Check the end of this review for the added annotations.
During the Spring 2018 semester, I probably listened to hundreds of hours of ambient and acoustic music. I had always enjoyed the genre; projects by Loscil, Julianna Barwick, Huerco S., and others have long been my automatic picks for homework background music, walking between classes, and preparing food. Music that drifts in and out of focus, that is just as comfortable in the spotlight as it is in a supporting role, is an important part of everyday life for fans of the genre, myself included.
In Spring 2018, I was a Junior and was far from immune to the academic and personal stresses characteristic of that year. Music became an important part of staying collected and of staying focused while I worked. Ambient and acoustic music was naturally very effective for this, and my appreciation of it grew as a result. Like a series of auditory rorschach tests, each moment of an ambient piece can be microscopically analyzed for patterns and textures. The progression between these moments tends to be gradual enough that ambient songs rarely demand the listener’s attention. When attention is given, however, there is a great depth of value to be found.
Unfortunately, I only paid attention to a fraction of the ambient music I listened to last spring, as I was asleep for most of it. Because of late nights studying and a variable sleep schedule, I had to develop a strategy for falling asleep regardless of if I was tired, or if it was noisy in my room. I took to putting on ambient music as a pre-sleep ritual and would often listen through the night, until my alarm rang through my headphones in the morning — hence, hundreds of hours. The album “Solo” by Berlin-based composer and musician Nils Frahm, and later, “Ep1” by UK-via-Poland artist Ola Szmidt, were especially common choices. For a time, they were practically civic monuments in the “your heavy rotation” section of my Spotify app.
When someone says they “slept through” a lecture, concert, or film, it’s generally implied that the event in question was unbearably boring. What’s worse, the event wasn’t quite bad enough to cross the threshold into laughability. It wasn’t entertaining, you couldn’t make fun of it, you fell asleep. Some would consider this to be the worst outcome for consumers of a performance, work of art, or piece of media.
I’ll present an alternate possibility: If a person is disenjoying a creative work, they almost always have the opportunity to stop consuming it. A moviegoer isn’t trapped in the theater, a diner can leave the restaurant , and you, the ambient music listener, could take out your headphones, or switch to something more gripping. If you elect to keep listening and fall asleep, you might just be tired. Ambient music is a rare gem in that it doesn’t judge you for being tired, for taking a nap, or indeed, for any choices you may make while listening. It’s happy to be there.
On January 25th of this year, two outstanding acoustic / ambient musicians released new short-form projects. Ola Szmidt released “Ep2”, a concise 6-track follow-up to 2017’s “Ep1”. Nils Frahm released “Encores 2”, also the second in a series of EPs, containing stripped-down musical ideas that were presumably excluded from Frahm’s more layered and dramatic 2018 album, “All Melody”.
Szmidt’s “Ep2” is arguably the perfect follow-up to her previous effort. “Ep2” shares with “Ep1” a stunningly unique combination of influences. Listeners can detect fragments of more traditional electronic ambiance à la Brian Eno, of “contemporary-classical” instrumentation (doubtless informed by Szmidt’s training as a classical flautist), as well as reflections of Regina Spektor’s melodic sensibility, particularly when she approaches ballad territory on tracks like “Satellites” from “Ep1” and “What Matters the Most, Pt. 2” from “Ep2”.
“Ep2” also carves out its own stylistic space in Ola Szmidt’s discography. While “Ep1’s” gentler harmonies and warm performances would pair nicely with a cup of tea and a blanket, “Ep2” features beautifully sparse vocals and haunting instrumental patterns that linger, masterfully cultivating dissonance and intrigue – more of a nighttime walk in the woods.
In addition to gracefully balancing the best features of her numerous influences, on “Ep2”, Ola Szmidt produces a project that is significantly more substantial than the sum of its parts.
Nils Frahm’s “Encores 2” offers a placid 4-track counterpoint to the formidable musical journey of All Melody, and distinguishes itself from the somber musings of “Encores 1” with a more comforting, indoorsy aesthetic  and recording style.
The project’s opening track, “Sweet Little Lie”, sounds like golden-age Frahm. The gentle arpeggios and plucked chords blend seamlessly into the track’s ambiance, as persistent atmospheric noise places the composition in a cozy living room, with a window open. It’s probably ~50ºF outside. Most likely a Sunday morning. I might go on.
The first track smoothly transitions into the second, “A Walking Embrace,” which begins in a similar style, and gradually melts into something more spacious and orchestral. It’s a breathtaking switch, and if you’re too focused on your homework, or are asleep, you might just miss it.
The last two tracks, “Talisman” and “Spells”, continue in a markedly more experimental style. “Talisman” is all at once orchestral, electronic, human, and drone. It washes over and captivates the listener in equal measures. It also offers a serene moment to prime the listener for the EP’s unexpectedly stirring conclusion.
The bright, trancelike arpeggios on “Spells” intertwine with a meandering orchestra, as well as a computer-edited choir. A segment of Tim Hecker’s musical DNA seems to have made its way into this track, and I support it.
Surprisingly fluid for a collection of “encores”, this project comfortably lands among Frahm’s best EPs. The project’s four tracks, each inherently enjoyable, also operate as the components of a narrative arc, the likes of which are uncommon in a sub-30-minute wordless release.
Give both of these projects a listen, entirely on your own terms. Put them on in your kitchen, at the gym, on the bus. Pay them exactly as much attention as you’d like. They’re great.
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