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Review: Retribution Body, "Baphomet"

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Inbox #10: Real Life Ambient Top 10

By Emmerich Anklam

Greil Marcus, whose books like Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces and The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs deepen the mysteries of rock music instead of explaining them away, has kept up his Real Life Rock Top 10 column with few interruptions for more than thirty-five years. This edition of The Inbox is structured after his column and dedicated to him.

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Guest Playlist #08: H. Anthony Hildebrand

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“The first album I was given was Rolf Harris’ Greatest Hits... that’s how not cool the music happening at our house was."

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Ben Vida, “Reducing the Tempo to Zero”

120 bpm

Where does Reducing the Tempo to Zero’s near-magic come from? What can it tell us?

110 bpm

Ben Vida’s four-hour composition, almost half a decade in the making, is slow and subtle to an extreme, but these obvious qualities are just a departure point for a much richer range of experiences. Vida begins with a very long, steadily developing drone approximately in C#, with slightly higher tones bobbing in and out of view. It feels monolithic but not overwhelming, like a mildly uncanny church organ. From then onward the initial pressure of concentration gives way to something much more fluid. It can take time to adjust to its pace, but once the shift occurs even small actions can become startling, sometimes nearly comedic. Discrete events begin to happen, sudden jumps in pattern, notes that don’t fade in but instead sound as soon as they’re struck. These are eventually subsumed into the greater flow.

The music is almost obstinately neutral. It’s dependent on electronics, but it’s not futuristic. It encourages attention to the listener’s body, but it’s not atavistic. The variety of tones conjures up strange associations: molten metal being churned, a gentle swarm of cicadas, ghostly whistling, toy helicopters or UFOs. Still, there isn’t anything specific being evoked. Some moments are acutely patience testing, and others are rich and beautiful, and it’s hard to expect which will be which, even after multiple listens.

100 bpm

The first time I listened to Reducing the Tempo to Zero all the way through, I made preparations so I wouldn’t get distracted, and I found myself creating a ritual by accident. Headphones in, I plugged my laptop into the wall so the power wouldn’t run out midway. I filled a cup with water and placed it near the laptop, on the floor. Also on the floor went a blanket I could use if I got cold. A blank piece of paper and a pen, and a writing surface. An array of objects, settings, and informal methods to keep the mind and body in one place.

At the beginning I took intermittent notes, trying to map the shifts in the music. I was chasing the ridiculous idea that in this review I’d do a structural analysis, something maybe a tenth as insane as this breakdown of Morton Feldman’s comparably lengthy String Quartet II. But gradually I became less interested in diagramming, and I just let the sound take over. I never fell fully asleep, but my sense of self and surroundings pulsed in and out, especially after more than what seemed like a half hour elapsed. My perception of time went vague around the edges. I checked the clock only once, at a moment when I would have bet I was well into the third hour. I was wrong. I hadn’t even reached the halfway mark.

When a work of art upends our sense of space or time, it can be merciless in showing us how ignorant we are of ourselves and our environments, how much intuitive knowledge we’ve lost in exchange for becoming contemporary people. Even in this information-rich moment, we know we are often profoundly dissociated from the ground we stand on and the time we move in, but our senses get dulled in ways we don’t even realise. Against my disorientation listening to this piece, I remembered one of my mother’s stories about her childhood—how she could look at the sun’s position in the sky and often determine the time of day within a five-minute margin of error. Vida’s music calls attention to this kind of intuition, as well as the feelings of estrangement that can accompany its absence.

90 bpm

If you read the title of Reducing the Tempo to Zero quickly, it implies a piece that begins with a consistent tempo—let’s say the arbitrary standard 120 beats per minute—and gradually slows and slows, until the beat drops out and you’re left hovering in space, un-anchored. But look at the word “reducing” again, and at least a few other readings emerge. They’re probably silly, but they might be intriguing to ponder. What if Vida’s reducing the tempo like a cook reduces a sauce, so that the result is more concentrated and flavorful than before, more potent? What if he’s reducing the tempo like someone doing mathematics reduces an expression or a matrix or a problem, so that the result is clearer and more elegant? What if true zero-time is impossible, but in trying to approach it you can escape the metronome and get to a rhythm with vital but imperfect precision, a rhythm like the beat of your heart?

Jim O’Rourke, in a 2016 interview for Bandcamp: “Even when I do records with songs, the rhythms on those are very specifically related to breathing. Henry Kaiser said this amazing thing when I first met him. A guy came up to him and mentioned a Captain Beefheart song and asked, ‘What time signature is that?’ And Henry said, ‘They’re all in one.’”

80 bpm

What is music like this for? What does it do, or what can it do?

It’s easier than ever to make wordless music a backdrop for daily life, a constant stimulant. The introduction to PopMatters’ article “The 10 Best Ambient Albums of 2019” nods approvingly at the vast array of popular YouTube playlists promising music that listeners can chill/study to, or in the writer’s words, “aid their focus”:

The great thing about listener-curated streams of this nature is that it bucks corporate-driven narratives for artist discovery. The popularity of these channels has opened up ambient and instrumental artists from literally all walks of life to have fanbases that were previously impossible to fathom. With so much modern and archived music now available readily across a variety of platforms, ambient and instrumental albums are far from dusty old relics: they’re cool now.

