My introduction to ambient music came, predictably enough, from Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy and Brian Eno. I decided pedantically one night while listening to “Moss Garden” that the essence of ambient music involves the suspension of time. For instance, ambient music subverts the listeners conditioned expectations concerning the future and present by creating a world that reflects the timelessness of the present as a clear pond reflects the blue sky. The repetition, minimalism, and length of ambient pieces are mirrors of eternity. Judged by my narrow standards, Grouper’s Violet Replacement is a resounding success.
Grouper’s Violet Replacement consists of two long ambient songs entitled “Rolling Gate” and “Sleep.” The first is 32 minutes long and the second is 51 minutes long. I mention the lengths because I want you to get a sense of the scale of this thing. It’s immense. There is plenty of time in this record for you to be lulled into a sense of eternity. There are no drums and few discernible vocals on this record – these are instrumental drone-base pieces in which tape loops and Wurlitzers create a beautiful and formidable ambient universe, all of it captured on film. Life here moves slowly. The wind howls constantly and the surf beats the sand.
This is a world of half-imagined beasts and incomprehensible natural forces. What change happens in the pieces is stretched out over their lengths so that it approximates geological processes. There are highs and lows in these pieces but they are the highs and lows of mountain ranges, not human emotions. Ascribing human qualities to this music is only so much pathetic fallacy, isn’t it?
Liz Harris, who is the sole member of Grouper, explored ambient music in her previous recordings but not to this degree, as far as I am aware. Violet Replacement is the teleological endpoint toward which I suspect Ms. Harris has been headed since birth. I have no idea what she’ll do next but I hope more ambient music of this scale and quality is in the works.
Having demonstrated she can navigate to infinity and beyond, she can pretty much do whatever she wants, can’t she? Unlike poor Ke$ha, who can only do what she must. The difference is everything.