Music is not only the ever-present waking soundtrack to my menial activities, I also tend to play albums with the specific intention of carting me off to sleep. It has become more challenging to listen to music while trying to sleep lately, as I’ve taken the committal jump of sharing sleeping space with another. However, it is therapeutic, and I pride myself on making a moderately convincing argument. The mental preoccupation that is Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos on medium-volume really helps to take off the day’s edge, and the fact it drowns out my upstairs neighbor’s ever-replenishing bathwater doesn’t hurt its chances. Today, I’ve put together a list of my favorite somnambulant artists who make napping that much easier, in the most pleasant way describable. Brush your teeth, floss, and tidy your bed linens for some easy drones, as you mercilessly racket up your partner’s hydro bill by leaving your stereo receiver on for weeks at a time.
May I start at the top? Brian Eno deserves the credit he banks for as the father of modern “ambient music”, and true enough, his advances of the genre with Music for Airports and Discreet Music are the best examples for doing things quietly. Inspired in part as the result of limited mobility due to a messy car accident, Eno found himself unable to turn up a record of eighteenth century harp music being played on a turntable across the room. Soothed by the peripheral atmosphere that was created by the barely audible music, Eno philosophized on the idea of music as utilitarian garnishing, and began the ambient series, beginning with Airports and continuing sequentially unto Ambient 4: On Land. His work in this vein, ancillary to his bizarre pop experiments on Before and After Science from the same period, is indispensable as the blueprint of so-called “pop-ambient” music that is gaining steam today, with the likes of Tim Hecker and Bibio duly taking notes. The Ambient Series records were created occasionally in collaboration with musicians such as Laraaji on Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, and with our next subject, the inventive pianist Harold Budd.
Although I haven’t dug too deep into Harold Budd’s discography, he’s worth noting simply for having a hand in Eno’s second installment of the ambient series, 1980’s Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror. Budd played all of the keyboards on the record, while Eno’s role as a producer consisted of timbral effects and studio manipulations of the instrument. Looking back a few years earlier, however, Budd released the album The Pavilion of Dreams in 1978, which also includes Eno behind the knobs. Although less renowned than Plateaux of Mirror, this record is a contender for my all-time favorite album to crash to. The atmosphere created by Budd’s sustained keyboard glides is narcotic, and the arrangements are fleshed out with voice, harp and the smoothest sax sighs, echoing as if tossed down a well. Pavilion of Dreams functions as nocturnal bliss, scoring my own life’s version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, all smoke and damp pavement.
William Basinski had been making years before he literally (and tragically) stumbled upon what was to be his masterpieces, the phenomenon that is The Disintegration Loops. As the story goes, Basinski was going through the process of transferring analog tape loops, made years earlier, to digital format in his New York City apartment when he began to notice the physical deterioration of the tape as it played through on the spindle. The magnetic tape had not been properly stored and was flaking apart as the samples played through continuously. Thankfully, Basinski had the good sense to sit back and document the unique occurrence, and what resulted was The Disintegration Loops, four installments of varying lengths totaling almost 4 hours of material. The actual loops themselves are all under 20 seconds long, but the continual repetition of the soothing drones is interrupted by the slow audible destruction of the physical format; the actual embodiment of what everyone today tries to achieve through laptop plugins for that “lo-fi” sound. Sadly, the “session” that gave birth to these recording took place on September 11, 2001. As he watched the smoke of the Twin Towers settling over New York, Basinski filmed the last hours of daylight, the stills of which are the covers for the installments of the series. The slow decay of the magnetic tape took on a haunting analogy for the accompanying events, and has taken unintentional significance into a beautifully sad collection of music.
Stars of the Lid
Austin, Texas’ Stars of the Lid are in essence the soundtrack of my dreams, all quietly glowing guitar and string drones that circle and swell in and out of silence; music that is barely there. A duo of like-minded individuals, I honestly don’t think I’ve made it through a whole album awake, partly due to their immense running time, but mostly because it’s the most downright relaxing music ever. I usually throw on The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid or its successor, Refinement of the Decline when I’ve got an early morning the next day. However, you really can’t go wrong with any of their records, they all seek and accomplish the same purpose of aural alleviation. The band has taken an unofficial hiatus since The Refinement’s release, but have recently become more active, performing at 2012’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Some of you academic types may even recognize some of their songs as bumper music to Radiolab’s podcasts, as host Jad Abumrad is a vocal supporter of them, even devoting the entire short episode “Wordless Music” to the band. All good in my books, especially since Ira Glass wasn’t involved.