Music Without Meaning: Wolfgang Voigt on Pop Ambient
Wolfgang Voigt

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Music Without Meaning: Wolfgang Voigt on Pop Ambient

The Kompakt boss tells us about their quiet revolution
March 6, 2015, 2:05pm

We live in an age of rapidly accelerating fear and confusion, an epoch of economic and social destabilisation, a time of post-postmodernity panic. Everything moves too fast and too furiously to be comprehended fully. We console ourselves with real time updates, quick fire snapshots of not-really-connected synapses posing as authoritative authorial interpretation and analysis.

Art, possibly more than ever, acts as a quiet force of repose, but even that is mediated by the rush and whirr of the contemporary. We need a change. We need breathing room. We need something that gives us the freedom to think. We need ambience.

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The story goes something like this: a bed-bound Brian Eno requests that a visitor brings him music to listen to during a hospital stint. Said family member, friend or flunky comes armed with an album of harpsichord music and leaves the former Roxy Music man to listen to it. The thing is, and this is crucial, they left the record playing just a bit too quietly. Eno had to strain to hear it and started thinking about the possibilities of music that, could 'accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.' The maxim of what became known as ambient was that 'it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.' Thus we got Discreet Music, Music for Airports, and Apollo. And then came swathes of gossamer thin synth washes and barely there percussive ticks and arrhythmic almost-whale sounds.

Eno's ambient albums chime delicately, the vapour trails of single notes drift languidly into synthesised, mechanised, unreal-ly heavenly voices, choirs arching gently, barely perceptibly towards the stratosphere. This is music that, paradoxically, invites the listener to disregard it whilst retaining a sense of formal and aural-aesthetic near-perfection which renders the audience awe-struck at the use of space and openings and the purity of minimalism. These records, - directly or indirectly - shaped the sound of music to come. Think of Burzum or Xasthur welding the mellifluous wash of Tangerine Dream kosmiche ambient to black metal's harsh party-wall of sound; or the Eno infused modern classical stylings of Stars of the Lid. Try and imagine William Basinski's imperious Disintegration Loops series - a collection of gorgeous classical motifs decaying incrementally in front of the listener - existing without Eno's pioneering tape modifications and manipulations. Ambient, be it the elegantly almost invisible piano sketches of Harold Budd, or the dance-influenced early Aphex Twin material, has transportive powers. It takes its listener away from regiment and marching rule.

Kompakt, arguably one of the dominant forces in the history of contemporary techno, has always had an actively ambient bent. Their annual Pop Ambient collections of haze and hiss are essential companions for any serious clubber's post-party plans. The Cologne crew recently announced the launch of a new album series that highlights their softer side. The Pop Ambient LP series kicks off, ever so gently, with Argentian producer Leandro Fresco's El Reino Invisible. To celebrate this new stream of contemplative quietude, THUMP spoke to the label's founder, and all round techno-maestro, Wolfgang Voigt.

He opens by stressing that while Fresco's album is the beginning of a new, solidified era of the imprint's ambient output, it isn't an unexpected arrival. "It's very simple. If you know our catalog, you might know that, apart from our bassdrum-based releases, Kompakt has always been the homebase for a lot of interesting strictly ambient artist solo albums as well." These include Ulf Lohmann's seminal Because Before and In Moll by Markus Guentner, a record that Komapkt themselves describe as "Neoromantic emotional laptopambienttechno to escape from the grey sky surrounding us," an ungainly but oddly fitting assessment.

For Voigt, the Pop Ambient LP series is about creating space within a busy release schedule. "Within the last few years our artist roster has grown a lot and the label release plan has been more and more packed with important, and great, club music. To give our ambient releases more space again, we decided to make the Pop Ambient trademark, which is already well-known and established, a platform for artist-releases as well." Rather than seeing it as a new label, or sister sublabel, its creation is a "just the reorganisation of the Kompakt release plan and policy."

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With business out of the way, we honed in on the polite power of ambient as a whole. "The original abstract idea, fantasy, hypothesis of "pop ambient" was to put pop music under a giant microscope and to enlarge it, stretch it ( focus/zoom on details) and slow it down, till you get back to the DNA of pure sound and aesthetics, free from any meaning." Meaning, it seemed to us, is inherent in everything. How, we wondered, can music escape it? "By that I mean something more like putting a piece of music (the audiofile) under a "microscope" (a sampler, for example) and enlarging it, deforming it, unmasking it till it gets back to what it was: sound." Doing that, he argues, means that the piece of music exists on the level of original creation rather than as an object of criticism or individually motivated interpretation. "This is an abstract fantasy/idea which of course is not realistic, because the moment you put it out it has a meaning again." Ambient, then, can be viewed, or more accurately, heard as an ongoing attempt to create a space in which forced meaning is swapped for a state of purity.

The relationship between techno and ambient is a longstanding one, and one that Voigt has been a participant in. His still-stunning 1998 collaboration with Kompakt mainstay Jorg Burger, as Burger/Ink, Las Vegas, is an ethereal attempt at anchoring ambient's lysergic drift and bliss with the anchoring thud of the bass drum. It is dubbed out, trancey, open to interpretation. It seems to come from the depths of the chill-out rooms of the 90s, "the alternative (second) carpeted-floor where people were hanging around and listened to music that we called the beat free, harmonic sister of techno."

Voigt's work as GAS cannot be ignored. The four stately, sublime albums he released under that moniker take German classical compositions and recontextualize them as extended drifts into the eternal abyss, voluminous washes of light and shade, dread and dreamtime. Those four records are absolutely perfect - both in and of themselves, and as encapsulations of the potentiality of ambient music. "Ambient can have many different properties and characteristics at the same time. It can be pure, calm, dark, light, clean, dirty, full of harmony and devoid of it," Voigt tells us. He's right. Let us all hope that whatever emerges from this new Pop Ambient dawn is proof of it.

Leandro Fresco's El Reino Visible is out now on Kompakt.

For more information on the label head here.

Josh Baines is on Twitter