Posts Tagged ‘ambient’
06 Oct

Week 230: “Within It, Along” by Tess Said So

I Did That Tomorrow (front)

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My house is the last one on the street, and all down the west side of the house is a row of trees. My knowledge of trees is somewhere between patchy and laughable, but I think these trees might be honey locusts.

In addition to having a pretty cool name, the honey locust’s leaves turn a vibrant yellow in the fall, and last weekend, whenever the sun shone through them, the whole house was bathed in an amazing golden glow. But the honey locust’s yellow fall colour is as fleeting as it is pretty, and within a couple of days the leaves had all been blown off by the wind.

Nature seems to do that all the time; giving us these brief blasts of awesomeness, and then moving on to something else while you scramble to find your camera.

This lovely song, by Australian duo Tess Said So and scheduled for release this week, reminds me of the delicate and temporary beauty that nature seems to specialize in.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s simple. I’m trying to think of another duo that pairs a pianist and a percussionist. I can’t. If Jack and Meg White ran away to join the symphony, their music might end up sounding like this.

2. It’s subtle. I’ve never heard a song this soothing that uses this many types of percussion.

3. It’s sparse. There’s a lot of space between notes, forcing your ear to focus on the echo and decay of each sound.

Recommended listening activity:

Dropping leaves from a balcony.

22 Sep

Week 228: “Saendscho” by Islands Of Light


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I’ve been in a few bands over the years, and I can tell you that trying to come up with a band name is not easy. Most band-name brainstorms end with hurt feelings, crumpled pieces of paper, and dictionaries hurled over the shoulder in frustration.

Cool band names are not a problem for Dino Spiluttini, however. Not only is his given name pretty cool, but consider some of the bands he’s been involved in over the years:

  • Liger
  • Duran Durandom
  • Swan Fangs
  • Yeah Pretty Boy
  • Beatismurder

The name of his current incarnation, Islands Of Light, is perfect nomenclature for the music on his new album, Ruebke, scheduled for release this Friday on the Japanese label Home Normal. It’s a floating, humming soundscape of deceptive simplicity, and the Islands Of Light moniker brings to mind the surreal view from a plane window at night, when glowing polka-dots spread out beneath you like…well, like islands of light.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The title. I have no idea what “Saendscho” means, so don’t ask. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s the name of the flip-flops they sell at Ikea.

2. There’s no discernible verse or chorus, just a succession of chords. Like a piano stretching its legs before a long walk.

3. Every time the left hand starts to hint at some lower notes, the chords retreat back up high, giving the song a feeling of weightlessness.

Recommended listening activity:

Writing your name in glue and then covering it with sparkles.

30 Jun

Week 216: “Grace” by Keith Kenniff


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If you have a Facebook account, you’ve probably heard Keith Kenniff’s music, even if you’ve never heard his name.

Remember a few months ago when Facebook turned 10, and provided all its users with “A Look Back” at their time using the platform? And you reminisced about how you had spent 10 years looking at photos of other people’s babies? Well, Keith Kenniff provided the soundtrack for that video.

In fact, he has provided music for several high-powered tech companies, and it’s easy to hear why. His music has a distinctly 21st-century atmosphere without sounding too alien or experimental. It’s the soundtrack for the very near future; the startup noise for a computer that doesn’t exist yet; equal parts Apple and Philip Glass.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The piano is recorded so closely that you can hear the movement of the dampers fluttering like wings.

2. The sudden shift to a major key at 1:50.

3. The slow settling back to the original key beginning at 3:14.

Recommended listening activity:

Learning to code.

21 Apr

Week 206: “Mono No Aware” by Hammock


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I have to admit, I was a bit confused by the title of this song at first. Was the band making a statement about how people who have mono are so tired that they don’t know what’s happening around them? Was it a warning that unless you listen to their music in stereo, you won’t get it?

As it turns out, I was reading the title in the wrong language. It’s not English, but Japanese. After a brief moment of feeling like a total idiot, I looked up the meaning of the phrase, and found it pretty interesting.

It’s a term coined in the 1700s, during Japan’s Edo period. Roughly translated, it means “a sensitivity to ephemera”. In other words, if you understand that everything is impermanent, that all experiences, all feelings, all things are temporary, you will appreciate their beauty more fully.

I like that. And now that I know the title’s real meaning, I can appreciate the song’s beauty a bit better, too.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The main piano loop, played in reverse, has no reverb, as compared to the distant echoing noises that layer themselves on top of the piano as the song progresses.

