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I Think Therefore I Ambient

On Mute

Everyone hates auto-playing ads. They blast us unexpectedly when we’re most immersed online. Which is why Facebook and other advertisers are attempting to make video ads eye-catching, especially on mute. From avoiding annoying pop-up ads to watching political debates, “in silence” is increasingly our prefered mode for browsing the internet.

Film scholar Tom Gunning, in his essential 1986 article for Wide Angle entitled “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”, defines a useful term for scenery-chewing silent film as “a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.” Silent cinema at the turn of the 1900s, according to Gunning, was less about telling a story and more about senselessly grasping for audiences’ fleeting attention.

What we are seeing (but not hearing) is a return to this base-level solicitation—a retreat to what Gunning succinctly called “exhibitionist confrontation.”


Sonic Sea, (2016) – Dirs. Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld

A few months ago, I stumbled upon this outstanding but profoundly troubling documentary about how industrial and military noise is altering the world’s oceanic soundscapes, and devastating delicate marine ecosystems in the process. This week while on a morning jog, I witnessed a full-grown man screaming at a squabble of seagulls at rest on the Lachine canal’s banks. Our sonic aggression toward the animal kingdom knows no bounds.


Alan Turing’s Computer-Generated Music

What is more interesting than the music itself—which is neither the first computer-generated music, nor the most aesthetically pleasing—is the commentary caught on this 1951 recording restored by researchers at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. After a painfully out-of-tune rendition of Glenn Miller’s Big Band hit, the voice of a woman declares with wit, “The machine is obviously not in the mood”.


St. Henri’s Beeping Machines

Along with the rest of the neighbourhood, I can’t sleep much of late for the constant beeping of all-night construction. Enjoy it while it lasts. Remember what happens in Montréal come wintertime:


Report Spam: P4K’s 50 Greatest Ambient Albums Listicle

Canons are dangerous. They oversimplify and tend toward various biases. In short, they exclude. And exclusivity is the opposite of inclusivity. Still, revisionist canons run another risk. Once a canon has been established, it becomes an imperative historical document—a broad survey of items and ideas that powerful stakeholders found interesting and important at the time. Ripping into a canon can efface certain traces of discourse, and de-historicize concurrent modes of classification. Even when the impetus is good—finding the lost, remembering the forgotten, championing the damned—revisionism overlooks the very act of overlooking.

Having said that, I’m about to eviscerate Condé Nast’s bullshit Ambient list. “Pitchfork Staff” are re-stocked with benighted, lifestyle-shilling millennial twits who seemingly never benefited from this music’s highest possible spiritual ambition: to ease the exit and eventual re-entry of inter-dimensional astral traveling whilst under strong acid and/or cheap whizz. It’s like a Catholic priest trying to teach Sex-Ed: the man doesn’t even have a zipper on his pants. There are so many astonishing Ambient albums—and not overly obscure ones—that had nary a chance of making this catalog. Here’s a baker’s dozen, in no particular order. Happy travels:


Klaus Schulze – Mirage – Brain

Aptly titled The Ultimate Edition, German Ambient pioneer and former Tangerine Dreamer Klaus Schulze released a 50-CD boxed set in 2000—all 50 of which eluded Pitchfork—of his extensive oeuvre spanning a nearly 30-year career. One could go straight from owning nothing by Klaus Schulze to owning everything by Klaus Schulze. Notably, he was also a member of the prolific Dark Side of the Moog project with Pete Namlook (see next entry).


Namlook – Namlook – Fax +49-69/450464

The Frankfurt composer Peter Kuhlmann (aka Pete Namlook) was responsible for a number of Ambient classics, collaborating with Bill Laswell and Richie Hawtin among others, and releasing over 450 records through his own Fax +49-69/450464 imprint. His debut solo album, Namlook, is live and entirely improvised. Kuhlmann died of a heart attack on November 8th, 2012. He was 51.


