Olafur Arnalds

OKADA - Floating Away From The World

 

Released earlier this month, Gregory Pappas dropped his second album for the n5MD label titled, Love Telepathic and follows it up with this exclusive mix for ASIP. 

Following in the footsteps of his previous release, Impermanence, Love Telepathic is a dream-like trip through punching beats, ethereal vocals and layers of warmth, sitting somewhere between ASC, Kiyoko and bvdub. Taking the extended track approach (10+ minutes each), OKADA builds each piece with meticulous patience - the kind that makes time disappear and the world melt around you.

Angelic vocals set against conspicuous organic beats, tick over like the lull of a metronome, 
inviting you closer to its misty depths. A soundtrack for sinking to the bottom of a glistening ocean, or floating to the blue skies above. 

Gregory's influences are clear amongst his mix, presenting us with a range of styles from the beautiful vocals of Julianna Barwick, to the awe-struck complexities of Ametsub, and the euphoric ambience of Bersarin Quartett.

Download.

"Music of artists that intoxicate and evoke a pure emotional response from me and influence my OKADA compositions. Most of these artists I've been listening to a long time. In fact, one of the artists on this mix, World's End Girlfriend, is the reason why my music is in long-form, which I first started to do on the album Anathema under the name ZXYZXY" - OKADA.

1. Julianna Barwick - One Half
An artist with strong vocal composition skills. Someone I'd like to borrow for my own compositions, to be honest.

2. 2 8 1 4 - 真実の恋
Two-artist effort that have pierced the veil of vaporwave; hurling it far into the daydream atmosphere.

3. Ametsub - Faint Dazzlings
Japanese electronic music at its finest. Yes, there is a sound unique all to Japan and its electronic music scene. I'd say this is a great example.

4. Bersarin Quartett - Bedingungslos
No one does it like BM. The guy is eons away from everyone when it comes to pure beauty in music. Any of his songs could fit here.

5. Ex Confusion - Speak Softly in My Dreams
One of my favorite n5MD artists. Any of his songs could fit here as well.

6. Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm - a1
Need no introduction here. Just a fantastic collaboration.

7. OKADA - Reconciliation
While I probably should have picked something off my new record, it just wasn't the type of mix I wanted to make. One of my personal favorites, and I plan to bring this style of composition back in the future.

8. MONO & World's End Girlfriend - Part 5
Two of my top 5 artists in collaboration right here, and they create a piece that is equal parts from both groups. The whole album is fantastic.

9. A Winged Victory for the Sullen - Requiem for the Static King Part 1
A short, yet elegant piece from these two fantastic composers.

10. Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto - Moon
I adore all of RS's work, but his work with AN is always incredible. Perfect music to make me want to curl up in my bed on a rainy day.

11. envy - Fading Vision
A band I so badly wanted to sneak in this mix. Not easy since they are a screamo/post-hardcore band, but they're definitely in my top 5 as well and I had to have them here. This song is a great example of their breadth as musicians. Top tier group that exemplifies how to evoke an emotional response. I highly recommend them out.

Additional recommendation:

Eric Whitacre - Lux Nova
I couldn't fit this track on this mix, because of time and how it stuck out of place, but he definitely needs to be mentioned. His choral works prove that choral music is not dead. He is amazing.

~

OKADA n5MD | Facebook | Twitter

 

Optic Echo Presents – Best Vinyl of 2015

 

Mike Jedlicka's Optic Echo radio show consistently serves up some of the best ambient, experimental and modern classical vinyl-only selections. In this special edition, Mike has curated some of his favorite vinyl of the year specially prepared for Headphone Commute.

As you would expect from a weekly show trying to summarize a years worth of wax purchases, it was no doubt an arduous task narrowing it downvand the result is a lovely journey through the many styles Mike covers on his show.

Mike's included some of my favorite vinyl of the year too, namely Night Sequels, 36, wndfrm, Benoit Poulard and Inventions, all sitting proudly in my best of 2015 lists. And a big thanks to Mike for also selecting Arovane & Hior Chronik's release.

Check out the Optic Echo Mixcloud page for all of the previous shows and Headphone Commute for full details and all download options.

Download.

Tracklist:
Mountains – Parallel Two – You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever
Kreng – Bargaining- The Summoner
Night Sequels – Siamese Summer – Children of the Night Make Music
Jon Hopkins – I Remember (Nils Frahm Dub Interrupt Remix) – I Remember 10”
Four Tet – Morning Side – Morning / Evening
Max Richter – Space 11 (Invisible Pages Over)- From Sleep
Shuttle358 – Can You Prove I Was Born?
Andrew Weathers – We Will Never See A Cloud Again – Fuck Everybody, You Can do Anything
VA (Marcus Fischer) – Field Works: Progue’s Run
Rival Consoles – Ghosting – Howl
Pye Corner Audio – Quasar II – Stars Shine Like Eyes 10”
Benoit Poulard – Whose Palms Create – Sonnet
36 – Sky Fire – Pulse Dive
wndfrm – Monopole – Formal Variant EP
Christina Vantzou – Stereoscope – No. 3
T.Raumschmiere – 007 – T.Raumschmiere
Inventions – Wolfkids – Maze of Woods
Nils Frahm – Our Own Roof – Music For The Motion Picture Victoria
Arovane & Hior Chronik – Scale – In-between [BUY]
Valet – Transformation – Nature
Anduin – Last Days of Montrose House 10”
Helm – I Exist In A Fog – Olympic Mess
Kamran Sadeghi – The Right Direction is Left
Lawrence English – Antarctica – Viento
Olafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Three – Loon
Celer – Distant Misgivings – Jima

 

Portals: Modern Classical

As described in the Portals introductory post,  this series is an attempt to help everyone explore more, maybe point you to something new, or change your mind completely about a specific style of music. It's a once-click down from the article I wrote on ambient music (Neither Scene Nor Heard...) and will likely go through the many styles described in there as the series progresses. Up first, a style that's taking on the old.

I won't be making an attempt at listing the best Modern Classical artists of today; instead, I will be looking at several artists whose influences or style may relate back to classical music, artists that could be considered as defining or even re-defining what we think of as Modern Classical and tracks that have introduced me to, or led me to explore more of this specific style of music. If you're a die-hard Modern Classical fan, then this post will hopefully help you open up to something more, or different. If you're new to the genre, it may be your way in.

To wrap a loose definition around the term Modern Classical, it's often defined as music whose influences stem from early classical music (the classical music you are probably more familiar with), as opposed to rock, pop, folk, jazz etc. 

This article by  Luke Muehlhauser, provided some great in-depth background on Modern Classical music, but I hope to bring a more ambient/electronic lens as a result of my own personal experiences. I do, however, echo his sentiments surrounding the exploration of the genre; it's pointless trying to make you enjoy all types of Modern Classical music, but I do hope you find something you enjoy, can relate to, and ultimately explore further.

I encourage your comments, recommendations, and experiences in the comments below so we can help one-another explore even more.

~

When I explain to some of my friends or family that I enjoy Modern Classical music, they find it hard to understand. All my years submerged in electronic music - how can I possibly like something like Classical music?! Classical music has connotations of 70-year-old men, dusty record shops with gramophones, or theatres full of tuxedos watching the back of a conductor. Modern Classical and the many artists pioneering it today are breaking new ground, crossing into electronic and ambient music, playing at major festivals, making techno music on the side (or vice-versa), and recruiting a much younger generation of listeners.

Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons - Spring 1. (2012)

Let's start as close to the origins of classical music as possible. Max Richter is one of the best composers of the modern age and for many, responsible for defining Modern Classical music.

Richter will come as no stranger to many of us, and the renowned German/Brit is the epitome of Modern Classical music - forging the gap between the old and the new. In no production is this more apparent or beautiful, as Spring 1, taken from Max's reinterpretation of a classical masterpiece, The Four Seasons by one of Classical music's very own legends, Vivaldi.

