My Ambient Canon I

Throughout the last few months, Matt and I have discussed – in interviews and conversations – our individual and collective influences vis-à-vis ambient music, particularly Convocation. This topic kicked off in a big way while in Philadelphia, being surrounded there by a strong, deeply knowledgeable ambient music community. Much of the time, we explained that our artistic models were different than what others had inferred. One trope was the fact that, individually, our original, primary influences are not ambient per se. Ambient traits abound, however there’s a lack of ambient artists atop each of our own personal canons.

Many of this blog’s Constant Readers know of Matt Borghi‘s long, deep immersion in the ambient scene. (If you’re not a regular visitor here but are reading this post, then you probably knew that anyway.) Before I met Matt I was peripherally aware of ambient music as a specific genre with countless sub-niches. Yeah, I bought Ambient Music 1: Music for Airports long ago, and I knew about Eno generally, but not much else of his ilk outside of various electronic artists and experimental rock. And, given my classical background, I was literate in related ambient-friendly styles: Minimalism (e.g., my passion for Einstein on the Beach), neo-Minimalists such as Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt, electronic/computer music (electronique & concrete), various world musics, and the list goes on. But when I met Matt in 2008 I quickly learned of ambient music’s depth and breadth. Without explicitly setting out to do so, he has provided me an ambient apprenticeship which, arguably, continues today. He introduced me to not only his own extensive discography (partial list here) but also to Harold Budd, Steve Roach, and others. And of course we’ve been playing ambient music all the while, leading up to and including the aforementioned Convocation and our recently-released Awaken the Electric Air.

What makes this worth writing about, of course, is that I’m a saxophonist. Saxophone is far from a fixture in ambient music, and therefore we get a lot of interesting comparisons in reviews, interviews, and conversations. The most common reference is ECM titan Jan Garbarek. I wrote a “New Listen” about him here, and that marked my first listening to him as a leader. Aside from his work with Keith Jarrett or the Hilliard Ensemble, I can’t say I’m much more familiar with his solo work now than I was after writing that post, for whatever reason. (And I really dig his work with Jarrett…) Anyway, Jan is nowhere near my mind when playing with Matt. If I’m thinking of any ECM saxophonist, it’s probably either Charles Lloyd (MTH-V here) or Tore Brunborg (praise here). (Or, if I make enough of a leap, Dave Liebman, as he did record two Lookout Farm albums with ECM in the 70s.) Others compare my playing to that of Theo Travis, one of the few “ambient saxophonists.” He and I are part of a VERY small community, and I hadn’t heard of him until Mike Hunter suggested him to me while setting up for our Star’s End performance. I’ve since become acquainted with Travis & (Robert) Fripp’s Thread. Personally, I don’t think my playing sounds anything like Jan or Theo. And I’m by no means saying I sound better – definitely not the case. We’re just different. (Come on…Garbarek is a virtuoso, and I wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous or delusional as to think that I’m in the same league. Please.)

Of course, I understand the desire to throw out Garbarek and Travis references. One just doesn’t see saxophone in ambient music, so visually there’s very little to associate our music with when seeing us performing in an ambient context. Acoustic instruments are a rarity in this style, and the saxophone is almost anathema. Also, the Jan comparison is curious because, at least to my knowledge, he’s not at all an ambient musician. But he’s a saxophonist and the best-selling artist (along with Keith Jarrett) on ECM, a label with ambient-friendly tendencies. If playing six degrees of separation, I suppose that one would have a case.

As mentioned, neither ambient saxophone nor ambient artists are on my mind when playing in this style. In order to have an idea of what is informing my ambient work, it’s best to start at the beginning. To do that, I’ve done a fair amount of working through musical traits and nuances I glommed onto that could be described as being “ambient.” Much of this digging started in conversation with Matt during our 10-hour trek back from the Echoes studio to our homes in East Lansing, and I’ve since given much thought to the matter. Given that, I’d like to devote an occasional series of posts to this topic over the next several weeks or months, time permitting. If nothing else, it’ll help me to provide myself with some additional ammunition in future interviews. 🙂

As a primer of sorts, here are links to two recently-aired interviews in which Matt and I both touch on this subject. The first is our Echoes interview, which was chosen as the weekly podcast for January 9. The second is of a recent interview on WKAR FM’s Current State, broadcast from MSU in East Lansing.

Echoes interview: podcast link in iTunesofficial page & description
Current State interview: stream here

Further posts on canon here and saxophone style here.

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