Wednesday, March 18, 2009


One of the ongoing themes of this blog has been the distinction between passive and active listening. This of course is central to the idea of ambient music. It was for Eno, as he describes in the liner notes for his first true ambient album Discreet Music, an almost mis-attention to some classical music that he heard softly through only one channel while he was laid up in bed.

I would imagine a lot of ambient music is meant to be heard on the periphery of our listening, where it can introduce various kinds of unconsciouss ideas. Nevertheless, I think the challenge is to try and create ambient music that requires a mode of passive attention, or active letting-go. I am reminded of a thaumatrope, a Victorian optical toy in which a image is drawn on each side of a disk. Strings are attached to each side which are then pulled, spinning the disk and creating a miniature animation.

Matthew Cooper, who goes by Eluvium, is a composer of ambient music whose pieces require this kind of particapatory meditation, otherwise there are important moments that could easily be missed. There is a decidly Eno influence here (he even has a compostition titled "Thoughts for Jjohann Pachelbel" a nod to the second side of Eno's Discreet Music titled "Three Variations on the Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel") but Eluvium avoids the overall pop sensibility of Eno with his own emphasis on classical music.

Eluvium uses repetition to great effect, with slight changes that seem to be generated in the actual playing, almost accidents or artifacts, rather than intent. But this only goes to capture that quailty of ambient music that is also true for the composer as well as the listener. While one imagines the musician also experiencing meditative or trance like states when performing, the making of the music is not happening on auto-pilot. There is deliberation and agency, while at the same time there is an acceptance of whatever comes.

What is also special about Eluvium is the emphasis on light rather than darkness. Even his use of minor keys are kept alight by expansive secondary themes that lift the whole compostion into authentic humanistic ideas. Some might call it elegance or even a little naive. I call it love.

--Eluvium: Miniature #3

Thoughts for Johann Pachelbel


Justin Snow said...

Eluvium is easily my favorite ambient artist. His works are just so magical, with this strange sort of restrained epic-ness about them. I've had the opportunity of seeing him live twice and his live sound absolutely lives up to his studio material.

One of the best quotes I've read from Eno was in the liner notes to Neroli where he said "I wanted to make a kind of music that existed on the cusp between melody and texture, and whose musical logic was elusive enough to reward attention, but not so strict as to demand it." I'd say that that should be the ultimate goal for all ambient artists.

Peter Bebergal said...

Thanks Justin. That one line from Eno sums it up better than my whole post.