Spring 1, combines an emotional, soaring Moog synth which juxtaposes the sharp violins paving the way for the introductory piece of the record. It's the Yin to the Yang, the old parallel to the new, and this electronic addition is the most obvious of elements you'll witness amongst Max's many modern and minimal takes on classical music we've heard in the likes of Memoryhouse and Infra.

Watch a video of the entire concert here and a clip of Spring 1, below with Max on the Moog.

 

Steve Reich - Six Pianos (1974)

Steve Reich is often talked about in the same vein as Max Richter, both namely responsible for the modern-minimalist movement, but in many respects, Reich may be an easier 'in' for many of us - his variations and experimental approaches are more likely to resonate with you at some point along his 40+ year career. 

His track Electric Counterpoint, for example, the source for samples in The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds, and his most notorious release, Music for 18 Musicians, recently repressed for Record Store Day 2015 and his most celebrated and respected piece to date. 

But it's the 1974 track, Six Pianos which I've chosen to feature here. The repetitive pianos, whilst absent of any obvious emotion we heard in Max Richter's piece, are something I've come to see and respect within performances from the artists of today. The ability to hang an audience on single notes, or these repetitions, for minutes on-end... it takes a special someone to pull that off. 

Ryuichi Sakamoto - Completion (2007) (With Christopher Willits

Ryuichi Sakaomoto is another artist responsible for injecting new life into classical music. His extensive list of collaborators ranges from: ambient and experimental visionaries such as Taylor Deupree, (here playing an experimental set at St Johns for 
Boiler Room)  Fennesz (here combining Fennesz's fuzzy electronics in the classic piano track, Amore) David Byrne (here for The Last Emperor Soundtrack) Alva Noto, (here layering keys amongst the static and glitch of Raster Noton's finest) and the track chosen here alongside Ghostly's ambient star, Christopher Willits, combining textures on
Completion. 

Sakamoto may not be down as your most obvious Modern Classical character, but he's a prime example of an artist pushing the boundaries of what we may have previously deemed classical. Starting as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and going on to record such infamous piano compositions such as, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (still a big favourite of mine - watch a live recording here), he's brought the piano to the world in as many guises as physically possible.

Nils Frahm - Said And Done (2013) (pictured)

The German is single-handedly responsible for making me fall in love with this type of music all over again and Said And Done is just one example of Modern Classical at its finest. 

The track features three parts which repeatedly sends shivers down my spine. First, the sustained keys - I've seen Nils tease out the audience with this section for what seems like hours on end. Second, this (sometimes aggressive) playing eases into the track's gentle melody, which oozes with melancholy. Until third, the keys are once again pounded with such significance you wonder if Nils is even human - head down, beads of sweat breaking across his brow, arms drawn across the stage... and then it hooks you.

Spaces, his 2014 release, was without a doubt my favourite album of the year and whilst pieces like Said And Done are strictly piano, Nils continues to push the boundaries with his modern take on classical music, combining vintage synthesizers, custom piano builds (the largest piano in the world), dub-remixes for Jon Hopkins, his very own Piano Dayand more recently debuting a motion-picture soundtrack for Victoria.

The below video isn't of Said And Done, because to single-out this track amongst Nil's performances wouldn't do it justice, but if you're familiar with Nils, you probably already know the track. If you're new to Nils, then watch the below and have your mind and ears blown. 

Said And Done begins at around 17 minutes.

Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott - Verses - The Chopin Project (2015)

I found the following Youtube comment on one of Ólafur Arnald's videos for his recent Chopin project: "Chopin published the 3rd Sonata in 1844, Arnald's published this is 2015 ... There's 171 years of music in this 4 minute video"...

Just like Nils, Ólafur has been one of the biggest and most talented stars to emerge from this music style, bringing the pure beauty of a piano to the masses of people who now flock to his concerts and shows globally. Quotes like the above really put the gravitas of Modern Classical into context, and go to show that good music never really goes away - it just gets reinterpreted, sampled or built upon for new audiences who are willing to listen and learn. 

Ólafur began his career in a Heavy Metal band and to this day consistently reminds us of the power behind a composition. He integrates powerful vocals in For Now I Am Winter, writes music for Broadchurch, combines classical elements with dance music as Kiasmos, and here, with Alice Sara Ottreinterprets the legendary Polish virtuoso Pianist, Chopin.

Dustin O'Halloran - A Great Divide (2011)

This entire article could go on to feature many of the stars grown by the brilliant Erased Tapes label. From Germany's Nils Frahm, to Olafur Arnalds' early works, and Portland's Peter Broderick, to more recent label additions such as "the fastest pianist in the world"; Lubomyr Melynk, veteran composer Michael Price and the soaring beauty of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The latter of which, formed of Adam Wiltzie (of Stars Of The Lid fame) and self-taught pianist Dustin O'Halloran

Dustin's release Vorleben, on the brilliant Sonic Pieces record label in 2011, seemed to be a defining piece for the American pianist and label alike. The Berlin based collective, now synonymous with some of the very best modern-classical music, housed early Nils Frahm albums such as Wintermusik in 2009, Otto A Totland's short and minimalist album, Pinô, and the Norwegian dark-ambient pairing, Deaf Center.  Despite playing a modest part of this well-respected label's growth, it's Dustin's work as one half of A Winged Victory For The Sullen which has propelled him, and in many respects, Modern Classical music, forward. 

Whether you prefer your piano blanketed in ambience alongside slow riffs from Adam Wiltzie in AWVFTS (read a live review here), or more classical compositions from Dustin's individual work, productions such as A Great Divide highlight just how accomplished this man is, alone or accompanied. 

Ben Woods - Fond Of You (2014)

Diving deeper into this particular style, I have a long list of ambient artists that could be seen as having Modern Classical influences. I'll create a separate Portals specifically for those artists, and they'll likely creep-in when I focus on Soundtracks, or dive into ambient music specifically, but for now I wanted to just keep it to one track and mention a few should you want to be eased into this softly-lit world. 

Strictly speaking, ambient music tends to go one of two ways for me. Either electronic, synthesized sounds, accentuated by samples or analog instruments. Or, where Modern Classical is concerned, instrumentalists adding textures, or even playing textures through piano, strings or guitar. Sometimes they're classically trained, or as I've learned, in many instances have no training whatsoever, and have simply mastered programs like Ableton. 

There's a whole world of these talented pianists, cellists, guitarists, and violinists that form the back-bone of much of the ambient music we hear today. They deserve to be credited with opening our ears to the powerful and evocative styles behind Modern Classical music; be it hidden amongst textures, or in Ben Woods' case, playing the lead role in the beautiful track, Fond Of You.

This more ambient focused approach can also be found in the likes of: Helios, Brambles, Halo, Hior Chronik, Jacaszek, Arc Of Doves, and when leaning more towards soundtrack styles: Bruno SanfilippoRhian Sheehan, Levi Patel and Luke Howard to name just a few to get you started... Expect more to come on this particular style of music in another Portals.

Christina Vantzou - VHS

I wanted to represent a few different styles throughout this post and Christina Vantzou's VHS does just that. Her experimental and omnidirectional take on Classical music is a refreshing and bold approach to reconstructing music. 

I was lucky enough to witness Christina at Substrata Festival a few years back, where she orchestrated a specially commissioned string-quartet, dancing around on stage bare-footed, her artistic qualities were evident, as are they in VHS, with its haunting 
instruments and hypnotic accompanying video.

Instead of crafting extended, complicated compositions, Christina can be found creating minimal, experimental stories, often focusing on string instruments, but as with VHS, combining a multitude of different approaches, tones, and emotions. 

Christina's albums on Kranky also provide the perfect entry point to explore a further multitude of artists that touch the Modern Classical realm; throughout her self-released remix albums No1 and No2. Loscil, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Koen Holtkamp, ISAN, and Dustin O'Halloran are just a few artists who stepped up to reinterpret her works.

