On Slow Change Music

“I differentiate ‘minimalist’ music from what we used to refer to as ‘slow change music.’  The latter, represented here by the title work of this album [The Expanding Universe -ed.] … works by allowing the listener to go deeper and deeper inside of a single sustained texture or tone.  The aesthetic aim is to provide sufficiently supportive continuity that the ear can relax its filters, no longer on guard against sudden change … with continuity and gentleness, the ear becomes increasingly re-sensitized to more and more subtle auditory phenomena within the sound that immerses us.”

– Laurie Spiegel, from the liner notes to The Expanding Universe (Unseen Worlds 2019 reissue)

My engagement with ambient or “slow change” music might trace to becoming fascinated with Dosh in 2004, in Minneapolis. While his live-looping Rhodes-and-drums setup hardly has anything in common with ambient giants like Brian Eno or Éliane Radigue, Dosh’s music absorbed my attention in a different way than other music. It had a centering and grounding effect I had not previously heard or found.

I found it again in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops in 2009, several years after their release. Local Kansas City act Expo 70 showed me how it could be done through amp volume and endless psychedelic guitar shredding when Mars Lights played with him in 2011. I fell in love with Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe in 2014. By the time I discovered Cosmic Ground the next year, ambient / noise / kosmische music had taken equal place in my listening with rock, hip-hop, and metal.

For those for whom ambient listening hasn’t connected yet, I’ve struggled to explain its appeal and effect. I’ve written before about how Philip Tagg classifies all music as art, folk, or pop:

Folk music is primarily produced by amateurs, stored and distributed by oral transmission, occurs in nomadic/agrarian societies, is not accompanied by written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is usually anonymous. Art music is produced by professionals, stored and distributed by written musical notation, occurs in industrialized societies, is supported by a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is non-anonymous. Popular music is produced by pros (though this is changing), stored and distributed by recordings, occurs in industrial societies, does not have a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is generally known.

Ambient music writ large does not seem to fit into this taxonomy. From Eno and Spiegel to ecstatic indigenous drumming to Sunn0))) to medieval religious chant, there are musics that take us deeper and deeper, relax our filters, and dissolve our egos.

It is produced by amateurs and professionals, occurs in nomadic/agrarian and industrial societies, may be distributed orally, in writing, or by recording, may (Eno & others) or may not have a written theory, and authorship may or may not be known.

The existence and ubiquity of this music speaks to the human desire to alter our own consciousness. I love it very much. It is an almost entirely different listening experience, with different aesthetic goals and values, than American folk, art, or pop music. Applying those ears to it will result in missing the good stuff about it.

If you want to start re-sensitizing to more and more subtle auditory phenomena, The Expanding Universe is a fantastic place to do it.