The cicadas are rustling to each other outside, tree to tree, while inside my apartment the tracks of Celer’s XièXie (2019) drift from ear to ear, merging with the reedy train-whistle sound of water boiling in the kettle.
Now, I'm listening to David Toop talk about improvisation. Toop is having a conversation with an unidentified man, and I imagine he's sitting in his living room. I'm listening in my own home, in real time, as with the cicadas, but the conversation is from … 1971? 2003? It's not clear, because it's part of “Fox Spirits,” the first track on the CD Field Recordings and Fox Spirits (2020), credited to Toop and assembled by Lawrence English for the Room40 label. The materials that went into this CD include Toop in conversations with Derek Bailey and Ornette Coleman, “Wasp, recorded in Somerset, c. 1971,” “Chiang Mai, Thailand, blind group playing in the street,” and “Rain In the Face, ghost flute and cymbal, 1973.”
Later, birds are chirping from out of my speakers. They actually made these sounds on City Island, one spring day this year. Geoff Gersh, a musician, recorded five minutes of sound from City Island, part of his NYC Sounds COVID-19 series he created by recording five minutes of field audio from each and every neighborhood in the five boroughs of New York City, starting March 23 and finishing June 7.
This is all ambient music—field recordings like Gersh’s are the documentary side of the genre, and can be made, a la Field Recordings and Fox Spirits, into an ambient audio collage that is an artificial music construction which never existed in real time. Composers like Kate Carr, Bruno Duplant, and David Vélez use field recordings as something like instruments, splicing them together and mixing them with signal processing and electronics. It’s orchestration in the manner of Ravel or Stravinsky, but without humans or natural acoustics. Those details matter less for technical reasons than they do for aesthetic, philosophical, and social ones. These albums and more, especially ambient music that incorporates field recordings, or is, in fact, just field recordings—like Gersh’s project and Thibault Jehanne’s Farol, which captures sounds from different locations while approaching the 25 Abril bridge in Lisbon, Portugal (Unfathomless, 2020)—have given me the kind of listening experience we strive for when we put something on; they absorb my attention, take me out of the flow of time, fill me with the deep and cleansing satisfaction of having been touched by something, having my mundane experiences altered into something out of place and time.
Musically, nothing else has delivered this experience during the pandemic, nor, truly, has any other art form or medium. I am against the bourgeois, utilitarian, consumerist value of art as some kind of therapeutic experience, the idea that we should look at painting and read poetry because it’s good for us and makes us better people. Of course it’s good for us, that goes without saying and is unimportant, and of course it doesn’t make us better people. Have you looked at history lately?
Reading and watching movies are distractions, but can’t be separated from our interior spaces—we already read and streamed video at home before the spread of COVID-19. Streaming live music performances is even worse, a reminder that the thing we used to have to go out to do—an event worth relocating for—is now something that to enjoy we have to stay home stare at a small screen. The ambience of live streaming is the chair, the couch, the bed.
Ambient music has been the only thing that has truly responded to the current cultural moment. It seems like the only thing that could do so.
Live streaming concerts, Zoom meetings, cocktail hours, remote classrooms, table-reads—these have all been presented as substitutes for seeing and working with people in person. That they so often fail as such is inevitable, as they do nothing to answer isolation; they in fact reinforce isolation. Your presence, and that of everyone else, is just a box in a mosaic on a screen, floating among other boxes with two-dimensional representations of disembodied humans. As Host (2020), the Zoom-based horror movie on Shudder, shows, there’s no guarantee those other images came from real people, or the ones you think you’re talking with. And what about you? Are you real to everyone else, and if not, are you real?
Stuck inside, not locked up, but with the outside world absent, the circle of navigation limited, things become unreal. The opportunity for music is to fill that space, create an extra reality that is not so much superimposed over the moments of life, but is a meeting space for listener and musician. Rather than outlining ourselves and the material reality around us, like in a comic book panel, and emphasizing the lack of connections, the ambient music space in the coronavirus experience is expansive and welcoming—it connects us to a part of the world we can’t reach, which may be an actual space, like the sound of David Toop’s backyard, or the woods in Wald, by Duplant and Pedro Chambel (Archive Officielle Publications, 2019), or the kind of electronic dreamscape, with its own sense of place and depth, heard on Day Trips, the latest cassette from Endurance (Distant Bloom, 2020).