2. The video, which features images of impermanent things, particularly handprints left on windows.

3. The cello, added when Hammock remastered the song in 2013.

Recommended listening activity:

Watching a whirlpool form as water drains from the sink.

10 Mar

Week 200: “Beyond This Moment” by Patrick O’Hearn


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I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to think of something special to write about to celebrate this blog’s 200th week. It had to be something big. Something fancy. Something worthy of nearly four years of music hunting.

After many hours, several false-starts, and much agonizing, the best I could come up with was the following list:

Things I could have done with the time I spent trying to come up with something to write about for this week’s post:
  • Learned to juggle.
  • Made several batches of stew, to be frozen and saved for days when there’s no time to cook.
  • Searched for the missing cat from those posters that are all over my neighbourhood.
  • Called my mother.
  • Designed a line of t-shirts celebrating sports teams that made it to the finals, only to lose. Working name for company: “No Cigar Apparel”.
  • Re-arranged my books alphabetically by opening word.
  • Watched all those Philip Seymour Hoffman movies I never saw.
  • Researched ways to make my house more energy efficient.
  • Prepared 12 months’ worth of birthday cards for family and friends, pre-addressed and stamped.
  • Volunteered for something.
  • Downloaded the first season of “The Cosby Show” for the guy who works the night shift at the corner store.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that there are lots of things worth doing. Many of them are more important or rewarding than celebrating multiples of ten.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some stew to make.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The acoustic guitar. All by itself at first, almost lost among the other instruments by the end.

2. The big plinky piano. Makes the whole thing very dreamy.

3. The upright bass. Helps keep the dreamy part grounded in reality.

Recommended listening activity:

All of the above.

16 Dec

Week 188: “Blow Up” by Floex



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Like a lot of people, I found out about Floex because his music was featured in the fascinatingly addictive game, “Machinarium”. If you like puzzles, the movie “Wall-E”, and spending a lot of time on your iPad, I can highly recommend it as your next time-consuming game.

If not, you should at least take a listen to Floex (aka Tomas Dvorak). I haven’t been able to find out whether he is related to this Dvorak, but he’s certainly got the talent of his namesake. His dreamy soundscapes are like a de-caffeinated Jaga Jazzist, and this song in particular shows off his ability to create a soothing, effortless atmosphere.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The quiet piano, recorded close enough to capture the dampers on the strings, and fingernails on the keys.

2. The clarinet. Played by Floex himself, and so softly that the reed barely produces a sound.

3. The synth noises that begin to build during the song’s final minute. The only image I can conjure up is a slow-motion picnic in outer space. So let’s go with that.

Recommended listening activity:

Slowly adding drops of food colouring to a glass of water with an eye-dropper.

16 Sep

Week 175: “Four Feathers Few” by Orla Wren

Record label.

On Orla Wren’s Soundcloud page, he is listed as being “nomadic”. I’m not sure if that means he’s a perpetual couch surfer, a permanent camper, or if he follows the migrating buffalo for food, but his music certainly evokes a wandering, meandering, carefree feeling.

It makes me think of Canadian nomad/blogger Jeremy Goodwin. In 2009, Goodwin sold most of his belongings, moved into his van, and roamed the country, documenting his experiences. His blog is an interesting look into the idea of being homeless by choice, and the stigma associated with the word “homeless”. According to his most recent updates he’s still at it, though he now splits his time between Vancouver (where he does occasional social work) and Halifax (where he’s at school, studying…wait for it… architecture). And if the idea of a nomad designing houses isn’t awesome enough for you, Goodwin has also applied for the Mars One project.

If you’re not familiar, the Mars One project is a Dutch not-for-profit foundation that hopes to beat NASA in the race for a manned mission to Mars. Although they lack the resources of NASA, their advantage is that they don’t have to worry about bringing people back; the trip is one-way. So in other words, in applying to take part, Jeremy Goodwin is taking nomadism to the next level.

I wish him luck. But I do so from the comfort of my own home. While I have the utmost respect for the freedom that nomads like Goodwin and Orla Wren have decided to pursue, I don’t think it’s for me. Although it might not hurt if I purged a few belongings myself; the more I count my possessions, the heavier they look.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The video, as you’ve probably already realized, is gorgeous. Created by Joey Bania, the video, with its suspended figures, gives the paradoxical effect of moving and staying still all at once.

2. The piano, right up front in the mix.

3. The cello, way back in the mix. Somehow, the spatial separation between the song’s two main instruments gives a wide-open feeling that almost makes me want to get on the road with no plan. Almost.

Recommended listening activity:

Spinning a globe and stopping it with your index finger.

