Music for background listening can often be vapid, thanks to purveyors of watered-down familiar tunes such as Muzak, but ambient music pioneer Brian Eno is quick to point out the differences between such elevator music and more art-minded works. He wrote in the liner notes of his 1978 album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.” One key difference Eno points out is that Muzak smooths out any aural idiosyncrasies, while ambient music enhances them. These concepts immediately come to mind when listening to Grouper’s new double-album, Violet Replacement, available as a limited edition CD-R package and as digital downloads.
Liz Harris, the sound artist behind Grouper, has perhaps moved the farthest away from conventional song structures with Violet Replacement, comprised of two album-length ambient tape collages, entitled “Rolling Gate” and “SLEEP.” From afar, they seem like a pair of monolithic sound blocks, but if the listener puts on headphones and provides a greater level of attention, inspecting them closely, the details distinguish themselves.
Harris uses Wurlitzer organ loops (barely recognizable as such), field recordings and other loops from her arsenal and creates a gray aural mist that gently gurgles harmlessly, taking its sweet time to make its subtle shifts, periodically moving from one simple melody to another among the amorphous haze. However, “Rolling Gate” features a mounting conclusion with chaotic noise rising ominously in volume, as if gingerly poking or shaking a person who is drifting off to sleep. Violet Replacement isn’t quite as interesting as Grouper’s double-album, A I A, from last year, but Harris seems to be making a point and taking an idea to its conclusion here; now that it’s been thoroughly explored with these abstract lulls, let’s hope she moves forward.
The second album from the swedish outfit Memo Cassette, scores, is perhaps like the aural equivalent of cat-herding by wrangling irregular outbursts from improvising musicians following written-out scores. However, these scores are not conventional scores with music notes on staves. Memo Cassette’s scores are enigmatically full of symbols that hint toward some kind of rhyme or reason that’s hard to discern when following along to the music. For example, the opening eruption of “Oi!” seems to be represented by a jagged cloud “explosion” symbol, but then what do the heart symbols mean? The lightning bolts? The boxes with arrows pointing up or down?
Memo Cassette’s creations have a single sound source: the acoustic guitar playing of Hans Nyman. His spontaneous flashes are manipulated by the other three members—Sol Andersson, Hampus Norén and Johannes Ahlberg—who each radically shape, chop, abuse, slow-down, speed-up and enhance the guitar sounds in numerous ways with their computers. Nyman is no stranger to extended guitar techniques and unconventional playing methods, such as scraping the strings to make an unnerving sound, pounding the wood of the guitar or striking the strings with a stick for sharp, percussive notes. His cohorts go nuts with the material at hand, making the songs lurch or sprint, bouncing the notes between the left and right channels, or echoing passages as if they were making some kind of art-damaged dub. Guitar noises are transformed to resemble other instruments, such as chimes or even brass instruments. Scores sounds like it could be the result of a fantasy cross between the electro-wizardry of Aphex Twin and guitarist Derek Bailey’s free improv.
By far, the album’s most relatively accessible track is the closing “Tof,” which features pleasant finger-picked melodies instead of abstract guitar noodlings. Still, true to the group’s spirit, the tunes are fodder for unusual computer treatments. While abstract, difficult music can sometimes be wearying, Scores is notable for instead conveying excitement, nourishing the listener.