Beaumont Hannant – Texturology – GPR

Beaumont Hannant came to my attention via the Artificial Intelligence compilations released on Warp Records in the mid-1990s. The exceptional Texturology was only one of three LPs Hannant released in 1994, before disappearing into obscurity by the early 2000s. His crunchy Industrial remix of “Enjoy”, taken from Björk’s Telegram, is one of that album’s standouts.


Autechre – Incunabula – Warp

I’m surprised, what with the pending reissue of Incunabula and two other Autechre classics, that Pitchfork didn’t further ingratiate themselves to Warp by including this with their list.

At 16, I had a proper out-of-body experience while listening to this album. I’d taken mushrooms alone in my bedroom. At one point, I physically disintegrated and felt as though I were flying over a series of shining metallic orbs. I reached what appeared to be the end and flipped around, floating back on the inverse side. I remember thinking, “Is this it? Was that the end of the universe?” When I returned to my bedroom / body, the album was over.

I confided the trip in a headbanger friend, Marc Cross, the next day. Marc was about 40. He wore shoulder-length black hair and a black leather jacket, with a string of long white tassels hanging across the back and down the sleeves. “One of those, eh?” Marc said, bobbing his head knowingly.


Neotropic – 15 Levels Of Magnification – Ntone

British musician Riz Maslen began in the mid-1990s performing as Neotropic and Small Fish With Spine, as well as with Future Sound of London (see next entry). Her excellent 1996 album 15 Levels Of Magnification is a meditation on surveillance and privacy in an increasingly watched-over world. Maslen still produces work, albeit of a very different ilk, under the Neotropic moniker.


Future Sound of London – Lifeforms – Virgin

Rather than two Oneohtrix Point Never records, Pitchfork might have been wise to include one from Future Sound of London. Across a cycle of remarkable albums including ISDN and Dead Cities, FSOL created their own vernacular of infectious rhythms interspersed with deep-space ambience. Following a few foolish psychedelic missteps, the band released Environment 5a return to form—in 2014.


Black Light District – A Thousand Lights In A Darkened Room – Eskaton

In 1996, Coil were stuck between two worlds: the Industrial and Acid House work of their Love’s Secret Domain era, and a more durational strain of glitches and drones that would find outlets through other incarnations like ELpH, Time Machines and Black Light District. A Thousand Lights In A Darkened Room marks a contemplative phase for the band—their “Low” period.


Scorn – Zander – KK

Devastating Illbience from former Napalm Death member Mick Harris.


Lustmord – The Word As Power – Blackest Ever Black

How much more black could this be? None. None more black.


Function / Vatican Shadow – Games Have Rules – Hospital

2014 was the year of Power Ambient, according to the very smart observations of writer Maya Kalev. In that year, 21st century American Techno stalwarts Vatican Shadow (aka Dominick Fernow) and Function (Dave Sumner) released a surprising Power Ambient record that showcased both these artists at their dreamiest. NB: Paul Corley mastered this album (great mastering engineers deserve more credit), which makes it sound immaculate.


Daniel Lanois / Rocco Deluca – Goodbye to Language – Anti-

Earlier this month, legendary Québécois record producer and frequent Brian Eno collaborator Daniel Lanois quietly released Goodbye To Language. Who could predict that one of the greatest Ambient records of our current age would be performed solely on pedal steel guitars?


Miss Dinky – Melodias Venenosas – Traum Schallplatten

In 2001, Chilean-born New York producer Miss Dinky (Alejandra Iglesias) created this Minimal Techno mistresspiece, which sounds something like a cross between Ambient Works-era Aphex Twin and Dan Wül’s electronic Sid and Nancy score. Melodias Venenosas is also uneasy and deeply creepy at times: i.e. the album’s standout track (which is not on YouTube) entitled “Chinatown Rape.”


Spacetime Continuum with Terence McKenna – Alien Dreamtime – Astralwerks

In his lecture about lessons imparted by the “self-transforming machine elves” he encountered after smoking DMT, the late American mystic Terence McKenna said: “The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.”