My favourite track of Christina's may actually be Going backwards to recover that which was left behindbut VHS provides a slightly different perspective to the music featured here. If you're in need of more experimental artists that have their own non-traditional approach, I'd also recommend Hauschka, whose prepared piano is an absolute spectacle. 

Jeff Mills & The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra (2005)

You may be aware of Aphex Twin's Remote Orchestra? It received mixed reviews, but his intentions were never faulted and at the very least it gave birth to this rather beautiful remix of Rhubarb. The idea of controlling a 48 piece string section and a 24 strong choir by remote control, using a host of electronics, midi controllers, and remote visual cues wasn't RDJ's finest moment, but it was a stroke of genius, going one step further than anyone else looking to smash down any musical boundaries.

For the techno enthusiasts amongst us you may also remember Carl Craig stepping up in front of Les Siècles Orchestra - another great example of two musical worlds colliding. Or earlier in 2005, another techno legend, Jeff Mills, playing alongside The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra.

For anybody my age growing up listening to electronic music, it's easy to recognise the classical elements or instruments in techno tracks; the piano leads of early house music, the Strings Of Life we came to recognize, but it's extremely hard to imagine them ever becoming so apparent. That is, until you witness the natural harmony between electronic musicians on stage backed by a 909 and fronted by an Orchestra. It's hard to not fall in love with what the likes of Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, and Aphex Twin have done for music across the board - irrespective of genre. 

The integration of classical instruments and the world of techno/electronic music can also be flipped completely on its head. From electronic music integrating classical, to classical music mimicking electronic. 

Irrespective of genre or label, these reinterpretations of early electronic music over the past few years have opened up my eyes to how powerful string, wood, and brass instruments can be, even without a kick-drum. In the same way I witnessed Jeff Mills and Carl Craig on stage in-front of an Orchestra, playing some of my all-time favourite tracks in a completely different manner; these performances gave me a whole new-found respect for anybody mastering these instruments.

Alarm Will Sound took on Aphex Twin with their version of Blue Calx (coming the closest to matching RDJ's original), but The Williams Fairey Brass Band may just be your favourite find of the article. Covering early 90's acid-house tracks from 808 State, The KLF, and A Guy Called Gerald, if this doesn't make you want to seek out the potential of a Trombone, then I don't know what will...

Moby - God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters (1995)

Lastly, something you probably weren't expecting: a track that cut straight through a plethora of electronic music during its most celebrated age, a CD full of rave music, a track that many people wouldn't consider Modern Classical, yet if played live would probably be one of the greatest performances of our times without the need for any electronic instruments at all.

God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters by Moby may be boxed as ambient, soundtrack or just simply instrumental, but it has all the elements of an epic orchestral performance. If you ever doubted the use of classical instruments, strings or piano in music, then this track could be your way in, as it was for me back in 1995.

I'm not sure if Moby has ever played this live with an orchestra but there's an amazing similarity between this song and many of the artists mentioned in this article. Moby gets a hard-rap nowadays, but he gets my nod for somehow producing one of the best instrumental tracks in the past twenty years and for being one of the very first people to make me think,"Wow. The strings and piano in this are really something, I wonder what else is similar?"...

~

Portals Episode 1: Modern Classical d/l

Tracklist:

01. Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons - Spring 0 & 1
02. Nils Frahm - Said And Done.
03. Willits & Sakamoto - Completion
04. Dustin O'Halloran - A Great Divide
05. Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott - Verses
06. Christina Vantzou - VHS
07. Ben Woods - Fond Of You
08. Jeff Mills & The Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra - Imagine (Blue Potential Version)
09. Moby - God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters
10. Steve Reich - Six Pianos

 

Neither scene nor heard: a journey through ambient music

 
 

I’ve seen a few articles over the past few years detailing the best ambient albums, the state of ambient or the return of ambient, and whilst they’re often very positive for the genre, the artists and every other person involved in making this type of music, I can’t help but feel a bit empty after reading them.

These articles rarely scrape the surface of a genre that has never gone away, and will probably never “make a comeback” but instead, the genre continues to evolve. Ambient music will always remain a sub-culture of many popular music styles out there, or more to the point of this article, be the hidden undercurrent that’s helped inspire many other styles of music.

Whilst I’m not opposed to the genre getting any more popular (hell, I might get more traffic to the site or sell more records), I can’t help but feel a little annoyed when it’s not represented well, especially when some people have been involved for years and so, so, so, so many styles, producers and labels are consistently overlooked.

It’s a big reason why I created this site back in 2008, and it’s why I’m writing now.

Since the inception of this blog, I’ve focused on those who don’t really get the exposure they deserve and the many hidden talents of not only ambient music, but electronica and to a lesser extent, techno. Why stop now? Whilst this article will dive into the early days and influences on the genre, it will also hopefully offer a different perspective from the more popular journalism outlets and instead, focus on the many styles of ambient music and it particular, the producers and labels that have accompanied me on my journey over the years.

Heads-up, it’s long. So take the time to explore the artists and labels featured and pay it a few visits once you’ve hopped off onto Discogs and Youtube. Every album and artist links out to further information, and there’s a full Youtube playlist at the bottom if you can’t wait. For anyone that really wants to dig into ambient music, I’m hoping here might be a good place to start.

Shit. Where the hell do I start?

Let me make an attempt to cover my own ass from the thousands of very opinionated music-heads first. I got into ambient music late. Very late. And I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I do spend much of my life listening to and writing about it, so I think it gives me a little bit of authorisation to talk on the subject.

Secondly, I haven’t listened to every ambient record out there. Like every piece of journalism ever written, this will be a subjective take, based on my own biased experiences. The last thing I want is for this to sound like a Wikipedia article on ambient. We’ll get the background done sharp, talk about how ambient music developed for me in the 90’s and then get into the many styles I experience today as a result of exploring the genre further and further. By the end of this, I hope I’ve done it justice, introduced newbies to an ever expanding landscape of music, and helped the veterans of ambient find some new pieces to enjoy.


BACKGROUND FOR BACKGROUND 

What is ambient music? (No I’m not joking). Seeing as many of my friends don’t even know what it is, this could prove a very helpful entry point. And to take a quote directly from ambient music pioneer, Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ (1978) liner notes:

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

Which to most people means, it’s background music. But to dive deeper, a more interesting quote reads:

 
An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My (Brian Eno) intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres
— Brian Eno
 
 

This is where it gets very interesting for me. I’m a big believer in music for different moods, for different times, and different feelings, and this is just one of the reasons why my site/label is inspired by Ulrich Schnauss album A Strangely Isolated PlaceThis type of music transports me to wherever I want to be. It enables me to escape; helps me picture myself somewhere else entirely. And this is often the strength of ambient music – its atmospheres, emotion and the clear intention of depicting different environments.

I listen to ambient music to help me relax and escape. And I’ve now reached a point where I can respect the power of it so much, that I pay attention to the many differences, techniques and subtleties of productions. And that’s why I do what I do, listening to so much, writing about what I love and helping musicians get their own passion of producing this music, out there.


I HEAR 1978?

Well that’s when Brian Eno coined the phrase ambient. I don’t want to dwell too much on the evolution of ambient music, as this is where many other people could tell a better story. It’s my experience. Plus, I wasn’t around in 1978 and wasn’t even listening to music properly until a good fifteen years later.

To give it some context, and in the shortest of summaries, the likes of Tangerine DreamVangelisJean Michel JarreSteve RoachHarold Budd, Erik SatieWendy Carlosand of course Brian Eno are just a few of the many musicians often attributed as defining the approach we know today, through synthesiser-oriented styles during the 1970’s and 1980’s. And it wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 1990’s that the more electronic styles we associate with today came into play – the style that sparked my love for the genre.

The UK is often seen as the driving force for early electronic ambient music. The Orb will always be referenced for their pioneering work on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) helping spur a new approach by combining samples with innovative production techniques, depicting lengthy journeys, often with no defined beginning, middle or end.