That ambient music has been quick to both adapt and react to the pandemic, and make something worthwhile during it, is a literal statement. There’s a whole series of recordings created and issued exactly and directly out of this grindingly static moment. Whitelabrecs, based in the UK, created a series of 30 Home Diaries, digital recordings from musicians all around the world, each one capturing a mood specific to not only that artist but where they were while nothing was happening. One of the releases came from a musician who performs under the name, the volume settings folder, and his own self-released CDs are full of sounds he’s captured from near his home in Italy. The Touch label (also in the UK), created a Touch: Isolation series with a similar concept, though with a tighter focus; “A photographic counterpoint, the view from Hampstead Heath during the London lockdown.” With restrictions came abstract freedom in the form of bird song, rustling winds, the warm and intimate embrace of drones.
Clarinetist Ben Goldberg has been doing the same thing since the start of this whole shit show. For his ongoing PLAGUE DIARY album (ongoing because we’re all going on, to no place), Goldberg has been recording improvisations and tunes and adding them one a day, almost every day, starting March 19 and continuing through at least October 13 (168 tracks as of this writing). “Like many musicians, when the coronavirus hit in March I lost all my work in a matter of days,” he writes on the Bandcamp page for the album, “I had a complicated schedule for March and April, filled with tours, festivals, and local concerts, and it all evaporated very fast. Along with losing all my paying work, I was left with the question, what about the work of art? […] In the initial shock my thought was, I don't know what to do but I can record music at home. So on March 19, 2020 I began recording a new song every day and posting them to this album.” How good the music might seem is almost irrelevant to the experience of hearing Goldberg at home: the connection is human in the way of Gersh’s field recordings.
The INSUB. label has just launched “Insub.distances,” a series of eight recordings that try to bring musicians, and places, together through a deliberate process of collaboration across the miles and miles and miles. A composer produces material (a score, pre-recorded audio) for a musician to work with in collaboration with another one, treating the music with electronics. Each recording has a companion video on YouTube that shows the process in action—split screen with each performer in their own home space. The primary point of contact on the listener’s end is the digital recordings, which have a quiet, bespoke intimacy that is reinforced by the performers connecting their own personal spaces—in Annette Schmucki’s Repeat one_two songs, I kept staring at what was on percussionist Myriam Pruvot’s bookshelves. Like a lot of the music-with-video seen during the pandemic, prerecorded performances are more vibrant than live streaming ones, they fit right into the mental space that has long ago been carved by the cultural existence of reproduction.
Home Diaries and Touch: Isolation have wrapped up, but Goldberg is still adding to his album, and INSUB. has, as of this writing, five more release to go in their series. The combination label/distributor Boomkat is still producing recordings in their own Documenting Sound series (boomkat.com/labels/boomkat-editions-documenting-sound—all other music in this article is available at Bandcamp.com). As of this writing they’ve produced 21 cassettes with a global perspective on the experience of being at home during the pandemic, with Hieroglyphic Being making beats in Chicago, Sarah Davachi recording her harpsichord studies in Los Angeles, Cairo musician ZULI recording music in his apartment, accompanied by street sounds, and Lawrence English capturing field recordings from the burnt landscape of Queensland, Australia.
Boomkat describes the concept as, “ … a new series that will archive recordings made during these tumultuous months… The series will hopefully provide a snapshot taken from the perspective of artists whose world we wanted to inhabit and then encapsulate in physical form for posterity.” Posterity being something that can only exist if we can ever get out of this fucking endless moment.
Not everyone is putting their work on physical media, but Boomkat’s explanation is good for all the pandemic music being made, music that’s not trying to pretend away reality, but seeks a way to survive, if not thrive, within it. It’s an ethical and a moral endeavor. By accepting the state of things and working with it, by not trying to salve and distract (leave that to the liquor stores), ambient music has been a beacon, a possible alternative from our decadent politics and the hectoring dogooder-ism of so much “message” music. The physical form is ancillary to the contents itself, the sound of another space that can become your space, and a shared space. That other space sits in your mind, a nowhere home in the midst of our homes that are, existentially, in the middle of nowhere.