Tuesday, 13 April 2010

But is it music? Ambience, drones, noise and more.

Its not the most mainstream genre of music, but it is still out there and people do still listen to it. Ambient music, drone-based music and even pure noise. Just like asking whether throwing paint at a canvas is art, some may question whether this is actually music or just a lazy attempt at being pretentiously 'artistic'.

What do you think?

I was listening to an album by Sunn O))) today. I don't know whether its their best or their worst, I don't know if its their most popular or their latest or anything like that. Its called 'White 1' and it consists of 3 really really really long tracks.

The first track is a recording of somebody talking for a long time about doom and the apocalypse, all the while with drones, noise and guitar feedback in the background. The second track has some distorted yelling and more guitar noise, and then theres the long track which is a very fuzz/distortion laden guitar playing endless riffs whilst a very tinny sounding drum kit plays along.

Hardly sounds like a chart topper, eh?

I'm only mentioning this particular album because I was listening to it today, and because its an extreme example of the thin line between art and insanity. Its too early for me to form a solid opinion on Sunn O))) themselves, I need to hear more albums; after all, maybe this one was just an experiemental one, I don't know. I'm new to Sunn O))).

I can see that 90% of people, maybe more, wouldn't have the attention span to listen to the whole thing through. I did have to force myself to listen through the last track, just out of curiosity to see where it would go next. For those that do, what might they see in listening to stuff like this?

On the surface, it may appear that drone based music is just pure laziness, and this would be an easy assumption for someone listening to Sunn O))) - hit record, smoke an entire eighth, downtune the guitar and then hit the lowest strings every so often and you'd get something similar.

Nevertheless, we have to bear in mind this question: Does more effort necessarily procure a better quality of music?

Its here where the definition of "music" gets a little blurry. I myself enjoy listening to drones and ambience sometimes, but not because of any inherent melody, harmony, rhythm or anything else we commonly associate with the term "music". Ambient and drone-based music is different in the sense that it has moved on from structure, form and function, and instead is focusing on sonic analysis as opposed to theoretical analysis.

This, I think, is the beauty of it. In forgoing verses, scales, keys and time, you're left to focus purely on the sounds that you are listening to. If you let them, they can be hypnotic, enveloping and very immersive, provided they're done well. The only problem is, you really have to listen.

I suppose this is the crux of ambient/drone music. In this day and age, people lack the attention span to sit and listen to someone holding a key on the Moog and tweaking knobs for ten minutes. Some people love this textural exploration - in fact, more people do than care to admit. Anyone who claims to be searching for that ultimate guitar tone, anyone whose spent an hour tweaking synth presets, anyone whose tried 3 or 4 different microphones when recording a source, they're all doing the same thing that ambient music fans are doing. Its just that in these cases, its a means to a completely different end, and the end is usually the beginning of a process which creates "normal music".

Anyway, back to defining "music" in this context. Is a compliation of layered sounds, textures and noise called "music", or is it just what it is - a collection of sounds? Is music a clearly definable term which involves the use of key signature, time, rhythm, melody and harmony, or does the term encompass any consumption and enjoyment of vibrations in the air emitted by speaker cones?

Its an ambiguous question which begets even more ambiguous answers, and each one is different depending on who's saying it. What do you think?

If you're interested, set aside an hour or so (with headphones!) and check out some ambient or drone-based music. Brian Eno was a pioneer of ambient music, and is always a good place to start. I'm also fond of Bass Communion (a side project of Steven Wilson), in particular Ghosts On Magnetic Tape. If you're feeling daring, try some Sunn O))).

But above all, try to enjoy it.


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