A new ambient

Pub date July 15, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


INTERVIEW Maybe it’s in the air? Whatever the case, the subtle morphing of ambient music is bringing some extreme albums. Extremity isn’t a quality one usually associates with ambient, a genre that — Brian Eno or not — is too often thought of as meditative Muzak without melody, or comfort music for snoozers. Yet some of the most unsettling and intense recordings of the past twelve months seep out from the ambient realm. On Labyrinthitis (Touch Tone, 2008), Jacob Kirkegaard generates sound from the act of hearing itself by recording hairs within the cochlea — the result is a slow mad spiral in sound form. On Radioland (Die Schachtel, 2008), Stephan Mathieu uses shortwave radio signals to create a near-symphonic elegy to…radio. Now, with White Clouds Go On and On (Echospace), San Francisco’s Brock Van Wey is adding a direct melodic touch to the extremity of the new ambient.

Listen up: by no means does quiet mean soothing. The intensity and extremity of White Clouds Go On and On stems from Van Wey’s fierce compositional dedication to emotion as a subject and as a source of inspiration. The collection’s six songs (reinterpreted by Echospace’s Steven Hinchell on a companion album) clock in at just under 80 minutes in length. A native of the Bay Area, where he’s made low-key but important contributions to electronic scenes for well over a decade, Van Wey — a.k.a. bvdub — resides in Twin Peaks. That location makes a certain midnight-in-a-perfect-world kind of sense: his latest songs possess a vastness and isolation that suits that part of town. But, as the interview below makes clear, they also deeply reflect his sense of being.

SFBG Can you tell me a bit about the titles of the songs on White Clouds Drift On and On? With instrumental music, a title can color the music, and the ones here have a potent melancholy that gradually shifts into optimism.

BROCK VAN WEY The titles of the songs are the emotion I sit down to try to express. Basically an emotion begins to occupy my thoughts all the time or in some cases pretty much overwhelm me, and then I sit down to try to get it out — sometimes in an attempt to become closer to it, but just as often to try to resolve it or distance myself from it. Whenever I make a track, the title comes first, because that’s what I’m trying to say — then I set about trying to say it.

Since most of my life and thoughts are enveloped in melancholy, it’s no surprise that the majority of my titles reflect that. However, you are very right, in this album, there is indeed a shift from melancholy to hope from the beginning to the end. Most of my personal melancholy comes from hopes unfulfilled or dreams dashed, and if I never had hope in the first place, the sadness wouldn’t be there either, so they are pretty inseparable.

SFBG While vocals aren’t dominant in White Clouds, they are present on tracks such as "Too Little To Late." But they have a diffuse, almost vaporous quality — which makes their sources or original contexts difficult to pin down.

BVW Vocals I use or create for my tracks are always ones that help put that final punctuation on what I’m trying to say. Working with vocals is tricky, because they can easily just seem slapped in or heavy-handed, with no real point. Sometimes it takes me days or weeks to find just one miniscule part of a vocal (sometimes literally one second) that, to me, fits that exact part of the song like it was meant to be there all along. It’s no surprise that their original sources or contexts are difficult to pin down, as the majority of the time, I go through a million different processes to get them how I want them, and they are usually a million miles from the original. That’s a lot of millions.

SFBG What I’m struck by on a track such as "Forever a Stranger" is the amount of teeming chaos within the seeming calm of your sound.

BVW "Forever a Stranger" definitely has more of a feeling of chaos (while still remaining somewhat calm) in comparison to the others on the album. It was only natural, as it’s all about that feeling of always being on the outside, and being a stranger no matter where you are — a stranger in your own life. The knowledge that no matter who you’re with or where you are, you are in fact alone in the world. For me anyway, it’s not only a thought that I struggle with on a daily basis, but it brings up a tempest of different emotions — hence the teeming chaos, I guess. It seems like so many people around me feel so natural in being a person among others, and part of this world of ours that requires us to all interact with other people and be social animals, while in my own head, it’s a great struggle. Some days I could care less and am happy being how I am, but some days I’d be lying if I said I didn’t just wish I could be like everyone else — or at least, how they appear to be.

SFBG "A Gentle Hand to Hold" might be my favorite track on White Clouds — it’s certainly the most hypnotic or even in some ways hallucinatory track. Do you aim for those qualities — meditative and transportive ones — in a compositions’ combo of repetition and slow transformation? Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of that song?

BVW Those qualities you mentioned are my trademark, at least in the ambient I make (which nowadays is pretty much all I make). While many of my tracks may seem like they’re not doing all that much on the surface, if you listen closely, you will find layers of slowly but constantly transforming elements that ebb and flow, which is what gives it that hypnotic or even hallucinatory effect.

SFBG What dictates or influences the length of a track, here and in your other recordings?

BVW There isn’t anything that dictates the length of a track per se, but in my case, they are almost always very long. For me, while a track is one part of the whole story, it is its own whole part in its own right, and needs to be treated as such. It has its own story to tell and its own journey, and to me, that story should be told, and that journey taken, to its completion.

Frankly, it drives me nuts when I’m really starting to get into the story of a track, and where it’s taking me, only to have it fade to silence after 3 minutes. If I love what something has to say or how something sounds, I want to get lost in it, not have it flit away in a matter of moments. I can’t say it’s wrong, because everyone has their own way of doing things, and whichever way the artist wants to do it is right, really. But for me, that’s just not the way I work, nor could I ever. Even back when I DJed, people used to complain that I always played the whole song before mixing out just at the end. Why wouldn’t I? The song was made that length for a reason. And I want to hear all of what it has to say.