Computer Music July 2010: Ambient Masterclass
In this feature, we'll be looking at some of the ways in which ambient musicians commonly source, edit and process sounds, as well as how to approach composition and find inspiration. We're also lucky enough to have contributions from three genuine legends of modern ambient music: Garry Cobain of Future Sound of London and Amorphous Androgynous, Geir Jenssen of Biosphere and Dr Alex Patterson of The Orb.
Let's get started...
Ambient masters: Garry Cobain
The Future Sound of London's Lifeforms LP is broadly regarded as one of the greatest electronic albums of the 90s, taking the ambient sound in a whole new direction through their pioneering fusion of sound collage, cutting-edge digital processing and traditional instrumentation. Today, under their rock and psychedelia-infused Amorphous Androgynous guise, they continue to explore the boundaries and humand and technological expression.
Garry Cobain, who, along with long-time collaborator, Brian Dougans, comprises FSOL, AA and many other Earthbeat Studios production aliases, gives us some insight into their approach to music, technology and composition, starting at the beginning, with where the inspiration comes from.
"With the sound itself," says Garry, "Brian and myself are slaves to sounds. We tend to try and refrain from getting intellectual as a starting point, preferring instead to push sound around/record/process whatever it us until something resonates and transports us somewhere where speech and thought become unnecessary. All of our music, whatever the style, revolves around this principle. We believe it corresponds with something far deeper than the brian or thought but instead speaks to something more funamental and resonant.
"Lifeforms really evolved around the collection of hundreds of hours of organic and synthetic snippts, 'recollaged' to the above effect," he recalls. "I guess things changed a bit around 1997, when we started developing our psychedelic potential, and started to apply our experience to sonifying the song and the lyric. This ultimately led to the formation of the Amorphous Androgynous in parallel to FSOL. At their centre they employ the same techniques, but to very different end points.
"I think our unspoken and non-intellectualised process of working has always been the same over the last 20 years, but I've never been able to verbalise it in this way before. What has changed, probably, are the actual frequencies that I respond to and the way they combine. A psychedelic dimension has opened up for me that now instructs a lot of my work. This has to do with a certain liberation of approach - a looseness with our use of the computer."
Brian and Garry's production style frequently fuses and contrasts the sometimes sterile sounds of technology with identifiable human or real world elements. Although a self-described 'slave to sound' and, along with it, technology, Garry is always conscious of how easily expression can become blunted by the latter.
"It's fairly easy to get led by the inherent built-in strengths of a particular computer program, rather than imposing one's particular vision for communication," Garry explains. "I do believe that, ultimately, making music is an opportunity to discover one's inner voice, one's individuality. So using technology as a tool is more important to me nowadays than merely being in a technology race to use new techniques first, and thus temporarily stimulate. Computers are great, though, when pitted into a battle or equilibrium with one's own voice. Without this discourse between the two polarities, I think it always lacks.
"Technology is used to filter everything nowadays. All experience. And while computer music is all too often associated with fairly obvious machine music, this is changing rapidly now, and computers will increasingly colourise, in very subtle ways, everything from production to editing, and the sonifying of all conventional instrumentation and recording, too. This, in fact, is the biggest revolution happening at the moment: the interaction between performer and computer - capturing performances and then editing/sonifying and collaging. I think music is at a critical juncture in that it can become an activation code for both spiritual and revolutionary freedom, or it can become a homogenised adrenaline feed, stimulating all the outer apparent senses but failing to connect to anything deeper and more fundamentally linked to the great questions of our existence."
Garry's ambient production tips
1. "Ambient music is as much a discovery of self as it is a discovery of sound. Ignore rules, don't get intellectual, immerse in a different centre - the heart centre - and explore and manipulate sound until it resonates and creates feeling there. If you keep this equilibrium between the outward sound and the inward response, then you will be led at every stage to something that is deeply personal and original, the authenticity of which others will recognise and therefore enjoy or feel the merits of immersing in. It is this immersion that is the ultimate goal of great ambient music."
2. "Ambient music can be unsettling, can be contradictory. Don't be scared to express the full range of human emotion. It's a common mistake to simply use pleasant, relaxing sounds. Great, revolutionary ambient music can include any texture you like, as long as the sound transports you to a place that is deeply immerse and emotionally charged. Don't be afraid to balance light with dark, harsh with pleasant, harmonic with dissonant, rhythmic with arryhtmic. Great ambient music always has the opposite polarities to varying degrees. Play with them!"
3. "Don't let the technology lead you - it is a tool, be the master not the servant. Yes, delight in surprises, mistakes and the unexpected. Go down technological rabbit holes and see what can be discovered, but periodically bring the experiment back to your vision and try to impose that attitude onto the technology. That way, the innovation is perfectly poised between innovation of technology and innovation of the soul. Without the other, both of these are equally meaningless!"
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