Friday, December 12, 2008

Ambient Lawnmower

While listening recently to my friend's spectacular new instrumental guitar record on the train, I revisited my ongoing debate about the nature of ambient music.
More specifically, how should one listen to it?

Although I enjoyed this particular listen immensely, it's pretty clear that ambient music is not meant to be enjoyed on headphones (unless it's really darn quiet!). Headphones allow (force?) you to focus in on specific elements/tones of the music, which kinda goes against the whole idea of ambience. You're lookin' at trees, not forest. And the forest ain't the point anyhow!

Now I've had a few mind-melting listens to this sort of music with cans on (OK, more than a few), but we're talking about some serious pharmaceutical assistance here. Like, when you get up off the floor and say "Jesus Christ!" as you spill a 45-minute can of beer on the carpet. Lotsa fun, but not really what the artists had in mind...

Ambient music is supposed to be heard, and not (necessarily) listened to. Eno probably said it better:

Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

Which begs the more compelling question: how should one watch it, particularly at an indie rock club surrounded by snobs, and especially if your friend is onstage?

I've seen more than a few "ambient" shows (I'm not talking about raves), and the crowds generally have no idea what to do. As Prodigy said, "Niggaz don't know how to act." I was seen on multiple occasions in the early 90's scurrying around clubs urging people to "do whatever you want" during instrumental shows-- or "Just walk around and act like you would at any bar!" I probably cost LaBradford a few dozen fans in this manner.

But I wasn't alone in my thinking. A few partners in crime and I had a great discussion one night on cough syrup at a rock club featuring a few instrumental bands. We agreed that the audience aesthetic for a live ambient show most closely resembles that of dancing in a club (there's your rave connection). You're letting the music guide you, but you're certainly not strictly focused on the musicians or melodies. Hopefully you're trying to get laid (or maybe just trying not to fall down)!

Wait a sec, so we should be dancing at instrumental ambient shows? Well, no. But my aforementioned ambient braintrust had that figured out. We collectively coined the term mind dancing-- the aural relationship is comparable to a conventional dancer's physical relationship to the music. We also decided that Ed Harris would have to play Brian Eno when the E'G Records movie is finally made (it's been almost 20 years since we said it, and no dice yet...). I'm pretty sure we puked that night too.

I was the featured performer (or "soundscapist") in the 1996 Lollapalooza "Chill-out Tent". It was a weird gig, to say the least. By our third city, I'd put dozens to sleep and inspired at least two people to vomit (although I did get one crazy dude to dance around to a mash-up of Rush's "2112"). By the end of the cross-country tour, auxillary performers were being added to the tent during my performances, including a hiphop DJ and a live S & M sex show. I can honestly claim to have played drones on a Korg keyboard over a Faust/Isley Bros track while hot wax was drizzled on a woman's naked boobs.

For the record, I used to groove to this kind of music on headphones all the time. One of my favorite activities as an early teen was to mow the lawn while listening to Metal Machine Music or "Swastika Girls"-- it made perfect sense to my young mind (although I almost chopped right through the power cord while spacing out to "Brutal Ardour" on one lazy Sunday afternoon).


Charles Simone said...

You suck Lee. The one creative thing I do well is write, then you have to go and write something like this, or those excellent Rush reviews you did last year, that prove you're even better at that than I am. A$$h@!e. ;)

Lee Mazzola said...

Are you drunk?

Charles Simone said...

I can't remember.