Ambient Alienation and Structured Freedom
NYMPH is a band bound so tightly to rhythm that it manages to come through to the other side, miraculously free. In concert, each member seems to strain against the challenge of his or her individual part; pick one player to watch and you’ll be dragged down the infinite inward spiral of each part’s precision. Take a step back, though, and you’ll see how together the band forms a hypnotic moiré of rhythm. To watch NYMPH perform is to witness a group of individuals dissolve into a disheveled, fur-clad mass of primal urgency.
At an ISSUE Project Room show in September presented by Northern Spy records, NYMPH served as the backing band for storied free-jazz saxophonist Arthur Doyle. Billed as Arthur Doyle and His New Quiet Screamers, they were the evening’s headliners. Before considering their performance, however, the two opening acts offer an interesting perspective.
Guitarist Loren Connors and bassist Margarida Garcia began the proceedings, Connors’s echoing single guitar notes spacing out over an ominous low-frequency rumble. The sound brought to mind old war films: battleships passing one another in the dark.
Second act En brought their own filmic accompaniment, a series of abstract collages projected on a screen behind the table on which the two had set up their various looping devices. (The duo also incorporated live instrumentation.) The men at the switches controlled the music’s structure, while the audience was left to make what sense it could from its texture and atmosphere.
In a recent interview in the Believer, Brian Eno commented on his work producing ambient music: “The point about melody and beat and lyric is that they exist to engage you in a very particular way. They want to occupy your attention. I wanted to hear a music that could create an atmosphere that would support your attention but still let you decide where it was directed.” Eno’s words imbue ambient music with a sense of liberation: the hegemony of musical structure dissolved, we can pursue our own thoughts. And yet this liberation is also alienating. Concepts we usually associate with performance, such as sharing and community—how do these come to bear on a room of 40 listeners awash in unstructured sound, each in his or her own world?
Ambient musicians often make use of digital innovations like loop pedals and samplers that, while expanding the musicians’ sonic capabilities, can also add to this sense of alienation. With live instrumentation, the distance between performer and audience is based on difference in ability. The performer is able to do something the audience member cannot, like blow into a horn, or beat a drum. Still, anyone can draw breath or bang on something; it’s just a question of a performer doing so in a specialized way—the difference is one of degree.
As the tools become more complex, however, the distance grows. No longer is it a question of physical actions; now it is a question of engagement with a machine—still a question of degree, but removed one step further. A performance consisting of loops and samples simply does not allow for audience identification in the way a live performance does. And so, if on top of this you eschew structures like rhythm and melody, it almost seems that you are discouraging identification. We in the audience are free to direct our thoughts where we choose, but we are prevented from directing them toward the very source of their inspiration.
In this context, melody and rhythm can play a unifying role, a means of overcoming alienation. Anyone raised with FM radio will have an understanding of 4/4 time as fundamental as counting. To eschew rhythm entirely opens up new horizons, yes, but at what cost to shared experience?
Arthur Doyle manages to have it both ways. During his set at Issue Project Room, each musician on stage spent most of the time making his or her own private noise, a cacophony that drew from the interactions between the musicians themselves, but from which the audience was cut off—or would have been, were it not for Doyle and his band’s ingenious way of incorporating the most basic musical structures.
A tune starts with a four-note phrase, Doyle playing solo. Two horns join in after two measures; two measures after that, the rest of the band arrives. Soon the phrase is abandoned, and chaos ensues. And yet something, maybe a bass line, maybe a drum beat, maybe just the memory of the phrase and the whisper of order it contained—something keeps the song from descending into total anarchy, and allows the audience to hang on. This small amount of structure doesn’t command our attention; neither are we enjoined to turn our gaze outward. Just as each musician follows his or her own inclinations to produce an improvised sound both personal and distinct from and yet also entirely in accord with the rest of the group, so too are our thoughts, though wholly our own, also entwined with those of the others in the room, every one of us perfectly free to think what we want, and all thinking the same thing.