I went on an expedition today to seek out new ambient music. It was a tricky hunt.

Ambient is a misused, misunderstood genre. If you refer back to Eno’s original conception in the 1970’s, ambient simply meant environmental and unobtrusive. To quote:

Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.

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

This clearly affords many interpretations. In a later interview he talked in detail about the patterns of coincidence that informed his early ambient works. Music for Airports, Neroli and others relied on the technique of setting two or more tape loops of different duration (*) in motion together. The seeming randomness of their interplay was part of the performance. The opening piano pattern on “1/1,” for example, runs along side a second piano loop. The two merge, dance, drift. Musical if you listen, completely ignorable if you don’t. It’s how I find sleep at night.

My search came up with three new artists who, well, “get it.”

Ólafur Arnalds “and they have escaped the weight of darkness”

Ólafur Arnalds, a 22-year old Icelander, has tapped into a very simple but beautiful musical framework. He combines piano ostinatos with swells from a string quartet and the occasional burst of drums. The key is the metronomic pulse within each piece. It ticks along like the old clock on your mantle. Innocent and potent too.

Arnalds has quite the catalog of albums for someone his age (five CDs). The one I bought tonight bears the ominous title “…and they have escaped the weight of darkness.” And so we did.

Wes Willenbring “Somewhere Someone Else”

Wes Willenbring — from his last.fm bio: “[his records] are works of muted radiance. Sounds of piano and guitar wash in and out of recognition, providing a kind of dislocated comfort. The albums slowly breathe in and out with an undeniable melancholic warmth, like a sad dream you don’t want to wake from.”

So with Willenbring, you get more of the creepy and less of the Icelandic prettiness. He creates sound collages, rich and detailed. I was particularly intrigued by the piano line that crept in at the end of “Correspondence.” It was so completely unrelated to the drone key, that I actually stopped playback to see if music was playing elsewhere in my house. It wasn’t. Curious… Downside: too much plinky-plinky guitar on tracks 6 and 9.

Helios “Ayres”

Helios Ayres. Ambient with vocals. This falls more into the Sigur Ros bag, maybe with a touch of Sparklehorse (RIP). Helios, a.k.a. Keith Kenniff, relies on beats and sequences more than the other artists. But again, the overarching texture is atmospheric. His vocals are whispers. There are long pauses between motifs. Funny thing about this album. It ends with the Eraserhead sing-song “In Heaven.” Speaks volume about his inspirations. Incidentally, this is by far my favorite album cover. The glow over the horizon, the paper boats…

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