The KLF did it one year before in 1990 (with the help of the Orb’s Alex Paterson), and their album Chill Out is often referenced as the best of its kind. I wouldn’t argue. Hang on, so what’s ‘chill out’ music? Not to diverge too much, but the term was used for the more drug-induced clubbing culture who created ‘chill-out rooms’ and without trying to rile up the genre fanatics, we’re still within the loose term of ambient music – you’ll just notice, as with most genres, there’s plenty more ways to describe styles and send you around in circles.

Back on track (like the Brownsville Turnaround on the Tex-Mex Border), and a beginning wouldn’t be a beginning without Aphex Twin. Richard D James gained much of his respect through his Selected Ambient Works – his debut album (as Aphex Twin) released in 1992, documenting many of his productions from ’85 to ’92. This album is one of the most accessible and enjoyable places to start if you’re trying to understand electronic ambient music. This album was followed by Selected Ambient Works Volume II in 1994, and again continued to define much of the electronic ambient music we here today.

SHEEP LEAD TO BLEEPS

The 90’s are often cited as the good years of both electronic and ambient music, and with this growth came a multitude of takes on the style. Electronic equipment became more accessible and an underground electronic music culture began to grow.

Alongside Aphex Twin, the likes of Autechre and µ-Ziq (Mike Paradinas) pushed the electronic (and in particular) “IDM” sound to new places. Whilst neither are strictly ambient artists, both played their part in creating some of the best ambient music during this period and shouldn’t be overlooked. This recent dedication to Mike Paradinas’ ambient work as µ-Ziq, is a great place to start, and Autechre’sAmber, whilst not often highly praised, will lead you down some seriously dark rabbit holes to explore. Autechre’s VLetrmx21 remains one of my favourite pieces to date - a dramatic, poignant and thought provoking piece. Needless to say, record labels such as Rephlex and Warp 
played a big part during this period.

Another innovator pushing the boundaries of ambient music and introducing more urban influences during this time, were The Future Sound of London. The Manchester pair are often overlooked unless you dive deep into their discography, but much like The Orb and The KLF, Lifeforms can be seen as one of those all-encompassing electronic ambient journeys.

Global Communication. 1994. Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard76:14 still remains one of the most ‘underground’ ambient albums despite The Guardian listing it within their 1,000 Albums To Hear Before You Die list. With tracks titled according to length, 76:14, continued to expand on the entire listening experience album we grew to love – not just a set of individual tracks.  I couldn’t tell you the title of a particular track, because I nearly always listen to it from start to finish – the way it should be. Global Communication went on to release several other records, but none came close to the prowess of 76:14. For those who’ve dug around Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard, their work on The Keongaku EP prior to this release is as close as you’ll get to the 76:14 experience.

Biosphere (Geir Jenssen's) 1997 album Substrata is perhaps the modern-day Brian Eno experience, focusing on intimate listening and the very definition of background ambient music. More genre terms come into play with Biosphere (ambient techno for example) but Geir is a true pioneer of ambient music and to this day can be found sampling in the plains of Norway, playing rare live performances and sometimes putting together an eclectic DJ mix. Geir remains an elusive character within my knowledge of ambient music, but is no doubt one of the most respected.

It was bands like Slowdive and Seefeel that started to put a spanner in the works. Whilst primarily seen as experimental or shoegaze, Slowdive released records such as the 5 EP in 1993, which focused on synthesised sounds – a first for Slowdive and a style that was very similar to that of Global Communication. In fact, Reload’s remix of Slowdive’s In Mind epitomised the ever-expanding ambient music of 1993 and its impact of styles outside of straight-up electronic. I love the comment on the 5 EP’s Discogs page – “The burgeoning ambient techno scene in 1993 was too much for them to resist…”!

Similarly, Seefeel’s 1993 release Quiqe is a perfect example of the genre expanding beyond it’s existing limitations, with steadfast ambient tracks like Signals and more experimental tracks such as Climatic Phase 3.

The late Pete Namlook and his German Label FAX were also a significant driver of ambient music during the early 1990’s (update - see this 2018 article for a great overview). This is an area which I still need more time to explore, but if you read any best of ambient albums you’ll be sure to find a FAX release in there somewhere. As of August 2005, Namlook and company had released 135 albums –  experience some of them through this tribute mix.

Moving towards the second-half of the 90’s, ’96 witnessed the debut of one of the most instrumental characters in the ambient scene today, Wolfgang Voigt. His self-titled album as GAS, triggered a whole new world of dubby, atmospheric ambient music. Wolfgang is undoubtedly the reason why ambient music still has its place on one of the biggest techno labels of our time (as co-owner of Kompakt) and as a result, a big reason why the genre continues to evolve and make an impact on producers today. Released on the influential label Mille Plateaux label, GAS' releases remain some of the rarest LP’s on Discogs.

The late 90’s were pretty much reserved for one special duo, Boards of CanadaIconic releases in ’95, ’96, ’97 and ’98 saw ambient music meld effortlessly with electronica, offering a vintage, warm sound that felt like it had been around for years. The elusive Scottish pairing are solely responsible for the biggest cult of fans within the ambient & electronica genres (second to Aphex Twin maybe). Much like their music, their unique, mysterious ways are still going strong to this day and although many purists would argue until they are white in the face that they aren’t ambient, there’s no doubt they’ve played a massive part in inspiring and making the ambient sound more appealing to others.

Alongside BoC, the late 90’s witnessed Stars of The Lid progress the beautiful drone soundscapes which are so popular in today’s ambient music. Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie are often included amongst the best-of ambient lists and their pedigree shows to this day with Adam Wiltzie going strong as part of Winged Victory For The Sullen. The Stars of The Lid sound would end up becoming a big influence on the many guitar manipulations we hear in much of today’s ambient and experimental music.


TRANCE AND THE AMBIENT REMIX

This is where I risk a major drop-off in readers, but the late ’90s Trance era played a big part in my addiction to ambient and chill-out music, so I feel it’s important I cover it here. Perhaps this train of thought is new to many, or some don’t want to be associated with a genre which is now quite frankly, an embarrassment and laughing stock to anyone over 18 years of age. But the true Trance era (say pre-2002) was undoubtedly an offshoot of some of the best psychedelic ambient productions, and helped define the true meaning of chill out before it was commercialised by the likes of Ministry of Sound and Hed-Kandi, and ultimately generalised into EDM.

Rabbit In The MoonHumateBTWilliam OrbitThe Art of Tranceeven Tiesto (yes, just listen to his late ’90’s work as Kamaya Painters and Gouryella) and labels such as HoojPlatipusLost Language, and Bonzai were responsible for some of my favourite trance music in the 1990’s and in particular, a trend which emerged to be most relevant to this article; the ambient remix. Whilst this may send shudders down many ambient fans spine, I have no shame in admitting how much I enjoyed some of the remixes to emerge from trance music in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The ambient remix of Pete Lazonby’s Sacred Cycles (sampling Genesis no-less) and Energy 52’s Cafe Del Mar, remixed by Michael Woods (2000) come straight to the top of the pile and this compilation by Solar Stone (2001) encapsulates some the best remixes to emerge (ironically including Tangerine Dream’s Love On A Real Train).

I won’t dwell on it here, as you’ll know by now I’m a closet Trance fan, but I still visit the likes of Salt TanksSargasso Sea; Chicane’s, Far From The Maddening Crowds and Way Out West’s debut album on a regular basis. And if you still need persuading on the impact of ambient music on trance, Orion & J.Shore’s isolatedmix does a perfect job elaborating on some of the brilliant music being made in this vein today.

I’M STILL IN A TRANCE

Something that’s along the same lines but perhaps more familiar with ambient fans, is the term space ambient or psy-ambient and for me, there’s pretty much just one label responsible for this sound recently: Ultimae Records.

