obscure series, and some of them are real gems. For example it was from the Obscure series that I first discovered the music of Gavin Bryars; and, when I finally had an opportunity to talk about this with Bryars himself, I learned that he was the only person who had written to me directly to request a copy of my doctoral thesis (which I provided)!

There is a tendency to associate the "ambient movement" (to the extent that it was a movement) with Windham Hill Records, which, in turn, came to be viewed as the standard bearer for New Age music at its most vacuous. The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for New Age music nicely captures this perspective:
New Age music is music of various styles, which is intended to create inspiration, relaxation, and positive feelings, often used by listeners for yoga, massage, inspiration, relaxation, meditation,[1] and reading as a method of stress management[2] or to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home or other environments often
associated with environmentalism and New Age spirituality.[1]

From my own point of view, however, Eno had far less to do with New Age thinking and far more to do with advancing the philosophy of John Cage, who believed that, since there was no such thing as absolute silence, we could find things to listen to where we least expected to find them. Eno had a way of finding such listening experiences in places that even Cage had not considered looking. This emerged through his own compositions, through his collaborations with others (such as Harold Budd), and through his support of those who worked independently of his own activities. While Gavin Bryars was my prime example of this latter category, I discovered that one of the Obscure releases that included a Bryars composition also included the entirety of John Adams' three-movement American Standard suite (only one movement of which, "Christian Zeal and Activity," has ever been available through any other source). Now that I have settled in San Francisco and become a champion of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I take delight in the fact that Eno's release of Adams' music consists of a recording of a live performance by The New Music Ensemble of the Conservatory made on March 23, 1973.

I continue to listen to Eno's projects, particularly since they provide me with useful data points in my efforts to gain a better understanding of the nature of listening to music. I find that Eno found his own path from Cage by beginning with Cage's philosophy to take sounds just as we hear them and instead holding the acoustic equivalent of a magnifying glass to those sounds. This may involve repeated motifs in the spirit of Philip Glass (or, as I have observed, Ludwig van Beethoven); but it can also involve sounds that emerge of their own accord by nature of the audio equipment being used (an approach that can also be found in the music of composers such as Alvin Lucier). In either case the result, for me at least, has less to do with creating any kind of New Age "spiritual aura" and far more to do with focusing the mind on listening with a concentration that may well exceed the level of attention we give to Beethoven. What more can we ask of a composer?

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