Guest Guide to Ambient and Drone...
Gareth Hardwick runs the Nottingham-based Low Point Records, which has specialised in releasing ambient, drone and experimental music since 2006. While the label began as a private press for Gareth's own work, it has since expanded to release material by artists from around the world. The label's 43rd and most recent catalogue addition, the self-titled debut album by Kogumaza, was released in May 2011. Taking time out from running the label and composing his own work, Gareth offers us a beginner's guide to the music he loves...
Words: Gareth Hardwick
Although it was Brian Eno's series of four 'ambient' albums which undoubtedly christened the genre, I believe that compositional elements from what we now associate with ambient music were established quite some time before the release of Music For Airports. Pre-Eno artists and composers to check out should definitely include Popol Vuh (featured in my ‘Beginner's Guide...'), Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, John Cage, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
I've been creating and releasing music since around 2003, initially in the duo Economy of Motion (there are tentative plans to reissue our one and only release on Low Point at some point soon, together with unreleased material) and then operating solo. My back catalogue has been released on a variety of different formats and labels, though the main bulk of my work has been issued on Low Point.
A Beginner's Guide to Ambient & Drone
Five Essential Records...
1. Stars of the Lid - The Tired Sounds Of (Kranky, 2001)
Of the five albums listed here, this has perhaps been the most overtly influential record for the music I make today. The sixth studio LP by the then US-based duo contains nearly two hours of beautiful minimal, droning compositions created from heavily treated guitar, horn, flute, piano and other classical instruments. Spread over two CDs (or a more digestible set of six twenty-minute suites on the triple vinyl version) the nature of the music means the listener is encouraged to focus their attention on the subtle build and decay inside the layered drones. The slightest break in harmony between treated strings or a shard of guitar feedback carries serious emotional weight, the decay of a breathless French horn resonates like a perfect chord change. Silence becomes an instrument in itself.
Although two hours of music this minimal may put some people off, compositions that evolve this slowly need time to breathe and stretch out. Nothing about this album feels overwrought or extraneous.
2. William Basinski - The Disintegration Loops 1 - 4 (2062, 2002)
The genesis of this series of four full-length CDs occurred during the summer of 2001, when Basinski set about transferring a series of 20-year-old magnetic tape loops he had in storage to a digital file format. However, the tape had physically deteriorated to the point that, as they played, flakes of magnetic material were scraped away by the tape machine's read head, wiping out portions of the music and changing the character and sound of the loops as they progressed. Though the concept of the recording process playing inadvertent witness to the destruction of Basinski's music is an interesting hook on which the series hangs, the loops themselves are stunning. An ethereal study in sound so fluid that you scarcely register the fact that what you're listening to is in fact many hundreds of repetitions of a brief piece of music, slowing decaying, warping and fading away before you.
3. Brian Eno - On Land (EG Records, 1982)
The fourth and final record in Eno's series of ambient albums, On Land presents, in my mind, a complete realisation of several of his artistic aims. Of all his albums, it remains the most distinctive and even today there are hardly any successful imitators of its unique universe. The record is a mixture of synthesizer-based notes, field recordings of natural and animal noises among a complex array of other sounds (most of which were unused), and collected recordings from previous albums and the sessions they sprang from.
The album is arguably more varied than Eno's other ambient works and all the more foreboding. The atmospherics in many of On Land's pieces are so dense as to leave one staring down a chasm of sound, as if Eno had taken recordings straight from the Earth's core. The inclusion of several non-musical objects contribute to On Land's thick aural web, the album being a testament to Eno's use of the studio as an instrument. The record intensifies the most subtle and indescribable of emotions. It stands at the forefront of the transformative possibilities inherent in non-rhythmic, non-melodic music.
4. Andrew Chalk - The River that Flows into the Sands (Faraway Press, 2005)
Chalk is a British musician who has released music under various guises since 1986. While work under his own name was initially sporadic, the last few years have witnessed a surge in activity, with virtually all his recent material being released on his own excellent Faraway Press label.
Though I consider Chalk's entire catalogue as essential listening, it is The River... that I feel the most affinity towards, perhaps down to its move away from sheets of shifting drones into something a little more rooted in the physical world. Chalk's use of guitar and a simple tape delay system means this release has a more natural improvisational structure than his typical drifting layers of sculptured sound. Moving from harmonious trails of echo to a sense of almost disorientating malaise, it is impressive that this range of tones and moods were achieved with such minimal equipment.
5. Popol Vuh - Nosferatu (Egg, 1978)
Although Popol Vuh's first album Affenstunde, released in 1970, can be regarded as one of the earliest ambient records (featuring the then new sounds of the Moog synthesizer together with ethnic percussion), it is their numerous soundtrack collaborations with filmmaker Werner Herzog for which they are most widely recognised. Popol Vuh's soundtracks merged increasingly elaborate instrumentation into the electronic fabric of their compositions, incorporating avant-garde, classical, religious, prog and krautrock themes to form a substantial, harmonically rich sound.
This 1978 album is not exactly a straight soundtrack to Herzog's Nosferatu (though it contains some extracts from the movie score, it is Vuh's previous album Brüder des Schattens - Söhne des Lichts that contains the full-length version of the film's unforgettable opening theme). For me, it's simply a great compilation of previous and unreleased works by the group.
We asked Gareth a few questions...
Ambient music is often used in film soundtracks due to its ability to create atmosphere. Do you see ambient music as by nature visual? Are visuals important in live shows?
Not at all. Of all the ambient music I've seen live, there have only been a handful of instances where the visual aspect of the performance seemed to be fully considered. Sometimes the visual element appears to be either tacked-on or somewhat clichéd (i.e. sunlight through trees, waves against a shore). If the music itself is engaging, there should be no need to supply a visual element, as the listener will be able to conjure up imagery for themselves.
What is going on in Nottingham in terms of experimental music?
Apart from local promoters Rammel Club, it would be fair to say that Nottingham isn't exactly a hot-bed for it. Although Low Point has released music by Nottingham artists (e.g. Apalusa and Kogumaza), where the label operates from has been largely irrelevant so far. But there are plenty of hard-working people and bands in the city.
Are there any records in the Low Point back catalogue that you're especially fond of?
I think it'd be unfair to name any favourites. As if they were my children, I love all of the releases on Low Point equally!
Running an independent record label these days is a hard task. What are the practicalities of running Low Point like?
I have a full time day-job so my biggest challenge is finding the time to dedicate to it. Low Point faces the usual small record label problems – promoting, securing distribution, balancing budgets... It is a challenge, but when these elements come together and a release is well-received, sells enough copies to recoup its costs and earn the artist money, I can say I've done a good job.
Hear and buy Low Point releases here.
Check out Gareth Hardwick's solo work here.
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