you had not changed but your cameras were no longer identical compiles ten pieces that tanner menard recorded in the late 2000s. It’s a vast collection with a few major sweeps across its two-and-a-half-hour length: the sun-faded whirring textures of the 23-minute title piece, the grandiose noise of the 48-minute “canopy of sky on black,” and the richly shadowed electronic piano journeys that make up you had not changed’s second half.
The title track encapsulates the rest of the collection: it starts with gentle piano, expanding gradually before jumping to full energy and becoming a roaring oceanic blur. Listening to it at high volume is like swimming in that wild water, pushed repeatedly under the surface and reaching toward the scorching sun. This is ambient music, sensuous music, but it doesn’t prompt a mood or a purpose. It’s an immensity. Listening is diving in, seeing how far the waves take you after tumbling you around. Minus, thankfully, the actual panic that comes with the possibility of drowning.
“canopy of sky on black” is even more colossal and overwhelming, a straight shot toward the choppiest waters. It’s all tempest—distant echoing booms, searing high tones, a relentless cascade of machine noise and melody. The surfaces of the sound vibrate wildly while the entirety holds its place like a monolith. At least until the middle, which sounds like a million rocks cracking in a frightening thunderstorm.
I gravitate especially to the piano pieces, which are shorter but flow into each other easily. Their experiments with electronic piano modelling and alternate tunings connect to a major subset of menard’s work—the organ-like meditations that make up deepest indigo the more sprawling and hallucinatory dark pianos, the explosive beauty of san francisco: an audiophony in four movements (which I wrote about for Underscore here). “the gift of rain will come” isn’t far from the luxurious verdant lonesomeness of an album recorded around the same time, Milieu’s A Warm Wooden Hollow—field recordings blending with melodies rescued from the bottom of a surprisingly deep pond. (Brian Grainger, who records as Milieu, is one of the people menard has dedicated this collection to.) “love is subatomic” glows like firework trails in a cloudy sky, while the overcast drone that underpins “laws of attraction” is both ominous and cosy.
Pieces like these were what got me into ambient music in the first place. In my early teen years, an Eluvium album here and a Stars of the Lid album there catalysed an ever-expanding search through the ambient-drone internet of the late 2000s, with regular stops at a constellation of netlabels where low-profile sound enthusiasts shared their subtle, enigmatic dispatches from hometowns all over the world. These were the years before Facebook and Instagram and Twitter truly took over the internet, before Bandcamp centralised DIY music, and before Spotify made music discovery maximally simple and exploitative. They were also, unfortunately, the Bush years. In a statement about you had not changed menard writes, “I believe that the vibe of the 2000s ambient scene was the resonance, the dust of [9/11] settling into a sort of ambient haze. The scene breathed itself out of the dust of Afghanistan, Iraq, the sadness of civilisation doing its best to sing through early AI networks.”
This decentralised network of ambient netlabels began, at least for me at the time, to form a counter narrative to so many aspects of Bush’s America. Instead of strident nationalism, engaged internationalism. Instead of violence and enforced machismo, calm and a de-emphasising of gender expectations. Instead of the triumphalist stories promoted by Hollywood and the military-industrial complex, open-ended explorations of daily life that didn’t seem to care about happy or sad endings, that intently acknowledged un-nameable emotions and paid rapt attention to the more-than-human world. Much of this music engaged in a patient search for indeterminate mystery.
Like much on the internet, this network was impermanent, and many of its traces have faded. The labels menard originally released this music on—Slow Flow Rec, Install, Archaic Horizon, H. L. M.—have all long gone. (Test Tube, one of the bigger netlabels circa 2010, maintained an extensive and fertile directory of links to other netlabels; today that links page is a catalogue of dead ends.) And now that ambient music has become a hot commodity – widely acknowledged as a tool for emotional healing, self actualisation and productivity – I hear the particular political inflections from 2000s ambient music more distinctly. Listening to menard’s pieces more than a decade after their creation, I see them following a path in ambient music that’s infrequently trodden but deserves revisiting.
A lot of the most interesting current ambient music openly challenges the ends of serenity, self-affirming platitudes, magical thinking, political complacency. It takes the tools of a supposedly ignorable genre and bends them to acutely unignorable ends (Chino Amobi, claire rousay, Space Afrika, Lucy Liyou, and Siavish Amini being just a few notable artists among many who do this work in some way.) The first half of you had not changed might be part of this lineage, depending on how you listen. The second half is something else entirely; tranquil but not anodyne. Between the poles of overwhelming anxiety and willed blissful ignorance – two extremes that hold up so much of contemporary life – lies this other strange thing, this cool-headed courting of indeterminate mystery. Still rich in possibility, this way of making music might point to a nourishing way of being in the world. menard and their contemporaries really got their work underway an entire generation ago, but some of the resulting music – including the pieces here – still sounds like the future.