Space. Spacey. Atmosphere. Atmospheric. These are perhaps some of the most often used adjectives when people try to describe music. While there seems to be a consensus about what we collectively recognize as space or atmosphere within a sonic recording, these often interchangeable qualities become increasingly elusive as you try to actually locate them.
We take it for granted daily, as it has become so naturalized, but a microphone, and what it does, strikes me as a truly fantastical and almost alien device. A standard microphone takes the sound waves within a given field and converts them in into a single electric signal. Through a similar but reverse process, that signal can then get turned into sound waves through a loud speaker, thus producing a new sonic space within a larger one. Bizarre and straight forward.
Yet the history of recorded sound has within it a long and complicated narrative of continually refining, synthesizing, and omitting certain sounds from the original sonic field; of essentially creating a fiction from the given. In early blues records, it is as if the air itself is a sonic layer upon which everything else rests. As history marched forward, technology lessened this unwanted effect. Concurrently, artificial reverb and other such effects are used to give a recording a sense of space and presence. Today a standard pop record is like eating at a fast food restaurant; everything is processed to the point of being hollowed out of content and coated with a saccharine after taste.
In the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, at least to my ear, a sonic equilibrium of sorts was reached wherein one could hear the music clearly as well as the acoustic space in which it was recorded. I remember once reading an interview with Joe Boyd (producer of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, ISB) where he indicated that good production is to actually minimize the idea that it was even produced in the first place, to give the listener the impression of being right there in the room with the performance; he said something to the effect that ‘you do a lot of work to become invisible.’
This is all to say that at its core, a microphone captures an architectonic space that includes unmarked ambiences beyond our perception. Continuing this conceptual trajectory long enough, and forsaking prohibiting critical orthodoxy enough to let thought take flight, it isn’t hard to recognize that the processes of a microphone mirror that of consciousness itself; or at least what it is to be properly 'human.' Among a multitude of possibilities, such a parable certainly contextualizes and expands the phenomenon of ‘feedback.’
I wasn’t always so aware of the dimensions of sonic space and sonic fictions. After spending my life consumed by electronic based music, I became infatuated with folk music (or free-folk) around 2004. This is rather mundane as everyone else also was at the time. Unlike a lot of other eager listeners though, this wasn’t a personal revision, I had never really listened to folk at all before or given much thought to acoustic based music. I can say without any shame, Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day was particularly transformative.
With a bit a critical distance, it occurred to me that this interest in acoustic music wasn’t solely based in song or melody, or even the loosely defined concurrent political nostalgia of the time. Beyond the melodies and the narratives, I found a new sonic texture. In such recordings, one hears acoustic space, the natural echoes within the room. Around the frequencies of the guitar are the resonances and reverberations of the specific sonic milieu; a very present and physical void. This excited me as much as anything.
In contrast, Electronic music from Kraftwerk to Mantronix to Kompakt Records, has no space within it; it’s electronic sound within an air tight vacuum. This goes some way in explaining why it is ‘Alien’ music (I don’t use this term derogatively, but in the positive Afro-Futurist sense.) It is Alien precisely because it offers no space for the human to rest peacefully in; it forces itself on your consciousness. The warm reverb of Italio Disco and the echoed kick drums of Drum N Bass music offered slight variations but traces of the alien are always there. This is among many other things, its radical and transformative power; its deliberate transcendence of conventional acoustic space (hence why its head music, hip-hop headz, etc.)
Just Ice - Mantronix Cold Getting Dumb (1986)
I don’t mean to prescribe such an easy binary, or to suggest that one is better than the other: I love both of these amorphous tendencies within music. And in fact, this whole discussion of space started because I wanted to share one of my absolute favorite ‘atmospheric’ records, Nelson Angelo e Joyce (1972).
Nelson Angelo was already a notable musician within Milton Nascimento's legendary Clube da Esquina when he meet Joyce, an equally successful bossa-nova singer. The two meet, fell in love, and made this record in 1972. Fulfilling Boyd's axiom, you feel like your in the room with them, with a couple madly, if only briefly, in love. The floating open ended melodies are some of the most beautiful and lovely I have ever heard, and it is an absolute favorite in the Perez-O'Rourke household.
The invaluable Loronix has a copy HERE, I urge you to give it a listen.