You know that I never take up my pen to support a system, or to draw, whether wrongly or rightly, certain conclusions. I give myself up to the natural flow of my ideas, allowing myself in good faith to be led from one consequence to another. Therefore, till my work is finished, I never know exactly what result I shall reach, or if I shall arrive at any.—Alexis de Tocqueville
Ambient music sometimes attracts from the non-ambient listener a reference to either of two quite different yet similarly confining stereotypes. One stereotype heard expressed is the saw that ambient music serves as a thing divorced from human emotions—a cold music of the machines. The fact that ambient music often uses electronica in non-traditional melodic structures equates in the popular imagination with a lack of warmth or human interconnection in the form. The second confining stereotype is that ambient musicians are inevitably lost in a kind of new age trance consciousness, inaccessible to any but fellow devotees, and somewhat limited in any event. In this latter charge, ambient artists sometimes serve as unconscious co-conspirators. Ambient pieces from some artists receive song titles derived from science fiction themes and from spiritual traditions whose terminology puts some in mind of either progressive rock in specific, or of the Aquarian Bible
and the Book of Urantia
in general. Ambient artists therefore face contradictory but strongly held preconceptions in the popular imagination that they simultaneously teach a course in robotics and A Course in Miracles
The sense of the “otherness” of the ambient form is another aspect of this perceptual equation. Both ambient artists and the general public speak of the ways in which ambient ideas can differ markedly from mainstream rock and pop. The cry “that's not music, that's noise!” arises from the casual stranger as to even the most structured and melodic dark ambient sounds. Similarly, some ambient listeners and fans speak of ambient music as if its concepts are wholly new, taken from the air by Brian Eno, made fortuitously possible only by enhanced technology.
Yet so many ambient concepts and ideas have their antecedents in folk and popular music. The concepts of sound as sound, meditative resonance and the musical virtue of silence date back centuries upon centuries. In the music of the west and of the Near East, the drone qualities of chant provide a direct influence upon modern ambient. Classical music of the Indian subcontinent features numerous concepts and performance dynamics which anticipate and influence ambient music. The use of African, Asian and Australian aboriginal sounds in ambient music has become at least one sub-genre unto itself.
Even in American popular music, ambient and drone concepts were firmly lodged hundreds of years before their antecedents visited the thinking of musique concrete and Ipswich School of Art circles. The mountain dulcimer, an American version of a well-known European instrument, features diatonic “drone strings” which add an atmosphere of sound to a piece played in the traditional Appalachian fashion Even that most American and carefree of inventions, the kazoo, adapts the tribal mirliton drone horn, and releases it upon the carnival stage. From the Shakers to Sacred Harp, the antecedents of ambient can easily be discerned. In this sense, ambient is a modern folk music.
When one approaches a complex and important ambient artist like Oöphoi, therefore, one must be wary of ascribing to his ideas the imprimatur of the new or revolutionary. In this particular case, such a label of “new” or “avant garde” might disserve Oöphoi's key strength—he is a synthesis of ideas, and a weaver of sonic stories.
It might be argued that story is inescapable in any musical work, as people are inherently story-telling animals. Even the title, “untitled,” or the least descriptive, numerically titled remote atonal piece conveys a story, if only the story of the lack of a title. In Oöphoi, the use of sonic devices to tell a story is his key strength.
On the face of things, Signals from the Great Beyond
commits an oft-told ambient sin. Its liner notes announce that it is inspired by the concept of “crop circles.” For this reviewer, the mention of “crop circles” carries the baggage of particularly sentimental new age ebullient magazine articles, coupled with recollections of grinning local United Kingdom farmers, explaining how they pulled off the hoax. On the face of it, a “crop circles” album plays into the stereotype that ambient artists remain adrift on some New Age topographic ocean. Oöphoi, after all, has another piece entitled “Lord of the Starfields.”
In this instance, though, the title should not play into the stereotype. For one thing, if Oöphoi has a song entitled “Lord of the Starfields,” then it must be pointed out that the Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn has also used that title, a common appropriation from an earlier literary work for both artists. More importantly, Signals from the Great Beyond
is not a meditation piece about how to contact alien beings in one's hops field. Oöphoi's work instead evocatively creates imagery for untold, but hinted at, exciting tales. It is a soundtrack for a movie never to be made, although it is not written as soundtrack music. It writes a wordless poem, using both melody and a kind of pleasant noise.
The work is comprised of four tracks. The first track, “Kolenhaar,” combines an array of subtle sounds and pitches, invading the senses insidiously but pleasantly with waves of effective sound. As with many ambient artists, the old boundaries between “dark” and “light” ambient are of no real use in evaluating this work. Oöphoi borrows from traditional western melodic structures, but does not hesitate to deviate into unique sounds and aural experiences. Oöphoi is in this respect an artist of sound rather than of “music,” and, in my thinking, more of an ambient artist than a songwriter. The thing that makes his work so enchanting is that he seems to marry sound and story. He does not have a literal plot to spring upon the reader—and the song titles are, if anything, misleading. Rather, each piece has a sense of introduced sound, with the intention of creating a gauzy, half-remembered sense of familiarity. The concept of ambient music as “dream-like” is frankly far too narrow and confining. Oöphoi does not speak to the listener's dreams, but instead engages the listener's active attention in a search for alternative lines of inquiry. But the inquiry leads to hidden pathways, and quiet, affirming alleyways.
The second piece, “Lightwaves,” and the third piece “Geometry,” differ from the first piece in that they have an almost elegiac sense of ritual and ceremony. Sounds and instrumental “voices” appear in the work in vignette form, as well as in shimmering waves. Silence is used to emphasize that the listener is being shown the potential of music as a spiritual vehicle. But no mantras are shared, no divinities sermonized—we are left only with the sensation of sound, washing, defining, explaining, and yet remaining ineffable. I thought of funeral dirges, of eastern meditation bells, and of European urban-jazz landscapes, yet the work is not derivative of any of those things. Oöphoi's gift is evocation, a non-linear storytelling not bound by the “plot” of his song titles.
The fourth piece, “Sculpting the Fields,” adopts a sonic device which gives me pause. Silence is an important component of many ambient works, and effective use of silence benefits the first three pieces of Signals from the Great Beyond
. Yet, in “Sculpting the Fields,” a good bit of the piece of punctuated by extended silence and extended introduction and exit of barely heard sound. While I applaud the experimental reach of the work, the brass ring remains elusive. To my ears, “Sculpting the Fields” loses its way in its extended silence conceit. This is the only real flaw in the album from my point of view.
I long for the day when ambient artists don't name their songs “Sculpting the Fields.” I believe that Oöphoi, an Italian musician named Gianluigi Gasparetti, might have found similar prompts from the “great beyond” of the dust before a coming rain, or the feel of a warm hand in his on a frozen morning. But I recognize that each artist must choose his or her own muse and amusements. Yet, I caution that if the story is too oft-told in the song titles, it can obscure the story in the music itself.
I recommend Signals from the Great Beyond
as a wonderful piece of ambient music. It asks all the right questions—and it wisely fails to answer most of them. The questions are posited without words. The music speaks volumes. I congratulate both Oöphoi and Gears of Sand on this fine work.
Available from Gears of Sand
Review by gurdonark