I need zones of indistinction
in order to reach the Common.
To no longer recognize myself in my name. To no longer
hear in my name anything but the voice that calls it.
To give consistency to the how of beings, not what they
are, but how they are what they are. Their form-of-life.
I need zones of opacity where attributes,
even criminal, even brilliant,
no longer separate bodies. (206)
Tiqqun, Introduction To Civil War
It's a strange feeling to champion a music of quiet and chill at a time that demands one scream and fight like hell. Part of me has struggled to resume writing here, as I am uncertain about my convictions, inundated with questions of aesthetics and politics. Can I really talk of a New New Age as the revanchists take us back a century? Is there any reason to chill when we need to be defending and fighting back? Can one talk about utopia when we are in a living hell? I don't know, but as they say, we make the road by walking.
So, to begin walking, I am going to discuss one of my favorite recent works, Huerco S.'s For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), and see what it brings up. I didn't just choose FTOYWHN (AATWH) because of how much I enjoyed listening to it; even more important seems to be the fact that it is the work that brought ambient back to the forefront this year. Over the last few months, it has become increasingly clear that another ambient turn is possible. Just in the past two weeks, Pitchfork released a Top 50 Ambient Albums of All-Time feature, which spurred a series of responses around the web. The Guardian and Fact Magazine profiled the New New Age we speak often of here. Hell, even indie dance icons Cut Copy just dropped a 40-minute ambient tape, suggesting that even the hipster dance floor is looking to chill the fuck out. While I had wanted to explore the why on this, I feel the urge now to argue that it should continue in spite of to try to sketch out some ideas towards a politics of the ambient(or is it an ambience of politics?) with this post.Wish me luck.
Huerco S. is the recording alias of Brian Leeds, a Kansas-born, Brooklyn-based producer; we’ve been a fan of Brian’s work for a few years, as his Opal Tapes and Software releases from a few years ago are some of the best cracked, lo-fi techno I’ve heard. I had actually not planned on discussing this album, as I try to focus on work that isn't getting a ton of attention. But, I came to my senses when I remembered that this is not the new Adele record with an army of major label and PR people behind it's fucking experimental ambient record. To celebrate Leeds' new cassette and record label, I wanted to give some thoughts on his biggest release to date and make sure that people are supporting one of the most interesting artists defining ambient music today.
This is a wonderful album, worthy of the accolades and acclaim that it has been receiving since its release (including coming in at #45 on Pitchfork's list). Released this year on Anthony Naples' Proibito Records, Huerco S. gives us 9 tracks and 53 minutes of smeared and blurry ambient music that never overwhelms but always impresses. While this record seems to have gained the most attention, I don't think it is a huge departure from some of the earlier music Leeds made. That lo-fi, bleary, woozy haze from his earlier work becomes even more central to this one; everything feels like it has been wrapped in gauze, muting the earlier noisy outbursts and softening the sharp edges of formerly crisp beats, dissonant synths and confident bass. Take the brilliant opener, "A Sea Of Love," which begins with a synth fog that blankets every sound that comes forth over the next 7+ minutes. Through that murk, one discerns a variety of lowercase sounds—crackles, pops, tape hiss, bass, keys—slowly but surely emerging, revealing a vibrant, unseen world. This is an opaque music, literally and figuratively, both in a lo-fi sense and a resistant to interpretation sense.
Track lengths vary from 3-9 minutes, but each one unfolds slowly, deliberately, patiently. What is most impressive is the way that Leeds is able to give these beatless songs forward movement, whether through the softest of synth melodies or the tiniest of percussive pulses. Check out "Kraanvogel," where a dubby, submerged bass and a squeaking-bed synth push forward, resisting the white noise-y static that blankets everything. With these ghostly rhythms, it's almost like Leeds has wrapped the dancefloor/dance music in that gauze, creating a haunted house music in the process. That begins to get at the question that has dominated my thinking per usual: what space(s) does Leeds' ambient music create?