19 Aug

Week 171: “Keep” by Nils Frahm


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If I ever visit Germany, the first city I will visit is Hamburg. And when I get to Hamburg, the first place I will go is an exhibit called Miniatur Wunderland.

Miniatur Wunderland (which Wikipedia helpfully points out is German for “miniature wonderland”) is the world’s largest miniature railway. It’s a tiny world all its own, with dozens of landscapes, hundreds of trains, 200 000 tiny human figurines, and more than 12km of track. If it existed when I was 8 years old, there’s a good chance I would have run away from home to live there.

As well as being home to this tiny train-topia, Germany is home to musician/composer Nils Frahm, who creates soundscapes as intricate and captivating as Miniatur Wunderland’s models. So if (when) I make it to Hamburg to visit the world’s biggest model train set, my personal soundtrack for the occasion will be “Keep” by Nils Frahm.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. It’s got all kinds of similar yet distinct sounds; piano, glockenspiel, xylophone…sometimes I think I can hear the persistent ding of a level crossing.

2. It’s got crazy cross-rhythms. Threes and fours overlap like points on a railway.

3. It doesn’t fade in or out; it just starts, happens, and stops.

Recommended listening activity:

Standing on a bridge overlooking the tracks.

08 Jul

Week 165: “Daydream” by Tycho


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When he’s Tycho, Scott Hansen creates dreamy, textured electronic soundscapes. When he’s Scott Hansen, he’s a photographer and designer whose work provides the perfect visual accompaniment to his music. Or maybe it’s the other way round. I’m not sure whether he was a musician or a designer first, but he’s a great example of an artist who doesn’t hem himself into one medium.

I wish more artists would follow his lead.

I’ll admit, I laughed when Madonna wrote a children’s book. I chuckled at the idea of Keanu Reeves in a rock band. But why should my first reaction to this type of unusual branching out be dismissive? Why should I look down my nose and say, “stick with what you know”?

“Stick with what you know” is a way of thinking that flourished in the industrial age, when specialization ruled the world. Schooling was designed to lead students down an ever-narrowing path, with the goal of making them fit into a specific part of society. This isn’t to say that everybody should be a generalist; specialization still has its place, and you can’t know everything.

But I get the feeling that the more artists experiment with different forms, the better they become at their own specialty. Imagine if some of the industrial age’s prominent artists had branched out. What would a line of clothing designed by Debussy be like? How about a lullaby written by Van Gogh? A painting by Dickens?

If the audio-visual ties between Tycho’s music and Scott Hansen’s design are anything to go by, museums around the world would be a bit more fascinating if some of those artists had been encouraged to venture from “what they knew” into something new.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The repeating guitar line gives the impression of a swinging hammock.

2. The deep kick drum gives the impression of a relaxed heartbeat.

3. The high-frequency noise (which reminds me of Boards of Canada) has a hazy, sunset-like feel to it.

Recommended listening activity:

Re-imagining your resumé.

24 Jun

Week 163: “Strings of Complacency” by Twigs & Yarn


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I walked past a yard sale the other day. Actually, it was more than a yard sale; it was one of those “street sales”, where a whole group of neighbours pick a Saturday, and agree that on that day they will simultaneously empty their basements onto their front lawns.

It’s a bizarre event when you think about it. Normally, if you were to put all your junk out on the front yard, people would cross the street to avoid you. But if you arrange everything in neat rows with price tags on them, you’ve gone from local crazy person to enterprising community builder.

I always liked yard sales, because it gives you the chance to snoop through someone’s belongings without breaking into their house. It’s like a giant, 3D scrapbook of that family’s life over the past 20 years. All the temporary hobbies their kids had, all the failed do-it-yourself projects, all the where-do-we-put-this gifts that accumulate over the years…they’re all right there on the lawn, eager to become part of someone else’s life.

My reason for rambling about yard sales is that listening to the Austin, Texas duo Twigs & Yarn is a bit like swimming in a pool filled with the leftovers of a thousand yard sales. Every dreamy song, while simple, is filled with ambient noise: found sounds, static, bells, music boxes…it’s got a layer of audio-dust that really seems to say “yard sale”.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The glockenspiel. Beginning at about 0:40, it’s a nice companion for the guitar.

2. The bass. Just after the 1-minute mark, it fades in and out with a repeating line that for some reason makes me think of a really big dog yawning.

3. The background noise. It’s not overwhelming by any means, but there’s a lot in there. A bit of singing, a bit of piano, some vinyl pops. Something new for every listen.

Recommended listening activity:

Opening old books and listening for the creaking sound.