On Ambient Music

One of the reasons I adore ambient music is that it can draw your attention to a whole medley of sounds whirring along in otherwise complacent spaces. To capitalize on this ability of ambient music to sensitize listeners to sounds they usually ignore, I’ve invented a game. It’s called “We peeled the wallpaper from Brian Eno’s skull and guess what we found? A crude pencil sketch of your brother performing a carnal act with the neighbor girl! On top of an oscillator!”


All players must listen to at least one recording from any of the following: Stars of the Lid, Fennesz, Tim Hecker, Potpie, Belong, and/or Stephen Vitiello.

Players find rooms in which nothing is happening. Players must identify as many discrete sounds audible within the room as possible, write a short description of each sound and enumerate it.

Player with the most sounds identified at the end of a half-hour wins.

Here are the results of my first round:

A clock shaped like a soda cracker ticks and tocks above the sink.

The neighbor’s wind chime jangling. Sounds like car keys.

A cyclical warbling sound. Source: unidentified. My first guess — overhead lights in the kitchen — was wrong.

The sound from the fan on the back of my laptop, which occasionally reaches a pneumatic intensity evocative of airplane engines, thanks to the fact that said laptop is old and infested with myriad species of malware.

The refrigerator. A very humble humming.

The 500 bus line runs just a block behind the Family Dollar that’s in my backyard, so occasionally a bus glides past and I hear the woman’s voice announcing the name of the line with the weird, Stephen Hawking-ish elocution that occurs when words are pasted together from separate recordings of their constituent phonemes, e.g. “Five. Hun/dred.”

Treble gurgling in the radiators along the floorboards.

The cat, when he wakes up, is very whiny. So his meowing…

And scratching at the door so he can go down to the basement and smell that spot in the paint closet where the neighbor’s cat urinated — copiously — last week….

And crunching of the last remaining bits of his Purina Kit ’n Kaboodle.

-Split Foster

On ice albums

As of this writing it is 9 °F outside. According to weather.com, it “feels like 1°F.” The difference, at least to this author, seems entirely academic. On the bright side, we have only 49° to go until Celsius and Fahrenheit coincide and only 468° to go until the heat death of the universe.

Here are some of my favorite ice albums:

Terje Isungset — Iceman Is

So it probably won’t surprise you to find out that a lot of these albums are from Scandinavia. You know your geography. This one comes from Sweden. The group recorded in a studio carved beneath the famous Ice Hotel of Jukkasjärvi, which is sculpted entirely from ice every year and subsequently melts in the spring. All the instruments used in the recording were made of ice. The studio itself was made of ice. The album sounds like a gloomy pagan moon festival.

Elegi — Varde

Norwegian composer Tommy Jansen uses synthesizers, violins, and field recordings to represent the frigid travails of the first polar explorers. This is one of the bleakest things you may ever hear in your life besides, of course, the death cry your rabbit, Mr. Bingles, uttered when the formerly senescent family dog, Turbo, rediscovered his carnivorous impulses on a throw rug in the living room in 1993. The way Jansen toys with scale is amazing — sometimes you feel stranded amid expansive slurries and floes, other times it’s as if a spoon is tapping on a tin plate within the confines of your own tent.

Thomas Brinkmann — Klick Revolution

This album actually has very little to do with ice. It’s by a German who does peculiar things with turntables, most of which take away any desire you ever had to dance, or otherwise engage in club-related activities. Think of the sounds ice cubes make when you pour tap water on them. Now think of them splayed across a dark matrix of rhythm and radiant knife wounds. N-ice!

Douglas Quin — Antarctica

Quin got a grant from the National Science Foundation in 1996 to go to Antarctica. He used microphones and hydrophones to record Weddell Seals, Emperor Penguins, and the very glaciers themselves. This is a fieldwork of peculiar beauty and intensity. Sounds like ice because it is ice.

On the split of Silver Jews

Dear David Berman,

It’s been over a week now since you said farewell to us all on the Drag City message board, and I can’t say that it’s been easy. You know, I feel sad about this, but it’s also hard to tell these days. Maybe it’s a door. But there are no doors underground, not in that cave where you’re going to sing your farewell songs tomorrow. I thought about meeting you there. But I don’t have much of a taste for spectacular tragedy these days.

I’ve been keeping up with the messages posted in response to your farewell. It’s kind of like looking at the Facebook profile of the kid in your hometown in the days after he was mauled by the lion escaped from the county zoo. You know what I’m saying. Everyone and everything comes out of the woodwork, blowing their noses and wiping their tears on the comfortless Kleenex of the Internet. They post public messages in the second person; they praise your deceased wonder. They reminisce over chance encounters and paint them as intimate portraits of a relationship strung through years of a one-sided infatuation.

And I wish I could say I am above those people, but publishing this letter to you proves that I am not. I have let the spit of your song fall onto my forehead so many times I thought I could claim baptism. When I last saw you in Pittsburgh, I confused our sufferings and walked away reminded of that inexorable sadness — maybe the same feeling you’ve come to call the burn for justice. Earlier this year you spoke of a crisis up ahead and you called for us to all assemble, you stepped up to be our hero. We got behind you in droves and waited for instructions to deploy.

But maybe you can only be everything if you reduce yourself to nothing. In the wake of newly formed absences, we will always try to hold onto whatever is left. So here I am on the highway, honking out of loneliness, and here I am on a chair floating in a sea of beer. Here I am, unable to believe what is at bay. Here I am, wearing my silly private’s uniform when my captain has long gone home.

Here I am, David, selfishly waiting for you to come back.

Yours in the Wild Kindness, MC

M. Callen | Special to The Tartan

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