Established in France in 2001 and still churning out quality to this day, Ultimae has become the go-to label for this type of electronic ambient music. Space-ambient is often reserved for similarly trance-like tracks, but can more often be recognised by the expansive pads, washes, atmospheres and futuristic samples each track contains. Whilst I’d be a fool to pigeon-hole Ultimae into this sound, they’ve produced some of my favourite artists in this style, including Carbon Based LifeformsAes Dana (Ultimae co-owner) and Solar Fields.

Perhaps more obvious in design, but another great artist that pioneers this sound, is Lithuania’s Stellardrone (remind me to write an article on Lithuania’s ambient/electronica scene – it’s ridiculous) and randomly, this compilation by an old record store in London called Ambient Soho manages to traverse the ambient-space sound, in particular Innersphere’s Out Of Body, and b12’s VOID/Comm.

Spanning the more trance-inducing side of ambient and hailing from one of my favourite labels growing up, Global Underground’s Electric Calm series is also a well-respected and under-celebrated bunch of mixes and exclusive material that manages to transport you into the ether. Mixed by The Forth, they’re as formulaic as mixes come, but are packed full of great, fairly unknown material.

More recently, the likes of Petar Dundov is pushing the trance-like-ambient sound forward, invoking the spirit of synthesised ambient productions from the likes of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. And even beat-less reissues from the likes of Hiroshi Watanabe aka Kaito (Kompakt) draw parallels, with epic strings and countless moments of euphoria.

This may also be a good place to introduce Brock Van Wey aka bvdub. Whilst I definitely wouldn’t describe his music as trance, it’s certainly an original take on trance-inducing productions. His pieces are often over ten-minutes long and are a lesson in progressive atmospheres, peppered with techno undertones and more recently, garage-esque beats. He is a pioneer of the modern-day ambient sound and a must for anyone new to the genre, with an outstanding work ethic and an unparalleled output. I’d recommend starting at his 2011 release, Songs For A Friend I Left Behind, and in particular I Would Have Waited. Or, for that truly euphoric effect, try 2012’s, Don’t Say You Know.

AMBIENT ELECTRONICA AND THE BIRTH OF THE SWEET SPOT

Earyl 00's and some of my favourite labels are setting up shop, evolving the electronic sound. Electronica is a largely debated genre and in my eyes can represent a wide range of electronic music which isn’t necessarily meant for dancing, but more for listening. From glitchy IDM based analogue music, to downtempo and ambient drones infused with sparse beats and heavy melodies. This is where I truly fell in love with music. Ambient electronica managed to combine the escapism and relaxation of ambient music, alongside more interesting and complex electronic production techniques. And none can be more responsible for inspiring me more than City Centre Offices.

Beginning with ArovaneHerrmann & KleineBitstream and Casino Versus Japan, it was 2002’s release of Far Away Trains Passing By, from Ulrich Schnauss that really blew me away. Two years later, and A Strangely Isolated Place followed suite, and finally Arovane’s Goodbye Forever on Lillies presented the power of the piano on a largely IDM focused album. Admittedly, these releases were a far stretch from the beat-less soundscapes of ambient purists such as Brian Eno, but for me, they were just as powerful in emotion and escapism.

It was the early 2000’s that unwittingly birthed one of today’s biggest stars of the genre, Jon Hopkins. Released on British Label Just Music, (also home to Echaskech and Honeyroot – two more gems that need more listens) Jon Hopkins began his career with a sublime style of ambient electronica on Opalescent. Both Cold Out There, and Private Universe are essential ambient tracks that epitomised the promising career Jon had ahead of him scoring films (Monsters); being nominated for a Mercury Music Prize; making head-rattling electronica onImmunity and my favourite; sampling the London Olympic Games opening ceremony fireworks on Abandon Window.

Fast-forward to today, and this style has evolved so much it would be impossible to capture the hundreds of brilliant artists making this type of music. Ghostly International is however a decent place to start.

The birth of Tycho’s Sunrise Projector in 2004 was the beginning of his more recent dominance within the Ghostly family; his blissful sun-drenched guitars and live percussion are the closest you’ll come to Ulrich Schnauss’ early work. And whilst the likes of Ghostly’s Lusine and Recondite can hold any dance-floor, their music remains within the realm of escapism and hits home with many of todays ambient fans who need that up-tempo edge every now-and-then.

Dive further into Ghostly’s catalogue and you’ll find the purest of ambient and experimental music sat alongside the more popular electronic functions it’s now famous for. With artists such as LoscilThe Sight BelowHeathered PearlsChristopher Willits and KILNFor a true round-up of Ghostly’s amazing contribution to modern ambient music, head to their SMM Series.

It’s within this style of music that you also start see the massive impact Boards of Canada have on the evolution of the warm, nostalgic sound. Relatively unknown but highly recommend artists such as Horizon FireNorthcapeFreeschaSarin Sunday (Com Truise in his early days) and even ASIP’s Parks do a great job at capturing this beautiful matrimony of synth-laden electronics and blissful euphoria.

Diving deeper and one of my favourite labels, n5MD has been responsible for some of the most interesting ambient electronica of recent years. LoessCrisopa(ghost)Ocoeur, and Preghost are just some of the artists coming from this brilliant label. n5MD has also played host to more ‘IDM’ style artists such as Arovane and Proem and the more recent ambient crossover with shoegaze & post-rock (see further below) via port-royalLights Out Asia and Bitcrush

POP AMBIENT

Whilst his very own Kompakt Records grew synonymous with the emerging minimal techno scene hailing from Germany in the early 2000’s, Wolfgang Voigt (GAS) quietly coined his own style of ambient music – labelling it Pop Ambient. This yearly series is now synonymous with a very certain production style and ethos, challenging the very meaning of ambient music, but always rooted in layered drones, cyclical sculptures and often traditional instrumentation.

Since its first release in 2001, Pop Ambient has established some of the most respected artists in the genre and similarly, re-established some favourites who would have otherwise been lost amongst a myriad of other guises or musical styles on the label. Markus Guentner has been a staple since the very first release and to this day pushes his unique ambient washes and faint melodies far and wide, including releases here on ASIP and Moodgadget (owned by Heathered Pearls).

Marsen Jules, whilst originally releasing on the aforementioned City Centre Offices, also makes regular appearances on Pop Ambient with his intense poems in sound. As does Argentina’s Leandro Fresco, another master of beautifully composed, richly coloured ambient music.  2015’s edition sees Kompakt continue to push into new realms, bringing regulars such as bvdubUlf LohmannGustavo Lamas and Leandro Fresco back into the fold alongside newcomers like Thore Pfeiffer.

AMBIENT INTELLIGENCE

As techno music grew and evolved in the 2000’s, ambient music was treated to some of its most defining and innovative moments. Ambient techno is an area so rich, that I still discover new (old) titles every week, but it was the likes of Mille Plateaux introducing us to GAS that kickstarted this evolution. 

More recently, German labels such as Traum Schallplatten and Raster-Noton gathered pace in the 00’s (see my tribute mix to Traum’s ambient output here) alongside the likes of Mule Musiq/Mule Electronicartists such as KossMinilogue, (Sebastian Mullaert is releasing a new ambient album with Eitan Reiter on 18th October) and Lawrence with his ambient LP A Day In The Life.

One of my favourite releases to define the ambient techno genre of late, was the Composure Ambient Techno for Japan compilation. Put together to raise funds after the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, this compilation includes some of the finest music to grace the term ambient, techno or indeed ambient techno. From here, if you dig further, your world opens up into the multitude of amazing artists included. From following Donato Dozzy, you’ll find his 2010 release ‘K’  and perhaps stray into the sublime ambient techno world of Voices From The Lake.

The Sandwell District, a couple of techno artists who (unfortunately) came together for just one album, will lead you to Feed Forward - another classic approach to ambient techno. And finally, one of my favourite producers, Donnacha Costello – I’ve done all the hard work for you here and highlighted some of his finest pieces to date.

