I heard a whispering in the trees. Given the circumstances, I doubted my ears at first. Lying on my back in a tent at an old summer camp in upstate New York, I was 36 hours deep into the self-elected brain-battering of a low-key techno festival that takes place in September each year. Removed, even momentarily, from the cycles of daily life, I’d been ignoring bodily givens. Sleep was scarce; the granola bars I stole from the office kitchen sat untouched in my backpack. I’d been subsisting mostly on whatever you can glean from the static and sub-bass of hard techno.
Stomach grumbling and eyes bleary, I worked my way across a rope bridge that swayed and sank with each footstep. I soon found myself in front of the one of the weekend’s three stages that I’d more or less ignored thus far. Secreted away in a thicket of trees, and bathed in soft neons, a DJ stood still and silent, shepherding slow, formless music into the forest. As I walked up, that whispering—it turns out, a multichannel spoken-word piece by the Norwegian artist Ann Lislegaard—morphed into sounds more wonderful and strange. First, there were slow drones, lightly manipulated field recordings of nature sounds, delicate, geometric synth sequences. I’m not sure how long I sat there on a tree stump, watching a man play these creeping tones into the cool September night—I may have, in all honesty, drifted off for some of it—but it was a moment of peace amid the festival’s chaos. It was needed.
Over the last few years, as I’ve tried to cope with the mundane stresses of adulthood and the head-spinning pace of existence in the Anthropocene age, I’ve found myself increasingly inclined to do what I did at that techno festival, and follow the whispers away from the noise. Ambient music—slow, drifting compositions, often for electronics but really for any instrument that allows long-sustained notes—has become a spiritual life raft.
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