Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Key Influences In Wide, Slow Music

Or, Why We Made An Album Like This.  (''All-Acoustic Contemplative Sound Spaces'')

Where did we ever get the strange ideas about spare, soothing soundmaking that were pursued on this collection?  Here are a few of the original sources.

Paul Horn Inside the Taj Mahal

Paul Horn's 1967 album recorded in the dome of India's Taj Mahal was an absolute revolution in hearing, and in feeling, too.  It's got to be one of the originating albums of the ambient space in music. 

While in India (with the Beatles, it turns out), he snuck into the Taj Mahal with his flute and a Nagra tape recorder to play with a space with its distinctive "decay time" of almost a minute.  He played a long full note, and it just hung there forever as he slowly added notes and simple themes, creating a beautiful weave of suspended tones harmonizing with each other, on their way to disappearing into eternity.  (At least that's how it seemed...) 

He coaxed the temple's prayer caller into joining, so Horn follows him singing a line with harmonies on the flute, for a wonderful, slow motion cross-cultural improv.

The "Environments" series

LPs with sidelong tracks of pure sounds of nature and other expanded perspectives in sound. 
These albums were among the key influences in wide, slow, atmospheric music.

“The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” Side A, Environments 1

"Environments 1, released a year before Songs of the Humpback Whale" (another pioneering work in this realm,) "and almost a decade before Brian Eno’s ambient manifesto Ambient 1: Music for Airports, introduced the psychoacoustic concept of sound masking as well as the medicinal uses of natural sound into popular culture."
- From the Irv Teibel Archive, the official site about the originator and man behind the entire series.  
Side A of the original, “The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore,” was a straight up 30-some minutes of very clearly recorded ocean waves at a beach.  Side B, "The Optimum Aviary," was pure bird song.

"Tinntinabulation" (A) and "Dawn At New Hope, Penn." (B)

The second album's Side One was "Tinntinabulation" – unique in the the Environments series, this side was of computer-generated giant bells in a transfixing, seemingly random looping sequence.  (Done with an IBM mainframe, this has to be one of the coolest things ever produced with that technology, along with the other space program of the time, NASA's.)

The LP was playable at any speed from 16 2/3 to 78  rpm.  The CD reissue opted for the slowest speed, which is what you'll find online.

The bells were complemented by a Side B of the gentle sounds of all forms of nature awakening, "Dawn at New Hope, Pennsylvania."  

Many other albums were from pure scenes in Nature, including favorites like "Wood-Masted Sailboat," of the lightly thunking, ringing, wave-slapped sounds of the boat itself, all of which were so soothing.

It was a whole new kind of record to put on, of "music" to hear, a peaceful revolution in listening.  If you've ever lived next to ocean, or some unspoiled away-from-it-all spot, this was old news.  But in a loud, irriating urban situation, they were very welcome even just as aural padding. So city-dwellers craved these recordings, enough to create a new genre.

Brian Eno's Music For Airports —

Later, in the earliest 80's, Brian Eno began making what he termed "ambient" music, defined as this subtly shifting sound that was not made for direct listening, but instead was an environment, an atmosphere designed in this case to lighten the mood of the rushing travellers.

It was slow-moving piano by Harold Budd and wordless vocal samples with the full studio treatment, turning the sound into an Impressionist painting.  But the main feature of the music was how the tones sounds were left hanging there to resonate for the longest time, from start to finish.

Classical Avant-Garde —

Then there's the rethinking of music of the early 20th century's classical Avant-Garde, who were searching the world for ways out of the highly structured box that Western classical music had become by that point.  They sought a form of music based on pure tonality, the random or chance element in nature and/or everything they could think of, experimented like mad and seemingly tried everything.

These European composers pushing the limits of that music discovered how well-suited empty space was for framing their radically new statements in sound.  And they were there as the beginnings of electronic sound gave people the starry-eyed idea that maybe someday there could be completely electronic music!

"Poeme Electronique" by Edgard Varèse, an unearthly, floating combination of percussion, electronics and vocal created for a World's Fair pavilion in the late 1950's, was defining.  Varèse began making abstract percussion music in the 1930's in France using orchestral instruments.  It wasn't any kind of mellow or tonal, but he brought a whole new perspective to listening, of hearing raw, seemingly unstructured sound as music.

Alvin Lucier's "Music On A Long Thin Wire" was another breakthrough in this world.  Among his many sonic experiments, he stretched a long metal cable across an entire room and miked it as both ends.  What he got were the waves of sound impulses as the wire reacted with its environment.  At first he would play on it, activate it in various ways, until he discovered it when he reentered the empty room that it was singing to itself, just from the air currents in the house.

Hats off, too, to John Cage, primarily for his writing and ideas.  He was the writer-theorist and composer who brought very different elements into Western music, of Zen and chance and random changes of various kinds being planned for a performance. While his own music was kind of eh, his writing was stunning, coming at a time when ideas of mindfulness, of understanding how much our own music is rooted in Nature and so on, seemed to this culture to be very, very new.

So Many More

There are countless other tributaries, of course: Tony Scott's "Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys" from 1964 was probably The original of the genre, was a set of groundbreaking, slow-motion improvs with classical koto and shakuhachi musicians and his clarinet.  Then there was the enormous impact of Indian classical music, the opening Alap section, and just the mesmerizing sound alone of the sitar and tamboura buzzing and droning together.

And 60's rock and jazz were listening: all that feedback (our frenzied version of the tamboura's sound), the jam in the middle of The Grateful Dead's "Dark Star," Weather Report's "Adios"... this could be a very long list.

All of these were defined by fewer, much longer notes, with generous space in between.  With human-made music, it seems, Less is usually More.

And we can only properly conclude by acknowledging the ultimate musical  influence, our countless listening experiences at the Ocean's shore.  (Preferably with the crickets.)

All of these were inspirations for,

"All-Acoustic Contemplative Sound Spaces" 
Bill McNeill Ross, featuring Featuring Peter Blum, David Budd, Lea Garnier; and Nature.
Download or stream from the CD Baby Music Store, iTunes/Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon and all the rest.
(More on the album, and a free, full streaming player, here:)

We've always been utterly fascinated by being immersed in a deep, rich, flowing tone that just hangs there and hypnotizes.  Alongside that, as percussionists we prize the raw, living sound of instruments made directly from the earth, transformed and refined by human hands. (All praise to the instrument makers!)

Then there's the medium of ambient or space music, which suggests a couple things: long sustained tones in a peaceful, slow moving background, addressed more to the senses, feelings and breath than to our modern overstimulated minds. And you always assume it's done on synthesizers.

There's a lot of favorite electronic music that we listen to frequently, even big fans of some.  But there's no way a synthesized sound can compare to the depth and all the dimensions of an object in nature, resonating. That's why it was put together "all acoustic."  (The new term for this unplugged approach seems to have become "organic," but I'm sorry, that only suggests food to me.)

"Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order."
- Plato (429-347 BC)
And that's what it's all about.

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