And perhaps one of the most respected and innovative producers in this area, is Germany’s Carsten Nikolai aka Alva Noto. In 2009 Carsten released Xerrox Vol.2, and with it, Monophaser 2This video does a great job in capturing the sparse, yet emotive composition that sets Carsten apart from the rest.

AIN’T TALKIN ‘BOUT DUB

Given techno is such a wide all-encompassing genre, you can’t blame me for digging even deeper into its ambient half and exploring one of the most recent styles to emerge. Ambient-dub, or dub-techno whilst very similar to the likes of the artists listed above, has seen a particular focus recently, with several producers creating a very unique, deep and bubbly style. It’s often bashed by many as being very boring and repetitive, but when done correctly, it can be as dreamy as the very best beat-less ambient masterpiece.

You can’t mention dub or techno without Echospace and Deepchord. More recently home to the previously mentioned bvdub but more prominently known for releases by Model 500 (Juan Atkins), cv313 and Deepchord himself, the label is a favourite for die-hard techno fans and an innovative outlet for the more atmospheric techno productions that fall into this more ambient style.

Sharpening the ambient side of dub-techno even further, Iceland’s Yagya pioneered his unique style on his widely praised album, Rigning. It came some seven years after his first release in 2002 (Rhythm of Snow), and I can pretty much guarantee that any new fans of Yagya are working their way backwards through his catalogue, especially after his most recent release on Delsin. Despite having earlier albums, it was the sound of rain on your roof, the clap of thunder, emotional, rising pads and a driving dub-techno beat in Rigning that hit home for many. 

It seems as though this style is a thoroughly independent practice at the moment, with most of what I listen to released by the artists direct through the likes of Bandcamp. Finding dub-techno on vinyl is a nearly impossible affair, yet labels such as Dewtone Recordings, and Silent Seasontwo of my favourites, do their very best in pushing this type of independent music forward. Whilst neither are strictly focused on dub-techno, (or vinyl) both have a rich roster of artists that span this style, alongside straight-up ambient and more experimental sounds. ASCEdanticonfPurlAlveolSegueMartin Nonstatic and Adam Michalak come highly recommended. The below track by Textural Being epitomises the slow burning melodies and atmospheres of dub-techno I have grown to love.

#DRONELIFE

Whilst dub-techno added rolling beats to ambient music, there are those stripping away the more obvious mechanics and focusing purely on mood, atmosphere and repeated layers of sound. Drone is one of the more reserved and less accessible styles of ambient music, yet is probably the closest to the genres original conception, and arguably pre-dates Brian Eno through the 1960’s minimalist movement. BUT, they didn’t have a hashtag back in the 60’s.

I remain less familiar with drone music due to the intricacies of its design and origins, mainly because of the appreciation needed for the instruments used in the making of this music. But attending a workshop with Rafael Anton Irisarri aka The Sight Below, (or his Substrata Festival) you begin to see the complexity involved in sound design and the meticulous detail that goes into this style of music. What can seem like one single sound, is often a series of instruments, processors, loops, delays, vocals, samples and hours of hard work. And then sometimes, it’s just a plain and simple improv between the biggest music geeks in the world.

Approaches can vary from the very light and melodic ambient tones of Loscil, through to the legendary tape-loops of William Basinski’s 2002 Disintegration Loops. And further along the spectrum, the haunting wall of noise coming from Tim Hecker.

Any mention of drone or experimental music usually throws up one of the best labels in the business – Kranky. Not only home to Tim Hecker, this label has also pioneered a wide range of ambient, drone and experimental styles from the likes of Stars Of The LidLoscilGrouperWindy & Carl, and Pan American. Kranky can also hold part responsibility for the more recent emergence of the modern-classical sound, with A Winged Victory For The Sullen and Christina Vantzou.

THE TANGIBLE EXPRESSIONISTS

Compositions and performances are often meant to be heard, studied and to a large 
extent, watched – the opposite to how we defined ambient music at the start of this article. But recent years have seen such an emergence of brilliant artists that could be considered ambient via their modern-classical success. 

Composers such as Ryuichi Sakamoto played a large part in integrating modern classical into the ambient or techno genres, partnering with the previously mentioned Alva Noto for example, alongside the well-known re-interpretations from Max Richter or the lesser-known (but hugely respected) Murcof. But more recently there’s just one label that’s heavily influenced me: Erased Tapes.

Their unbelievably talented German wizard Nils Frahm has consistently released beautiful piano compositions on the label since the very beginning, but has only recently seen his greatest acclaim with Spaces. And rightly so, this was my favourite album of last year, hands-down and his recent Boiler Room set captures his magic perfectly.

Often alongside Nils is Ólafur Arnalds, the Icelandic multi-instrumentalist. Likewise, Ólafur is a genius with the piano and together the pair have propelled the modern classical genre forward in recent years, simultaneously restoring my faith in the live performance at the same time – spellbinding, magical and utterly breath-taking every time. Expanding even further into the Nordic realm, and Otto A Totland’s Pino, (hailing from the brilliant duo Deaf Center) is another great composer (Pino boasts a beautifully packaged CD to boot).

I’ve also seen a resurgence of young talented composers. The likes of ASIP’s very own Levi Patel and Halo, both under 25 and creating masterpieces that wouldn’t sound out of place in-front of an expectant crowd of hundreds. Their talent never fails to baffle me.

Young emerging label Serein recently presented us with Brambles. And Luke Howard’s Sun, Cloud remains a gorgeous yet powerful dose of theatre. New Zealand’s Rhian Sheehan continues to release some of the most spellbinding work I’ve ever heard, often traversing into an ambient guise on releases such as Seven Tales Of The North Wind.

Once I’m down this route, I often find myself leaning towards some of the masters of post-rock too. Balancing the emotion of the modern classical composition; with the raw power of guitars and drums; signed off with subtle ambient undercurrents; this style of music is yet another rabbit-hole of wonders.

The American Dollar, while specialising in post-rock, have recorded several ambient versions of their releases, highlighting the close melodic ties between the two styles. Similarly, Hammock are the true masters in this approach, producing some of the most emotional and climatic pieces of ambient, drone and post-rock you’ll come across. And should you need to dive in any further, I’ve long appreciated Stray Theories and Good Weather For An Airstrike – doing their own independent thing and definitely deserving of more ears.

And lastly, where instruments add depth and character, there are those that use them with subtlety, adding colour to an otherwise calm ambient drone. Keith Kenniff, (or Helios to many), is a great example of this approach, alongside 36 - an independent musician from the UK releasing some of the most powerful, tear-jerking, melancholic music possible. As are the many, many artists that seem to hail from Japan like Arc of DovesEx ConfusionNobuto Suda and the Home Normal collective.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

As I’ve already mentioned with the strength of recent modern classical music, I’m hoping we see plenty more prodigies like Nils Frahm shine. If a young pianist needs any inspiration they needn’t look any further than his Spaces album, or any of his live shows.

There’s a lot of love for what Burial started a few years back and I’m enjoying seeing this type of music evolve, (especially as I absorbed plenty of UK Garage when I was younger!) Artists such as Borealis and Sven Weisemann’s Desolate project nail the fine-line between this urban approach to electronica and the subtleties of ambient atmospheres. It’s hard to come across this type of stuff on a regular basis without it feeling too repetitive, but news of a new Desolate album is sure to keep it moving along nicely.

Similarly, the blissful sparse beats coming from the likes of Kiyoko push a new style forward, along with James Clements’ more ambient focused work as ASC and his label Auxiliary. With drum’n bass influences, productions range from industrial ambient to 170 BPM electronica (the Autonomic sound).

Recently we’ve seen a few artists start to integrate ambient textures and in particular modern classical elements into house and techno music. Max Cooper has been doing this brilliantly for the past few years, mainly through his remixes, and now Erased Tapes’ Kiasmos (Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen) are set to show what it truly means to integrate a piano composition into dance-floor-oriented music.