It certainly doesn't create the vast, melancholic expanses of Stars of the Lid or the sparse, cosmic ones of someone like Michael Stearns. The clicks, cuts, rhythms, synths and arpeggios suggest that this emerges out of the club, hinting at everything from Mille Plateaux glitch to Detroit techno to Norwegian cosmic disco to Rising High downtempo. Despite these precedents, there is nothing soothing about this music. While the haze softens things, over the course of nearly an hour it also distorts, leaving one feeling woozy, uncertain, a little disoriented. At times, those pulses and piano loops never seem to quite lock in and fall in sync, as if that synth fog has forced the various layers of sound to do their best to find their own way. Even the beautiful, lullaby-like "Promises Of Fertility" ends abruptly, with the harsh cut undermining any soothing effects that had accrued over the prior 7 minutes. Leeds is not re-building the 90s chill-out room. So what do we think he is doing then?
As I listened to the album over this past week, I amazingly began to think that Leeds is speaking of utopia as its key features—opacity, spectrality, dreaminess, repetition —suggest not only another world but also what we need to get there.As the quote above indicates, this line of thinking started with a passage from Introduction To Civil War, a key text from the French communist collectives centered around the Tiqqun journal. Their concept of "zones of opacity" helps make sense of the spaces that Hueco S. has built on this LP; their tape hiss, murky bottoms, lowercase sounds and synth haze create a sonic zone of indistinction, one that does not reveal its complexity or life easily. It evokes less a chill-out room than secret meeting spaces where people come together to conspire, to plot, to connect, to reimagine how bodies can go together away from the pressure of the status quo. For me, this is an essential aspect of utopia in the age of surveillance. For the past decade, there has been a tendency on the Left to prioritize protest, being in the streets and visible. While there is a need for this, there is a far greater need to build up new spaces and infrastructure to build an alternative to the one being protested.
Philip Sherburne describes For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) as an album "informed by a memory of club music, which hangs over it like a ringing in the ears." It's a beautiful description and one that got me thinking about a new way of viewing utopia and utopian thinking. The album's spectral qualities, heard in the echo of dance music tropes, submerged pulses and faint rhythms, suggest utopia as a secret world that haunts the current one, whether that is the club, neighborhood, city, country, world. It's one whose development can be sensed at the edges, instilling a sense of anticipation (and fear): "Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe." Perhaps ambient music is that quiet breath that we hear when we listen carefully, a multitude of zones of opacity that hover in the background.
The album's mix of the calm, bleary and bewildering suggests a dream-like world, 9 tracks that offer extended episodes of immersive calm, punctuated by abrupt wakings. It's a sound that moves beyond the common ambient ones meant to help us fall asleep to one that reminds us of the potency, weirdness and sheer creativity of sleep itself. It seems an obvious point, that utopia is about dreaming; in fact it's the main attack on the idea, as it is viewed as nothing more than a fantasy and escape from the reality of the everyday. I want to emphasize the importance of both dreams and sleep nonetheless, both of which are increasingly under attack as capitalism becomes all-encompassing both temporally and spatially. As Jonathan Crary writes in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, "The imaginative capability of the dreaming sleeper underwent a relentless erosion, and the vitiated identity of a visionary was left over for a tolerated minority of poets, artists, and mad people. Modernization could not proceed in a world populated with large numbers of individuals who believed in the value or potency of their own internal visions or voices." (106) Ambient offers a means of regaining and reconnecting with this state and this power.
Finally, in the repetition, the slow movement, the stasis, one begins to develop a different sense of time, one that escapes the standard pop expectations. It avoids the easy thrill and attunes one to the joy of small changes that can build into something vast and powerful. A new temporality is just as necessary to utopia as new spaces, as a comfort with the long and slow are a prerequisite for the task of building; without patience, not only will it be impossible to build up new spaces, it will find us replicating the immediate, no waiting times of our current 24/7 world.
Anyway, if you read this site, I imagine you already have a copy of this record. If not, I highly recommend getting one and experiencing the work of one of the most interesting artists exploring the concept of ambient today. This is definitely one that deserves to be heard on vinyl, in all its warmth and static; both Bleep and Boomkat have it available as I write this. For the digital set, grab the files at the Proibito Records Bandcamp for $10. One of the impetuses for this post was Huerco S.'s new record label, Quiet Time, and his newest release, QTT4, which for $13 gets you two copies. I'd say that anything Leeds releases these days is a must-hear, so grab the tape while you still can.