It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Monday, and on the dimly lit venue floor of Saturn, preparation for the following night’s performance begins with a discussion of semantics. The topic in question — What is the difference between ambient music and noise music? — seems like it would be fundamental to the upcoming show, which is being billed as an ambient music night.
But there isn’t a clear agreement between the four performers — Chance Bridges, Jim Fahy, Daniel Farris, and Blake Wimberly — who are set to collaborate for the show. But as the discussion goes on, genre definitions begin to seem less and less essential to understanding what the music is attempting to achieve.
“One becomes an atmosphere, and one’s meant to blend in with an atmosphere,” suggests Fahy, who then pauses to reconsider. “Well, even then…”
Farris, having already given the subject some thought, suggests that noise music “is meant to provoke an emotional response. And I think that ambient is meant to enhance that feeling you’re already having. Ambient music should be so nondescript that, however you’re feeling already, it will make you feel more like that.”
There’s a murmur of discussion. “Sometimes, but not always,” Bridges says. “I feel like they overlap, like, constantly.”
The term “ambient music” was originally coined by producer Brian Eno, though the style had existed in practice long before he put a name to it. In the liner notes for his seminal ambient album Music for Airports, Eno describes ambient music as “intended to induce calm and a space to think… [It] must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
The quartet’s approach to ambient music isn’t slavish to Eno’s definition. In the venue space at Saturn, it’s difficult to ignore — a side effect, perhaps, of a performance where ambient music is meant to be the focus. It’s dynamic and improvisational — an interplay of textures and sounds that can shift from dreamlike to aggressive and back again.
For this performance, the four musicians, each positioned on a platform around the venue floor, generate sounds largely independently of one another. Fahy’s setup includes a guitar and an impressive collection of effects pedals; Wimberly, meanwhile, uses a laptop connected to a keyboard and a MIDI control pad. Farris’s setup features a guitar and a laptop, and Bridges uses a pair of KORG synthesizers and a guitar — no laptop.
The idea is that the sounds generated by the musicians will overlap with one another, with the musicians improvising and building on each others’ performances. The resulting music is atmospheric, almost trancelike, both for audience members and the musicians themselves.
“Time is viewed differently,” says Wimberly, who also serves as drummer for local dream pop band Wray, of the experience. “There’s an immediacy to it, but it becomes much more of a slow build… There’s no recording, no redos, so what you as a group put into the space will live and die there and nowhere else.
“There’s no practice,” he adds. “You literally don’t know what the other players are going to be putting out there. The practice is live, and it’s in listening, restraint, decision-making, and trying out ideas, even if they don’t work.”
Over the past year, venues such as the Syndicate Lounge and the Firehouse have hosted ambient nights — the successes of which have managed to surprise even the participants. “It’s just gotten huge,” says Farris. “Obviously, there have been some nights that didn’t have stellar turnout, but I’ve been to a bunch that had really fantastic turnout for that kind of music. To see 45 people in the Firehouse for music with no singing… I’m optimistic about that.”
What’s drawing audiences to these ambient events? It could be what Fahy calls a sense of “bliss” that emerges from the music after a while. It could be, as Farris suggests, the thrill of experiencing music that will only occur once, in that space, before fading away.
Wimberly, for one, knows what draws him to the medium. “One of my favorite things is reaching the point where I can’t tell who is doing what,” he says. “And then I realize we are doing that.”