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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

Irrealism and ambient music

by Garrett Rowlan

In the twilight landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, the photographs of suburban surrealism by Gregory Crewdson, or novels such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled we find the real and the fantastic existing side-by-side, juxtaposed by the distorting effects of technology, media, and a host of modern ills. That’s my idea of Irrealism, a fusing of the unreal and real in portraits of shimmering menace.

Lacking the verbal or pictorial resources of art and literature, music might be a bit of a non-starter, and yet some of the devices used in irrealism—inclusiveness, juxtaposition, and authorial distance (to name a few)—I have found in the ambient music that I’ve listened to and bought over the last fifteen years or so. However, not all ambient music I would call irreal. It has been said that ambient music creates landscapes in sound, yet so in their way do certain classical compositions. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony suggests an Alpine meadows and a passing thunderstorm; a pond with darting fish are evoked in Schubert’s Trout Quintet and a dramatic nocturnal scene in Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. So too does ambient music paint scenes and landscapes, though these are often bleak evocations: worlds isolated, remote, and lifeless. Some CD titles alone are indicative, The Magnificent Void by Steve Roach, Substrata by Biosphere, and Permafrost by Thomas Koner, to name a few. These CDs are usually released with accompanying photos that not are not the Sylvan scenes that I recall from the covers of old Colombia and Deutsche Grammophon classical recordings of my youth, rather they are often of denuded landscapes, ruins, or the world as seen from space, a lifeless hunk of brown and blue.

This ambient music I would not call irreal. It lacks some fundamental opposition. It would be like a de Chirico painting without the gloved hand or lengthening shadow extended into the frame. It would be as if Ella Mae Watson in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist gauged an elevator’s safety by conventional instruments rather than the geometric shapes that enter her mind, indicating irregularities, as she inspects an elevator early in the novel. What I’m saying is that it is not enough to have simply a picture painted or even a mood evoked in sound. There must be a sense of a reality threatened by, juxtaposed with, or intruded upon, Otherness. Therefore, the canvas that irreal music paints in sound requires a layered surface with the “subject” of the composition placed among other sonic entities. Irreal music, then, constituents a kind of balancing act, the need to layer, blend, and oppose sounds within a space.

Some examples: Robin Rimbaud, the UK musician known as Scanner, records cell phone conversations that are mixed with synthesized sounds to create Polaroids of urban angst. His piece “Red Bruise” on the emi:t 2000 CD features dialogues surrounded by sonic effects that add a pinch of dread. The piece has a glittering anxiety characteristic of his work. Since his field recordings are literally pulled from the air, they have the quality of being assembled pieces, and are as a result consistent with one of the devices of irrealism, authorial distance, here in a musical dimension.

Much of the music I considered irreal involves the sampling of voices. If irrealism involves a juxtaposition of the real and unreal, then the human voice—not singing as much as speaking—provides a quotient of actuality. Consider Scorn’s “Silver Rain Fell” on the Ambient 4 Isolationism compilation album. (The piece also appears on Scorn’s spookily excellent Evanescence album, though it’s a different mix. The fact that the same piece can be reworked and remixed, which happens often in ambient music, also lessens the trace of authorial footprint.) Over a rolling, rhythmic percussion background sparse, synthesized sounds sparkle on the foreground. The music fades and a voice says “I felt the past closing around me like a fog, filling me with a nameless fear,” repeating this phrase twice more as the music returns. The speaker is unknown, the words are uttered without context, and the effect is to suggest some isolated soul about to confront the unknown, a recurring situation in irreal fiction. The first album by ex-King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, Exposure, uses tape loops, recorded conversation, and synthesized sounds to create a sense of the self caught in an uncertain, changing, and even apocalyptic world. On the CD One Step Ahead of the Spider by the Texas band MC 900 FT Jesus, the last cut is called “Rhubarb.” The word, as one speaker on the cut says, was what background characters in movies were told to repeat over and over to simulate the lip-movement of conversation, and the word recurs over the sound of rain, bells, and synthesized sounds. The short piece ends the CD on a note of miscommunication, an eerie redux of what has occurred in the nine previous tracks. Pink Floyd’s “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” on the Atom Heart Mother album also comes to mind. Here morning male mutterings are mixed with the sound of frying food, noisy chewing, and a musical obbligato. The result is hypnotic, at times humorous, and mellow. The piece also rebuts the idea that irreal music has to be at all times edgy.

Regarding music without vocal samples, the line between ambient and irreal music is tricky. Many ambient pieces use “natural” sounds, but these are often blended to create a consistency of tone. A CD such as At Home with Alf by Roger Horberry, which uses recordings of domestic objects to bring out their sonic properties, cannot be considered irreal, the blending of these sounds lacks the sense of opposition, or surface tension, I find necessary to the irreal designation. On the other hand, a work such as Thomas Koner’s “Zone” on the Divination Distill compilation CD suggests, through the use of clanging bells and synthesized “watery” sounds, the passing of boats through a river port, such as would occur in his native town of Dortmund. The middle section in Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” on the Meddle CD creates, through innovative manipulation of guitar and bass strings, the suggestion of a submarine drifting into a deep-sea environment.

The ambient/irreal dichotomy becomes even more problematic when I consider a piece such as Alan Lamb’s “Night Passage,” which features the sound of wind through decayed telegraph wires. The original CD is pure ambience, but when Lamb allowed other artists to remix (or demix) more tape of wind-through-wire, the result invites a categorical consideration, at least in the case of Brian Williams who, recording under the name of Lustmord, turns the raw wire footage into growling, shrieking bursts of sound, suggestive of some entity (soul, spirit, some free-floating anxiety) moving through a dark and threatening void. Heard through headphones, the piece is a real sonic experience as is Stalker, Lustmord’s ambient CD inspired by the Tarkovsky movie of the same name.

All of the CDs mentioned above are in my personal collection. As a result, I have tried to limit my discussion of ambient versus irreal music to what I know something about. Perhaps a case could be made for considering the music of modern composers such as Varese, Stockhausen, and Ligeti as having irreal elements. I don’t know. As for this piece, I am aware of the ad hoc nature of my opinions, but that’s the fun in venturing into unknown territory and in listening again to music that I have always found different, intriguing, and challenging.


Divination Distill (Compilation) submeta records

EM:T 2000 (Compilation) instinct records 1995

Ambient 4 Isolationism (Compilation) Virgin Records 1994

Night Passage Demixed (Compilation) Dorobo 1996

Night PassageOriginal Masters Alan Lamb, Dorobo 1998

Evanescence Scorn, Earache 1994

substrata biosphere, All Saints Records 1997

Permafrost Thomas Koner, Barooni

One Step Ahead of the Spider, MC 900 FT Jesus, American Recordings, 1994

The Magnificent Void Steve Roach, fathom, 1996

At home with alp Roger Horberry, SOL91CD, 1999

Exposure Robert Fripp, EG Records, 1979

Atom Heart Mother Pink Floyd, Harvest Records, 1970

Garrett Rowlan lives in Los Angeles and works as a substitute teacher. His essays "Irrealism and the visual arts" and "The waking dream: a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled" appeared previously in irreal (re)views.

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