~

There’s no doubt that ambient music is at one of its strongest points for a long time (as FACT Mag politely pointed out recently – and to answer the question I don’t think we’ll ever beat the 90’s!) It would be easy for me to list some releases that are coming up this year which excite me, but that’s one of the main reasons my site exists. Ambient music, drone and modern classical in its purest form, will undoubtedly remain the same, as they aren’t scenes revolving around a place, a movement or a bunch of people. But I’m always excited by the producers, labels and artists that are looking to push this type of music further.

 I’m guessing ambient music will always be in the background, like Eno meant it to be. It will continue to take many forms, add different perspectives to more popular styles, and appear in places you probably wouldn’t expect it (hell, Zain Lowe may even launch Apple Music with an ambient track).

But that’s the magic of it for me; the modest, fluid, and intimate nature of ambient music demands attention, and if it’s given, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best music out there.  

I started this article to help dive a little deeper into ambient music, but upon reflection I’ve still only scratched the surface. There’s no doubt some subjective inconsistencies, a whole heap of brilliant artists and labels missing, and I’ve probably riled the genre police in every paragraph.

Hopefully I’ve either introduced you to a new genre, style, artist or label and from there, you’ll never know where you end up. You may even be inspired to set up a blog, site or record label after your favourite album…

Below is a Spotify playlist featuring some of my favourite tracks mentioned in this article. It should keep you going for a very, very long time. And lastly, always remember to support the many artists featured in this article, doing their own thing and making our lives much more pleasurable. Thank you for reading this far.

An edited version of this article was featured in the final Substrata 2015 festival program.

 

Interview: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds talking performances, Decibel, toilet-brushes and socks

 
 

My Decibel Festival experience hadn’t even kicked into full swing and I was off to meet two of my musical heroes; Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. They arrived in Seattle the previous night and were busy preparing for their performances as part of the Erased Tapes Optical Showcases – just two shows out of the many they’ve been stunning the word with in recent months.

With Ólafur’s album ‘For Now I am Winter’ still gracing many of our stereos and Nils’ upcoming album ‘Spaces’ (read a review of the album here) due soon, the duo had a wealth of material, experience and performances under their belts ready to stun the festival’s modern classical crowd. But before their amazing performances (read the Decibel X festival review here), I was lucky enough to have a very informal chat with them both in the lobby of the W Hotel in Seattle. It was Wednesday, midday. Ólafur looked tired and Nils looked alive. I had nothing prepared apart from a microphone and years of fan-boy admiration for two of the most talented musicians I was ever about to meet. I was just happy having a chat. Luckily for me, that’s exactly what I got.

Nils, can you tell us a bit about your new album, Spaces? It felt like I had just sat down to watch you perform when I first listened to it.

Nils: The idea was that it feels like one performance in the end. I wanted to basically make it feel like I had one good performance over the 30+ shows we did.

So you were cherry-picking the best tracks from the tour?

NilsExactly, I was spoiled!

Did you have your album in mind when you started the tour?

NilsNo, no. I was just recording to see if it could end up being an album.  It was recorded over two years, so the first performance sounded much different to the last performance I recorded, and the last one I recorded was St Johns, so two tracks from that show made it on to the album. And yeah it changed over time. Some improvised bits, more worked out songs…

And how did your improvised pieces effect the overall recording?

NilsThe material developed on tour basically, it’s funny because I only have the setup you see when i’m on stage, I don’t have it at home so I can’t rehearse my live set-up, so every concert is a rehearsal in a way. Every sound-check is a chance to come up with new stuff.

How much do you two get to play together?

NilsWe’ve played around 30-40 shows together.
ÓlafurYeah quite a lot! We met when Robert (Raths) asked if Nils could open up for me in 2010, he just joined our tour bus and after that we played a lot of shows.
NilsYeah, the Erased Tapes tour last year.
ÓlafurAnd of course in the studio as well.

Some of my favourite moments from you guys are of course, your improvisations (and there’s a few online) Are they planned AT ALL?

NilsThe one you’ve seen was probably not planned at all.
ÓlafurYeah, initially they are not planned but then they tend to develop over time. There’s that one on youtube that’s quite popular, that one wasn’t planned at all. it was part of an improvisational tour I was doing and i’d always invite friends to join me on stage – it was the first time we had played together. And then after that, we’d often go back to that original idea, develop and build on it. So in the end they become planned but not consciously.

 
 

Is that how ‘Stare’ came together originally? 

ÓlafurNooooo it was more like ‘hey I’m in Berlin, lets cook and have some whiskey! Then suddenly it’s 6am and we’ve done an album!’
NilsYeah that wasn’t planned. It just happened. When we were half-way through the material we got a little bit more ambitious and excited and decided to meet up again to make some more.

Nils you seem to enjoy remixes (for example the Screws project) but how did you decide on Max Cooper remixing Stare?

NilsHe basically just wrote us.
ÓlafurYeah, he just did it! He sent us four remixes, he’s so enthusiastic, a big fan and he really wanted to do it. I love his music.
NilsSo nice of him.

Are you planning to see his show on Friday (at Decibel?)

NilsWe will definitely plan to meet, I’m not sure if i’ll have time to see his show though.

I’m interested in how much you feed off the audience. You mention it in your album and you say how much this influences you, but when I watch you live it’s almost as if you are in your own little world, head down..

NilsWell in the middle of the album (Spaces) there’s this track called Hammers, and a cell-phone rings. I was improvising something and all of a sudden you here ‘ring-ring’ and I have to laugh, you know! It definitely changes your playing because everyone is laughing and giggling. So you can’t deny that you don’t create music for the people at a concert, it would be silly to assume that you only do it for yourself. I serve something to the people because they have paid to see it and I’m happy to deliver. And I value that – i’m happy that people come to the shows and I like to make them feel that they change the performance in some way.

If they’re really quiet, then I can play really quiet so they can hear everything. When the audience give a big applause excitedly at the end of the song, like a DJ, you remember ‘that track was good’, so they help me develop my material based on their response.

So how does this impact your playing style in the middle of a set?

NilsIf they are quiet, then you play more quiet, and if they are loud, then you play loud. So if you put it into perspective, the dynamic aspect of it changes. A piano can only go so loud, but a synthesiser can go really loud, open up the space, and it may make the piece after appear even quieter. It becomes a psychological thing.
ÓlafurI don’t think it’s about conscious decisions, it’s more about confidence. When I feel like the audience is enjoying what I’m doing, I’m more confident and experiment or try something new, but if the audience is a bit dry I might play it more on the safe side.

Do you have any pieces that you know will almost certainly get the audience on your side?

Nils: It’s important to structure your set list. You might have 12 songs and the order of these songs is what you may end up changing. When you know you have one track that people like the most you have to work out where to put it in the set.
ÓlafurI’ve changed in the middle of a set. I’ve just thought ‘well this one doesn’t fit here, I’m going to play this one instead’ even though I had a set-list. I expected the room to be different and prepared the wrong set list.
NilsLike a DJ with the wrong records, you have to change it at the last minute and make it work.
Ólafur: [Laughs] It’s very bad for my string players when I do that, because I don’t normally announce my songs, I just start playing and you see them trying to find the correct sheet!

I think I remember seeing that! How much do you practice with your string players?

ÓlafurNot really at all. I mean they are professionals, I give them song sheets, I tell them to listen to the record, learn the songs, and then usually we just do a sound-check and a quick run-through.

Wow, so how do you choose your string-players?! Do you choose them?

ÓlafurYeah I choose them.
NilsI don’t have to choose them because i’m all alone…!

Ah but did you choose the toilet brush?

Ólafur: [laughs] How did you choose that one…?
NilsI just didn’t have the money to buy proper drum-sticks.
ÓlafurToilet brushes are probably more expensive.
NilsThey were two bucks from Ikea – two bucks for two.
ÓlafurOh really. I bought one the other day for like $20,
NilsI know, there’s a toilet brush for $500.
ÓlafurYeah but you can change the ‘thing’ on it.
NilsOh realllly…
ÓlafurI just want to throw it away, but now i just have to go and buy another ‘thing’. You keep the stick, because it’s made of some fancy material. You can’t throw away the stick!
NilsSustainable…
ÓlafurAnyway, Viktor, who is my lead violinist and who I have worked with for a long time, we met in music school, and we just kind of wing it, between a regular group of around ten who we normally pick from.