I get nervous about this line of thinking: The argument that the playing field is actually being levelled, the ease with which “dusty old relics” can lose important context in the process of becoming cool, the open question of what ends these aids for focus are serving. (Increasing worker output? Again, to what end?) David Toop, who wrote about ambient music twenty-five years ago in his book Ocean of Sound, warns about this approach in his new essay “How Much World Do You Want?” Treating music as a “design feature, a shadowing of life,” he writes, is becoming more of a problem as our actual environments become increasingly unstable. Does ambient music, he asks, “supply a perennial refuge for temporarily forgetting the precarity, hysteria, and threat of current conditions or can it be a vehicle for engaging with those same conditions?”

Our actions on a highly interdependent, three-dimensional planet now have consequences that we can hardly begin to follow. The world responds to us with great intricacy. But if we surround ourselves with flat surfaces, we can easily teach ourselves to pretend the real world is flat too. Rather than putting us in closer connection to the world, this flatness has the potential to alienate us from our planet and one another even more. “If ambient music only serves as an app to incentivise or a backdrop to productivity, networking and self-realisation,” Toop closes, “then it has no story of its own, no story worth hearing.”

Am I implicated in this problem? I think back to the mid-aughts, the period I started listening to music like this, and I have few distinct memories of doing productive work to it. I do remember moments when, as I listened, I would imagine strange combinations of texture, plot, and landscape, like works of half-fiction with no predetermined destination. These experiences were profound, even empowering. But now I often find myself playing my favourite drone records as I complete tasks at my desk, or as I scroll around the internet, pushing the music back to a nourishing but ignorable place. I want to emphasise the power that recordings like Vida’s can have when we put them in the foreground again, when we allow them to disrupt our questionable routines. But here I am, listening to Reducing the Tempo to Zero at a tasteful background level, as I do my productive typing of these words.

70 bpm

Maybe this train of thought is needlessly negative. Too fatalistic. Choosing what to pay attention to and what to ignore is just part of being human. It’s not a sin to treat art as a backdrop. But we face a crisis when we forget how to do otherwise. The challenge is remembering that attention can be meaningful in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be put toward a specific goal, like increased productivity. If the need for an outcome fades, something freeing happens. Then listening to music can become like listening to a person. When we appreciate either for their existence and their depth, instead of expecting them to serve specific ends, a broader world opens up. Art like Reducing the Tempo to Zero urges us to recall that we can live this way.

David Toop says something similar in his essay: “Listening is intimacy. A real ambient music, which is to say an adventurous, truthful ambient music, would engage with this intimacy to explore its potential. This would be a music of ideas as opposed to a music which mimics a very specific sound.” So does the critic Ben Ratliff in his book Every Song Ever: “False intimacy is the kind that tries to elicit a fixed reaction, that is calculated to comfort in order to score a point. Real intimacy has no stated goal. It is full of its own untranslatable reasons.”

60 bpm

The second time I listened to Reducing the Tempo to Zero, I had it on in the background as I was writing early parts of this review and consulting some sources. When I listen this way, distinct changes jump out, while most of the music’s development becomes white noise. The composition turns into a caricature of itself, with the least subtle parts amplified and everything else a near blank. It’s not a very rewarding experience, but new details make themselves known every time. Slightly before the halfway mark, I started following the sound as it moved from a high cicada-like hum to a deep tone that meandered in a circle. It was unsettling, like entering an unlit cave and sensing, without being able to see, that the cave extended into much deeper places than I was prepared to enter at that moment.

50 bpm

It’s so easy to walk circles around such an imposing work, and not to confront it on its own terms and actually listen. Works these ambitious are easy to define by the depth of our failure to hear them. Maybe it’s not so different from the insecurities that encourage people to categorise one another based on fleeting impressions, rather than attending to another person as a full human being, someone who may be like others but is not a copy of anyone.

We can compare this to other works purely based on the length and the scale of ambition, without having even listened to those other works: Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II, Tyshawn Sorey’s Pillars, Matana Roberts’s ongoing Coin Coin series. Maybe these flippant comparisons can tell us little things, like the fact that Ben Vida and Matana Roberts have both played in groups with the ambitious multinstrumentalist Joshua Abrams. Perhaps this says something about the power of creative companionship. If we absorb the energy of people who aren’t afraid of big ideas or difficulty, how can we reflect that back, or even send it into the wider world, so other people can be moved by that sense of possibility?

We can compare this to any number of works that feature long, gentle tones. Ambient music. Meditative music. Ethereal music. So what?

