Free Radicals is Noisey's column dedicated to experimental music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the fringes and why they're meaningful.
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 whis- pering—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.
It began while I was working at an office in Midtown Manhattan in 2015, a stone’s throw from Times Square—New York’s favorite structural panic attack. The vagaries of the crumbling infrastructure of the subway system and the piscine masses of tourists and midlevel manager types clogging the Sixth Avenue sidewalks took on a different tone when I had something like the prismatic, dreary work of the composer Klaus Schulze in my earbuds. Worlds of color and stillness presented themselves to me in the spaces between the notes of those kaleidoscoping synth sequences, or in the monolithic monotones of a host of drone composers, or the uncomplicated bliss of a number of 80s New Age composers. I could insulate myself from the harshness of the world. I could float somewhere above it.
When things start to feel like too much, I drift away into an ambient record—a celestial drone from a reclusive synthesist or a placid collection of field recordings. When Twitter feels like it’s moving too fast, I retreat into the drippy synth pieces released on labels like Sounds of the Dawn. When my brain won’t quiet down, I listen to New York minimalists and let their reassuring repetitions hypnotize me back to normalcy. I’m an advocate for listening to challenging music in challenging times—I think atonality and rhythmic contortions can teach a psyche a lot about resilience—but when it comes down to it, I’m far more likely to spend my nine-ish hours sitting at a desk every day listening to formless synth music than free jazz. I take what rest I can get.
A 2011 study in Nature Neuroscience—which claimed to provide some explanation for the overall value of music to human society—delineated, using MRI technology, the way that music affects chemical reward pathways in the brain. The McGill University researchers said that the brain’s response worked in two distinct ways, that “intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release” but also “the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself.”
Ambient music, as a form, is all about anticipation; the gradual shifts between notes and slowly unfolding textures mean it is a genre of delayed gratification. If the brain can give off chemical rewards essentially for waiting, my nigh-compulsive obsession with this stuff makes a little more sense, but in 2018, I think anyone can understand the appeal of stillness.
Recently, we’ve had more cause than ever, at least on a geopolitical scale, to seek the respite that ambient music offers. Despots and purveyors of extremist right-wing rhetoric are on the rise. Consequently, human rights abuses pile up at a pace that’s hard to keep track of, and reports on the apocalyptic state of the environment go mostly unheeded. This is stuff you know; this is the background hum of existence in 2018, louder by the day.
An article in the Guardian noted last year that many of that summer’s biggest electronic music festivals had started programming ambient acts alongside the more dancey fare, a trend summed up by the composer Laraaji in the article as offering the listener “a vertical escape, even if it’s temporary, without feeling like you’re abandoning your responsibilities as a planetary being.” But as the world continues to feel darker, I’ve started to feel like I am, as he puts it, abandoning my responsibilities. At a certain point, when confronted with the brutal realities of the world, it has started to feel irresponsible to simply bury my head in the ground and console myself with synthesizers and static. How can I cocoon myself from the horrors of the world, when others can’t?
There is however, some argue, a greater possibility buried in this music than mere escapism. The composer and songwriter Nick Zanca—who records solo as Mister Lies and fronts the band Quiet Friend—has spoken at length over the years about the political possibilities of formless music. He says, essentially, that the blank canvas these sounds offer allows for processing and thought. It’s a place to turn your brain off, but also a place for brainstorming.
“I’d much rather process the quotidian bad news we’re continually facing to [drone songwriter] Grouper or [minimalist composer] Morton Feldman, than I would to something in your face—a musical situation that leaves one no room to think,” Zanca told me via email. “There’s only so much sensory overload we can handle. In all contexts (certainly live), texture-based music encourages collective/collaborative listening, so in that regard, it enjoys a more left-leaning, reflective distinction from, say, club music or pop musical spaces, in which the act of listening is secondary to social interaction.”
The New York–based record label RVNG echoed this line of thought when they were tasked with soundtracking a meditation space at the 2017 installment of the synthesizer manufacturer Moog’s annual celebration of electronics, Moogfest, in Durham, North Carolina. Instead of just DJing at the space (an old movie theater), they commissioned new works from some artists in their extended orbit and put them together on a cassette compilation called Peaceful Protest, which they played over the theater’s speakers, and then later sold, donating the proceeds to a local charity for LGBTQ youth. The artwork for the tape, a stylized version of the title, was projected on the giant screen, which gave a centering message to the wordless recordings. It unlocked, for me, a new way of thinking about the power of ambient music.
“There’s [a] kind of collective conscious that happens around lyricless music,” Matt Werth, a founder of RVNG, told me at the time. “I don’t think you get that in other kinds of music. You can see it throughout history—devotional music has always had a formless or cyclical, mantra-esque feel. There’s a power from that, you know?”
That movie theater offered a directional thought: What could we be protesting? What should we be? It wasn’t a political movement in itself—save for the charity element of the proceedings—but it provided a quiet, calm zone where the seeds of that action could take root.
Some makers of this music tend to think of it in similar terms. While I am occasionally skeptical of the idea of collections of tones to hold actual musical content, I was taken a few years ago by the protest gesture of the Virginia-based artist Chino Amobi’s album Airport Music for Black Folk. Riffing on Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports—a collection of slow drones that many hold as a formative text of the genre—Amobi, like Eno, crafts a collection of slow, sad compositions. But it’s clear from the start that there’s something more upsetting at the heart of his Airport Music; his pieces are less tonal, more grating, a cognizance of the fact that for some people—namely people in bodies already on the margins of society—airports can be fraught spaces. That experience can’t be soundtracked by a humming soundscape.
The beauty is that the message, by nature of the music’s form, isn’t didactic. Amobi, and the composers like him, can expound on the themes of their work in interviews and artist statements, but for the listener, you only have the sounds to get lost in, and the title as a guide. It is possible to do as I once did; to look at the world around you, to say fuck it and disappear. But it doesn’t have to end there; you can use that rest as a starting place for breaking your regular patterns of thought. It’s not just a space to escape to, but a place for reflection, where new possibilities and new worlds can be dreamed up.
For further listening, we've compiled a playlist of some of our favorite ambient records of the year. Listen up above or on Spotify. If that's not enough, here's a few more below that aren't on any of the major streaming platforms.
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey, who uses ambient music to cope with the fact that being on Twitter all the time is more or less a job requirement.