PAN’s Ambient Compilation Is a Testament to the Details Found in Stillness

The label responsible for some of the last half decade’s most kinetic electronic music pauses for a breath on ‘mono no aware.’
March 17, 2017, 7:10pm

The Berlin-based label PAN has been responsible for a lot of agitation over the course of their near-decade of existence. Since 2008, the imprint has been a hub at the gnarled outer realms of electronic music, issuing—among their vast swath of releases—battered takes on futuristic techno, subzero grime refractions, chest-caving drones, and ambient records that feel like unusually aggro ASMR tapes. Even their more subdued releases are dense with meaning and movement—they trade almost exclusively in the sort of records that make passive background listening impossible. PAN's releases want to overwhelm you with the details stuffed into every corner of the mix.


With that in mind, the concept behind their first label compilation is a bit of a left turn. The title, mono no aware, is a Japanese phrase that translates to "'the pathos of things," "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity toward ephemera," per a press release. It's an ambient compilation—more or less—put together with the lofty goal of encouraging contemplation about our ephemerality, the idea that everything around us will someday fade away. On record, that means that this is among the most spacious music that's ever been released under the PAN banner. The comp includes artists new to the label (like New York pop experimentalist James K or NON Worldwide affiliate Mya Gomez) and returning favorites (like the shapeshifting producer/songwriter Yves Tumor and digitalist thinkers like ADR), pausing their twitchy practices to offer versions of solitude.

As you'd expect, there's a lot of weightlessness and drifting, airy synth pads as aural signifiers for sensory deprivation soaks. The placid drones that open Malibu's contribution "Held" epitomize this form, a Berlin-schooled take on synth drama. But none of these compositions stop at that point of peace. On "Held," the bliss melts away into a gasping, whispered spoken word segment, full of clicking lips and jarring plosives, the climax of which goes: "Life hits me hard again." It recedes back into a droning guitar outro, not dissimilar to something out of the Kranky canon.

Most tracks on the compilation seem to have similar goals, consistently forcing you to confront new details rather than embracing stillness. Tumor's contribution "Limerence" is built around the sort of foggy keyboard line and nature sounds that show up on forgotten new age tapes, but he too breaks up the bliss with staticky vocal samples from what sounds like a home movie. TCF's track—which bears another of his lengthy cryptographic titles—is deceptively detailed too. It's inspired by a process called "black MIDI," wherein a nigh-uncountable number of notes on a MIDI staff are programmed to trigger a sustained sound. It sounds peaceful, but it's stormy under the surface—ambience created from constant movement.

When Brian Eno announced his new generative album Reflection last year, he mused that some musicians were like farmers—they "settle a piece of land and cultivate it carefully, finding more and more value in it—and others were like cowboys—they "look for new places and are excited by the sheer fact of discovery." Most labels—like Kompakt's annual Pop Ambient comps, for example—that put together beatless compilations of synth music treat the exercise like agriculture, offering subtle variations on a theme that milk the form for all its worth.

But as you might expect from a label that operates at the avant edge of electronic music, the producers assembled here mostly set up camp with the cowboys, pushing and poking at traditionally held notions of ambient music to mind-expanding effect. Can you arrange synth lines into trance-like whirlpools and still call it ambient music, like SKY H1 does on "Huit"? Can the electronics that strip the paint off of Jeff Witscher's placid pianos on "ok, American Medium" be as conducive to reflection as more genteel drones? The joy of mono no aware is that it seems to answer yes to any question you pose. At its center is a sort of openness—which feels refreshing as someone who spends a lot of time listening to ambient music. Nothing's off limits, the joy's in the searching.