Did you grow up with a lot of people you still play with now?

ÓlafurYeah, to begin with most of my players were just friends from school.

And were you classically trained at this time?

ÓlafurNot really, I did one year in classical composition.

So are you mostly self-taught?

ÓlafurMostly, yeah. I had education in percussion, but that was more like Jazz style, not really classical.

Ah, so can you play the drums as well then?

Ólafur: [laughs]
NilsWell he is the better drummer. But piano is all about rhythm too.

 
 

[laughs] I have no co-ordination. When you’re playing two pianos up there on stage it blows my mind.

NilsIt works in our favour because we come from a background where we learn instruments. A lot of music these days doesn’t require people to learn instruments. They work with a laptop, they add things together and it might be really tasteful, really amazing, but people get used to the idea that there’s somebody on stage delivering what they pieced together in a studio. So when people today see musicians actually play an instrument it’s more of an experience.
ÓlafurI was recommending this band the other day and said ‘..and yet they are actually playing it’ [laughs] it’s amazing! When did this become a thing? They actually play the synthesizers! In just, five years this has suddenly become something weird. They don’t just press play on the laptop!

I think that’s a big reason why I really enjoy your shows, as my background is more electronic and I really respect what you guys do up there.

NilsYeah and that’s good [being from an electronic background]. It’s liberalisation of music. People who are 25 can still think ‘i can do it’ but it’s very different from learning music from an early age.

So what do you like to listen to at home?

NilsThere are no bad genres, there are just bad albums of a genre.
ÓlafurJazz, classical, techno, rock. A big part of what I listen to is electronic music. Probably 30/40% of everything I guess.
NilsI listen to a lot of jazz and old records. There’s always times for different material. Sometimes I’ll only listen to classical musical for a couple of weeks!

What are you looking forward to at Decibel this year?

NilsLast year was really amazing. We had some bad technical issues in my performance but this year we are in a really great performance hall.

Anything different planned from last years Erased Tapes tour?

NilsFor me I’m still on the Spaces thing, so it’s similar to what you know from the record, and people over here don’t know it yet. This is the first time I’ll bring a synthesiser and the more electronic parts to American audience.
ÓlafurI’m bringing my vocalist which is pretty special, we’ll be playing stuff off the new album.

 
 

Talking of Arnor (Ólafur’s vocalist), were the vocal additions to ‘For Now I am Winter’ a conscious decision beforehand, as it was a different approach for you?

ÓlafurYeah, it was more just a need to do something new. I was looking for something to do different on this album. I know the singer, he is a good friend of mine and we’ve always wanted to do something together. He is classically trained but has played in rock-bands his whole life – kind of the opposite to me, I’m pop trained but I’m doing more classical. I thought it’d be a great fit. We wrote the lines together but he wrote the lyrics.

Are you a perfectionist?

ÓlafurIn a way. We’ve talked about this before. Perfection doesn’t have to be something with no mistakes.
NilsIt’s a perfect feeling about something.
ÓlafurYou’re conscious about everything. We’re just very conscious about what we do.

Nils, that must’ve been a big step for you with ‘Spaces’, having to go through the hundreds of recordings and pick out the ones with no mistakes so to speak?

NilsWhen I have one show, 90 minutes of material, there’s a small chance I’m going to perform it to my satisfaction. A lot of people would be really happy with the show and not notice the small things that really bother me, but I’m not happy with that, so I have to record thirty shows and take the best ones!

That’s probably the best way to do it, instead of being in the studio all day long.

NilsYeah it’s something you can capture on stage which you can’t in the studio. Like the PA system is loud, the synthesisers are loud, and we have room mic’s and the sub-bass is recorded on the mic’s – it sounds so different to when you just pluck the synthesizer on your computer. All these little things, plus the atmosphere, and the sweat – it’s a good experience!

And your well-esteemed labels. What do you look for and enjoy about Erased Tapes, and label manager Robert?

ÓlafurApart from being a good person and all that obvious stuff, I look for someone who is just an enthusiastic fan of the music. I’m on a different label now, and I wouldn’t have gone there unless I could clearly see that they are huge fans and want to do what i do, instead of telling me what to do.

So you still see a role for the conventional record label? With so many artists doing it themselves nowadays?

NilsI don’t like the whole concept [of not being on a label]. I see why people do it, and there’s a place for that too, but I think an artist should be concerned about making music, and the label concerned about promoting it. And then you share the money! There’s so many musicians, Facebook addicted, whatever, who spend five hours a day promoting music and only spend one hour playing the guitar. It should be the other way around. Play more instead of twittering!
ÓlafurBut it’s great that it’s possible. Because It’s not possible for everyone to be on a label. I love those tools that we have and I’ve used them a lot, especially before working with Erased Tapes, I love the capabilities they have today. I can be in the UK and sell 500 records on the other side of the world.
NilsI think it’s really nice that the fans can get closer to the artist. But sometimes I see the disadvantage. I get lots of random emails asking ‘hey Nils what headphones do you use?’ And there’s always a time and space to answer those questions. But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to think that the artist is in a different sphere – makes it mysterious if you’re not totally accessible all the time. It depends…. I mean you can’t really write to Daft Punk and ask them what kind of headphones they would use? You wouldn’t get an answer!
ÓlafurAnd that’s kind of cool!
MeThey don’t have headphones, they have helmets!
ÓlafurThey are built in! Custom made!

What’s the best place you’ve played in terms of setting and arena? When I was talking to Robert (Raths) earlier we were saying how great Hackney was but how surprisingly intimate it was for such a big place.

ÓlafurOh yeah, that was a great place. But there’s two things to it. The room – atmosphere, closeness and feeling, and there’s also the technical aspect of the production. And very often those things are not found in the same place. Usually, technical places loses intimacy, and usually if it’s really intimate, it’s a small place that’s not very technical.
NilsIt really depends. The most exciting shows are the ones where you have a really bad feeling at soundcheck. You come into a room and think ‘this is going to be horrible’, and then there’s a good chance you’ll be surprised. Likewise if you think everything is perfect, then the performance might lose a bit of excitement because you expected it to be good. And then your mood, it depends if you’re tired.

Your audience are probably quite knowledgeable of what to expect from you guys right?

NilsIt’s funny, for me, people often think that we are, or maybe I am, just a classical ‘hat’ and people need to be respectful, and he’s a piano virtuoso and they have this image of a really serious guy who will try to bite you…
ÓlafurI think we both consciously try to break that. With my talking between songs, Nils drumming his piano.
NilsOr me just wearing some ridiculous socks. [Laughter]
ÓlafurHe’s wearing his happy socks.
NilsNo, these are not my happy socks, but for my style they are quite normal.
ÓlafurI like how you always wear happy socks on stage, and a hoody.
NilsNot always!
ÓlafurI was thinking about starting to wear death-metal t-shirts on stage.
MeI’ve been waiting for you to wear your bright yellow and black top we always see in your instagram photos.
NilsWe’ve just got to not wear a suit or be proper classical.
ÓlafurI don’t mean like a Slayer t-shirt… I’m talking about [Ólafur announces a load of bands I have no idea how to pronounce]
NilsBut they are kinda expensive huh?
Ólafur: Cult things
NilsLike you buy them on ebay for $200
ÓlafurIs that too much? [laughs]
NilsAh whatever works!

That’s obviously your next venture…

Ólafur: I know what we do, we start a merchandising thing and we have our names, but in death-metal letters [laughs] with like these unreadable logos!
NilsMy new album, ‘Man Eater’ [laughs].

Don’t forget your socks.

NilsI’ll get death-metal socks, whatever!
ÓlafurDeath-metal happy socks!