Ambient Zen

What is uncanny about music notation and recording technology is that they document thought and feeling that have passed but become part of us each time played through speakers or by musicians live.



There is no I, a conscious being separated from the world (the universe, really) by the limits of the physical self, an invisible border that demarcates each individual as they move through time and space.

The I is integrated into the universe in every way, large and small. The sun shines on me and you, and affects processes inside our body and mind (themselves inseparable); we breath in and breath out, consumers and producers of atmosphere; we touch and hold things, and at the smallest level our own atoms intermingle with every object; ourselves would not exist without elements forged when stars explode, stuff that has somehow made its way across billions of light years.

We are also intermixed with sound and music. We hear because sound waves actually touch us, reaching our bodies from a distance and vibrating hairs in our inner ears. In this way, music is a discrete and unique subset of sound in that it is intentional—what we are entangled with are someone’s thoughts and feelings. What is uncanny about music notation and recording technology is that they document thought and feeling that have passed but become part of us each time played through speakers or by musicians live.

Ambient music is a part of this and is an ideal representation of Zen existence because it is meant to be integrated into the immediate universe-the ambience-that surrounds. A set from a band in a club is a performance that takes place in a space, a recording of ambient music creates the space in which it is experienced (in specific situations, especially with Sunn O))) live, the performance creates its own ambient space, and can only exist in that particular, transitory arena).

If the idea and experience of ambient music move you, than you are in a golden era. Ambient music is prolific, broad, and deep. Sound recording and simple—to—complex sound creating technology is plentiful and inexpensive. People are making fantastic music in their basements and bedrooms and distributing it globally via sites like Bandcamp and individual net labels. Styles range from Sunn O))) and their avant-garde communal mysticism to Christopher Cerrone’s compositions, from the drone songs of Sister Grotto to the processed field recordings of Kate Carr, from the black painting aesthetic of Jeremy Bible to the gone—away—world collages of Fossil Aerosol Mining Project.

I listen to a lot of this music. At the point of personal desire and need, I listen at home to more of it than jazz and classical music combined. I am not a zen acolyte, but beyond how the beauty of it appeals to me, it has the effect on my mind, my sense of time, and my connection to the world that feels like a practice.

Like the world itself, there are myriad ways to experience ambient music, from the hypnagogic to the sensual. I suggest exploring the playlist below and checking out some of my favorites from the past 18 months on Band camp, the only place to find many of these artists.






For further reading:

Sounds of Futures’ Past at New Music Box

Sadie Starnes on Japanese ambient music at the Brooklyn Rail

• My survey of post-apocalyptic ambient music at Band camp

Ambient Church

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52 Pick-Up: Best NewMusic 2016

52 of the best new releases of the year

52 of the best new releases of the year, 52 out of the the 430 (as of this writing) new releases I listened to. Every year I fiddle with how to make and present these lists, and the idea here is obvious; one record to every week. For this I used the criteria of releases that I would gladly listen to, non-stop, for an entire week. That is, music that not only satisfied critical thinking, but that was a complete pleasure in the way it swamped critical thinking and just occupied the pleasure centers of my mind and body. Each note or sound was like a brick in a marvelous structure, and I wanted to hear it being built, piece by piece, over and over again. I could add an “honorable mentions” list with recordings that could move in an out of my 52, depending on mood, but I’ll that for the comments section, if anyone cares to discuss this.

I’ve placed this in rough genres that should be self-explanatory (“Popular” is any music that can be placed in a popular music category, from metal to hip hop; “New Classical” is music in that classical tradition that was both composed in the last generation or two and newly heard on recording). If you compare the Jazz/Blues below to my best jazz post, you’ll see some differences: the previous post was for Francis Davis’ categories, here I’m using mine, and I differentiate between musicians playing jazz and jazz musicians improvising in non-jazz idioms.

(Note that these are unranked because the criteria gives them equal value. Also note that I will have a separate list of for reissues and archival recordings.)






New Classical

Popular Styles

Again, this list could be longer, but without limits I never would have gotten to the end. There are more worthy releases this year that I’ll get to in an upcoming post on notes and trends of 2016. Happy listening.

A Month of Listening: March 2016

First, the stats:

  • 32 new releases in 31 days
  • 147 new releases for the year

UPDATED: With embedded document to see if it solve downloading problems.

Current pace is for me to get through 588 recordings this year, which is holding pretty steady from the 2015 mark.

The Recording of the Week series continues to look at what I feel are the best new releases, but that still leaves only 52 for the year, when it is always easy to recommend more. So here are the other recordings from the past month that are my favorites, and are recommended:

    • R. Andrew Lee, Adrian Knight: Obsessions. The best review I can give is the one from Lee’s concert that opened the month. TL;DR, a beguiling and extremely well-made, one-hour piano piece, ambient-level dynamics but compelling all the way through. One of the best of the year.
    • Craig Taborn/Christian McBride/Tyshawn Sorey, Flaga: Book of Angels 27. This feels like the debut of the next great jazz piano trio, playing some of Zorn’s best recent material. The balance between the group’s fly-away energy and Zorn’s control is visceral.
    • Henry Threadgill Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. The debut of this ensemble and Threadgill’s composition at the NYC Winter JazzFest in 2014 was notable enough. Now both the group and the music have become both more refined and deeper. Immersive and accomplished.
    • Chihei Hatakeyama, You’re Still In It. I listened to so much ambient music in 2015 that the style has lost a lot of its attraction for me, but this is a captivating release.
    • Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Bien que l’amour…airs sérieux et à boire. Available as of today, this is the first of what will be a series of new recordings from this great group on Harmonia Mundi. This is an anthology of songs and instrumental music heard, in the past, in both intimate and public settings. The dramatic and musical freedom and expression heard here is remarkable. (Note that the Harmonia Mundi back catalogue of recordings from Les Arts is being reissued at attractive prices.)
    • Brian Groder Trio, R Train on the D Line. Tough, smart, tight music making on the border of jazz and free. An excellent trio, and Groder plays the trumpet with particular verve and a big sound. Terrific in every way.
    • Hanami, The Only Way to Float Free. Jazz groups that play like rock groups, or play instrumental rock, are not a new thing anymore. But this new group has a refreshing take on the style, with compositions and arrangements that are marked by refreshing idiosyncrasies, and impressive ensemble playing from reedist Mai Sugimoto. (Release date April 22.)

