Ned Milligan – Afternoon Hours

2018 has already seen some beautiful music from Fluid Audio, continuing to deliver sounds characterised by emotive sensitivity, in particular through the presentation of their physical releases. Recently the label has hosted the ambient collaborations of Dalot & Sound Awakener, and the electronic constructions of Giuseppe Cordaro on his powerful debut. Both of those releases arrive as intimate works of art in their own right, hand-made in small production runs, accompanied by glass-photographs of unknown people and landscapes, presumably salvaged and repurposed from an otherwise forgotten archive. Here, with Ned Milligan’s release Afternoon Hours, the approach of republishing lost material is used again, with each physical release accompanied by entomological studies from over a century ago, remounted in a small notebook. Each is paired with a page from a Victorian-era study on insects; mine earnestly recounts warfare and slave-making behaviour in ants.

Such physical objects, while intriguing and mysterious, would be lesser things without the creative output of the artist and the emotional contrast that offers. The focus, fuzzily, for much of ambient music is on memory, the nature of the senses, and so being presented with otherwise-unrelated objects from now and then feeds into the wider aesthetic of the ambient musical movement. With releases such as Afternoon Hours we have on one hand the deliberate act of playing and recording sounds, set against the shifting unpredictability of field recordings, contrasted with repurposed, otherwise-lost work that its maker expected to live on a shelf in a library or a university. These delicate insect studies were once the passion of a person, now long departed. Their lifework perhaps, to be viewed again as part of a 21st century musical release, becomes a powerful aspect at the core of ambience; being, time, sense and memory.

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The music here is both sensitive and makeshift. Ned Milligan uses bells as the central instrument, reflecting the field recordings in wind-chime-like randomness, conjuring soft breeze through a rural home, summers, to this listener. The lo-fi ethic is embraced, with extreme levels of tape hiss, warbled recording speed, and even the sounds of the recorder buttons becoming instrumental bookends to some of the pieces. Most but not all of the music here soothes. One track could even be described as violent (as far as ambient goes), with the track Harrumph being a restless, irked battering of bells. The backing field captures what sounds like a house in spring or summer, maybe a dog walking around. In contrast to this moment, the extended rainfall and tape-static sea of Hollowed Stone feels the central statement of the collection. That this is followed by the ninety second long closer Days After Days, makes it all the more precious – it feels the artist is aware of the indulgence of long ambient tracks, and the abrupt closing track mirrors, with different sentiment, the impatience of Harrumph.

Though I imagine the release is the result of careful curation (around 35 minutes over two mini-CDs), there is a lo-fi, reconciled feel to the ambience here; unpredictability and imperfection is embraced, it’s part and parcel. The sound fields, the track and album lengths, draw you away from what could be another bell-tone centric experimental release (but which contrasts strongly with releases such as 2017’s Musique Hydromantique by Tomoko Sauvage). Ned Milligan however, expresses something deeply individual in the edit; while the palette might seem narrow, a range of emotions, times and feelings are expressed through uniting the tape medium hiss, the instrument, and the placeless field recordings. Along with the mystery evoked from the physical additions, the music in Afternoon Hours is another beautiful examination of time.

RIYL France Jobin, Rafael Anton Irisarri, Triac, Taylor Deupree, William Basinski, Olan Mill, Brian Eno.

Jóhann Jóhannsson – Englabörn & Variations

Ten years ago my interest in the cross-over between modern classical, ambient and experimental music began. I went through a phase of trawling the catalogue of the label Type Recordings, triggered by a growing love of Deaf Center. On Type, I first came across the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson, in the cinematic score And in the endless pause came the sound of bees, which remains one of my favourite indy-classical scores for its diversity of character, and ability to paint from a minimal palette. Since then Jóhannsson rose to score major cinematic releases, notably Arrival and The Theory of Everything (while disappointingly being replaced by Hans Zimmer for Bladerunner 2049). Against this context of 16 years of increasingly widely-appreciated works, Jóhannsson’s first album proper Englabörn (first released by Touch in 2002) underwent a remaster, accompanied by new takes on the original work by A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Ryuichi Sakamoto. As this new presentation of Englabörn & Variations was at the CD printers and vinyl pressers, Jóhann Jóhannsson passed away unexpectedly at the age of 48, making Englabörn both his first and last gift.

The shock here is amplified by Sakamoto’s 2017 release async (which Jóhannsson was involved with on the recent async remodels), where he reflected on his own mortality given a recent life-threatening illness, channeling those feelings through a piano recovered from the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami. In async Sakamoto reminded us of the evanescent and minuscule nature of life, both embracing the cliché and personal subtlety of the topic. The passing of Jóhannsson, and their collaboration, abruptly adds that not only is life small, but also unpredictable. With Englabörn we retrace to the start of Jóhannsson’s career, with the variations sadly bookending the work of one of the finest 21st century modern classical masters.

Englabörn itself is an exemplary in repetition and motif, spiraling around a line from the 1st century BCE Roman poet, Catullus. There, we examined where love and hate meet, and the confusion, sacrifice (and perhaps eventual surrender) that humans endure. The rework by Jóhannsson himself with Francesco Donadello, of Odi et Amo, is a study in time-stretching, bending the original into uncalibrated ambient sweeps – yet further irony that one of Jóhannsson’s last works would be a study in the extension of time. That piece though sits in a wider context of enormous affection for the original release and the original artist. AWVFTS paint their canvas in gorgeously familiar expansive strings and sub-bass electronics. Sakamoto seems to mimic Jóhannsson’s own rework, melding oceanic reverb with walking electronic rhythms and unplaceable field recordings, the mimicry being an echo of the examination of time, and all the emotions that weaves. But if the Englabörn Variations feel like the welling of tears, it is with the Theatre of Voices’ version of Holy Thursday and the closing reprise of Odi et Amo that the welling becomes rolling. And every piece in between, from the perfect piano of Vikingur Ólafsson to the icy sounds of long-time collaborator Hildur Guðnadóttir, feels raised in such excruciatingly beautiful suspense, that the release and resolution presented by the choral works is all the more devastating.

The hope that the narrative of this music would reflect a life is what binds the Variations; the skill and emotional depth of the players raises it to artistic mastery; and the context of Jóhannsson’s passing brings a cruel, dizzying relevance to Englabörn & Variations, in one of the most exquisitely satisfying expressions of melancholy.

In memoriam, Jóhann Jóhannsson, 1969 – 2018.

Englabörn & Variations is released on Deutsche Grammophon.