If we really want to tell a coherent story about music and make Reducing the Tempo to Zero fit in, these comparisons are maybe helpful. But it’s probably best just to stop and quote David Toop again, this time from his book Ocean of Sound:

Open structures which began as revolutions often deteriorate into master plans designed to encompass the universe and eradicate all anomalous forms of music. So a return to listening, to hearing the world, is the most radical structure of all, since it is hard to envisage a master plan emerging out of such an amorphous, uncontrollable method. This is not to say that cosmological and social inferences cannot be drawn from observing the effects of sound.

40 bpm

This is not happy music, or sad music. And it’s not ironically pretending to be either, or even acknowledging the ideas of happiness or sadness. It explores a different set of emotions entirely. If we see a void at the centre of this piece, it’s because we don’t have words for the positive force that’s actually there.

30 bpm

In Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K, the protagonist wanders through a corporate bunker where people pay to be cryogenically frozen until after a human-created apocalypse, when they might be revived. Sitting in the bunker’s cafeteria, he begins a conversation with a monk of slightly dubious moral authority. After a monologue, the monk tells him, “The thinness of contemporary life. I can poke my finger through it.”

The monk’s insight isn’t novel, but it’s unsettling, especially in already unsettled times. Grief sharpens it further. In early 2019, mourning the death of a loved one, I thought about what DeLillo’s monk said as I walked around town, passing people airing their grievances on their phones. I felt the pitch of public anxiety everywhere, an atmosphere in which I could easily dismiss other people’s worries, in which dismissal is a form of survival. More than anything in these moments, I wanted to sit in a dark room and listen to music that’s gentle and slow and lasts a long time. Close enough to stillness that even the smallest changes have meaning. Subtle enough to be a reminder of everything in contemporary life that is not in fact thin, but is instead capacious and abundant and surprising and moving, if only given sufficient attention. If I could send Reducing the Tempo to Zero back in time to myself, so I could have had it in early 2019, I could easily imagine myself listening to it again and again, and finding all these possibilities in the rise and fall of the sound.

20 bpm

The simple length of this composition opens it up to criticisms of decadence or (especially in America) waste. What does it mean that, for many people who must work constantly to survive or support others, a block of four free hours for art might be a distant luxury? What does it mean that, for many people who do have free time but spend it on passive entertainment or internet scrolling, paying attention to just one thing for four hours is an unsettling proposition, maybe even an offensive one?

The artist and naturalist John Muir Laws defines love as “sustained compassionate attention,” and we carry the potential for this kind of love inside of us, but modern life has many ways of taking this potential away. How do we reclaim it? Against the nearly absurd scope of a work like this, I think about something Václav Havel once wrote during his days as a dissident in Czechoslovakia (here I’m quoting him via historian Tony Judt’s book Postwar):

The objective, as Havel explained in a 1984 essay reflecting on the goals and tactics of Czechoslovakia’s fragile intellectual opposition, should be to act with autonomy, whatever the regime tries to impose on you: to live as if one were truly free. This was hardly a prescription for most people, as Havel well understood: ‘These are perhaps impractical methods in today’s world and very difficult to apply in daily life. Nevertheless, I know no better alternative.’”

I’m writing in a radically different context from Havel’s, but his “as if” is still powerful, even when he admits it’s hard to pull off. Just considering it might give us room to imagine alternatives to the most distressing parts of our present, and so does setting it next to a work like Vida’s. Reducing the Tempo to Zero suggests a way of living that is not realistic, but its existence shows us that this other way is possible.

Ursula K. Le Guin put it a little differently: “We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom.”

10 bpm

The third time I listened to Reducing the Tempo to Zero, it was late at night. I turned off all the lights and, again, started taking notes before letting myself be carried away. I remember, somewhere in the middle, a passage of extraordinary beauty that seemed to last for a whole hour—it was actually much shorter—before morphing into something that sounded like a cuckoo clock. More than anything, I felt myself abandoning the need for a narrative arc, any compulsion to characterise the beginning, middle, and end.

Like other art that teaches us how to experience it, this piece develops in a way that doesn’t look like progress in a conventional sense. Vida’s press release says that the music is intended for “[getting] lost” and building “intimate relationships with the fleeting, granular, and discrete,” but the specific purpose is left open. In Every Song Ever, Ben Ratliff reflects on this kind of listening: “Slowness in music can only be appreciated without recourse to the notion of progress. You have to disable your modernity to hear slowly, or formulate such a way of listening that anything ancient can be modern, which is a healthy action, no matter when, where, or why.”

This approach is refreshing and timely. In the last chapter of her provocative and humane book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell makes a powerful case for a practice she calls “manifest dismantling”: “that we dismantle not only structures of exploitation and destruction, but the very language with which we conceive of progress.” In the place of these old structures, she considers the importance of taking our physical surroundings seriously, of becoming more attuned to the fine-grained dynamics of the world rather than immediately imposing our wills on them. Reducing the Tempo to Zero might be training for exactly this kind of thinking.

0 or 1/infinity

Every detail contains one thousand more details. Every subtlety reveals further subtleties. The same sound can present a new possibility every time it’s heard. It can offer a case against fatalism. There are many things we have not yet tried.