A Month of Listening: February 2016

A short month perhaps, but no concessions the number of days: in this year’s leap-month of February, I listened to 38 recordings, making a total of 94 for the year so far. My current pace will have me covering 564 records that are new/recent releases for this year, a little under what I heard last year.

That pace will change, of course. In February, I spent considerable time listening to Beethoven symphonies and string quartets in my collection, and also spent some time with Sibelius and Bruckner and Thelonious Monk. Of the new music, and along with the Recordings of the Week series, my favorites for the month were:

Here’s the February 2016 Listening I use for details, for the curious. I encourage you to check out any and all of the above releases, and happy listening.

A Month of Listening: January 2016

This is a record, embedded below (or downloadable here), of my January month of listening. It’s not everything I heard, but it is all the new and recently released recordings that I listened to. Everything on this list passed by my ears at least once, and there are several things I listened to many times; Blackstar got five separate spins, and I listened to some of the symphonies in Daniel Barenboim’s new Bruckner cycle more than once—these are examples.

Bests of the Month of Listening

Everything on here is at least decent—the only way to get through close to 60 new recordings in a month is to quickly abandon recordings that are bad, they don’t end up on here. The Recording of the Week series is an implicit selection of the bests from the month, but there’s only so many weeks, so here is a further list of my favorite new recordings, and these are the ones that I deeply, personally, loved:

  • Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony, Ives: Symphonies 3 & 4. Stunning. Symphony No. 3 is excellent and the performance of Symphony No. 4 is extraordinary, full of careful detail and an understanding of the overall design, direction, and aesthetic effect. Morlot’s pace is not just ideal, but a means to build, moment by moment, a kind of exalted tension that culminates into a glimpse of the Great Oversoul.
  • Jeremy Flower, The Real Me. The tastemakers are likely going to give this the dreaded “indie-classical” label. Maybe they’re right, but that means nothing. What this is is a terrific rock album, with great song-craft and playing. Do the songs revolve around some central meaning? Maybe. Is it a song-cycle? Sure, why not, whatever. It’s just great.
  • Look to the North, 5,000 Blackbirds Fall Out of the Sky. Since I received CD #37 out of a total issue of 40, there’s not way you’re going to be able to find this one (one track is available through Bandcamp). But maybe a friend has it. The record is a combination of field recordings and ambient/drone electronics. It’s sonically deep, and tells fragments of stories that hint at profound personal and social loss. This has a real wallop.
  • Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence: Work Songs. A beautiful conception with exceptionally smart and musical execution. Brown has taken recordings of works songs, including famous ones from Parchman Farm and others from South-East Asia, and used them as ostinatos underneath his own material. The musical style is a tangy stew of blues, jazz, soul, and funk, and the balance between immediate physical pleasure and entertainment, and wrenching and angry questions about work, power, and exploitation, makes this great popular art, without pandering in any way. J.D. Allen is the feature horn player here, and his playing is in line with the veiled power of the record (release date February 12).
  • Robert Ashley, Crash. I’ve written a lot about this work already. What you need to know is that this is a recording made from the run of the opera at Roulette in April of last year. Ashley’s late works are his greatest, and this one is a real culmination of his life’s work.

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Recording of the Week: Daniel Wohl, Holographic

Daniel Wohl, Holographic

Daniel Wohl, composer, with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Iktus Percussion, Mantra Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Olga Bell, Caroline Shaw

Amidst a generation of composers in contemporary classical music who are striving for pop accessiblity and incorporating electronics into their work, Daniel Wohl stands out. While most composers think in terms of the ubiguitous looped beats of hip hop and dance music, Wohl looks to another field of electronic music making, one that has a low popular profile but is pervasive: ambient and drone music.

His 2013 debut recording on New Amsterdam, Corps Exquis, was a compelling blend of malleable, complex sounds in slow shifting patterns,like a sonic Calder mobile. As a recording it was unifinished, the piece has a visual component that was an essential part, and the live experience of the music was remarkable and unique—deeply abstract art with a mesmerizing, immediate appeal.

His latest release, Holographic (available January 29), is a more complete listening experience. The piece still has deep roots in the aesthetics of electronic ambient and drone music, but there are more concrete rhythms, more instances of instruments pressing forward from the warm, multi-hued textures. Wohl does a lot of sampling and processing of acoustic instruments, and his results sound like field recordings with pitch and timbre, which adds to how rich the record sounds.

I admire this composing. It’s one thing to make music structured by harmonic rhythm, it’s another thing to think in terms of timbre and proportion, and for it all to come out sounding so intuitive when the form and structure have to be exact (or else it’s boring). This is the first entry on my 2016 best new music list.

Though this is satisfying purely as a listening experience, there is a visual component. If you head to the world premiere performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center[1. Holographic is a group commission from the BAC, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, MASS MoCA, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art] this Thursday and Friday, January 21-22, you’ll see the music accompanied by a synchronized audio-visual component made by artist Daniel Schwartz.

January 19 only: If you are in or around New York City, you can hear the music and Wohl himself on the Afternoon New Music show on WKCR, 3 p.m., 89.9 on your FM dial.**