Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Quiet Sounds"

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Your Podthinker has already revealed that his primary musical weakness is the sweet, sweet sound of old school. He will now reveal his badly incongruous secondary musical weakness: the sweet, sweet sound of ambient.

The unwieldy behemoth defines ambient music as "a musical genre in which sound is more important than notes," "generally identifiable as being broadly atmospheric and environmental in nature." Ambient pioneer (and author of your Podthinker's favorite book, A Year with Swollen Appendices) Brian Eno wrote that ambient can be "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener" and that it "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

At this point, the uninitiated reader will either be highly intrigued or turned off, befuddled. If the latter, they're probably confusing ambient with other, lesser, more-often-ridiculed musical genres like "new age". Ambient is far from that stripe of schlock, but the best way said confused reader can discover that is spending a few hours with a solid ambient music podcast. Similarly, the best way for the reader with piqued interest to satiate that interest is doing the very same. Luckily, neither group need search too far afield: The Quiet Sounds is merely a click away.

On the program, a mysterious fellow by the name of "The Unflappable Mister Eden" crafts thematic ambient mixes from 45 to 90 minutes long. These themes include the most underrated and/or obscure of ambient [MP3], the classic roots of ambient from the 70s and 80s [MP3] (which includes material from one of your Podthinker's choicest ambient albums, Eno and Robert Fripp's Evening Star), productions that use the guitar in one way or another [MP3] and a set in perhaps the richest seasonally-linked mood, autumnal melancholia [MP3]. There's also more standard stuff, such as Mister Eden's annual best-of-the-year playlists: 2007 [MP3], 2006 [MP3], 2005 [MP3].

Ambient music's best quality has to be its versatility. Most genres have their time and place — old school, for instance, works best in a certain specific contexts, though within them it works very well indeed — but no such apparent limitation binds ambient. Reading, cooking, driving, writing podcast columns, cleaning, sleeping, eating, laborious podcast-editing, walking, shopping, talking, bus-riding: ambient provides a fine soundtrack for all these activities and more. (Especially bus-riding; anything that prompts one to forget one is on a bus is an absolute godsend.) When Eno talks about how ambient accommodates many levels of listening attention, he understates the case; the stuff accommodates nearly all of human experience.

Ambient broadens one's own concept of the very nature of music to boot. The Quiet Sounds' sets incorporate a huge slice of the spectrum, all the way from pure sonic texture to actual rhythmic hey-this-sounds-kinda-normal gateway tracks. One can read in this column that describing something as a "long, repetitive drone with almost infinitely repetitive motifs" is, in fact, not necessarily pejorative and can, in fact, be a resounding approval. But, perhaps understandably, one will not truly grok the sentiment unless one hears the music itself. That's why it's so cool to have an engaged enthusiast like Mister Eden putting out podcasts of the stuff. In earlier episodes, he announced the tracks and verbally went into some detail about what they meant to him; somewhere in the middle of the archive, he switched to doing all his talking up-front. Alas, he's more recently given up the chat altogether, which is a bit of a shame as it's always nice to hear someone discuss why they love what they love. But over time his mixes have only improved, so if that's the tradeoff, that's the tradeoff; your Podthinker raises his Asahi high nonetheless.

Vital stats:
Format: ambient music
Running since: October 2005
Duration: 45m-1h30m
Frequency: erratic
Archive available on iTunes: none

[Podthinker Colin Marshall even checks his e-mail, colinjmarshall at gmail, to ambient. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]


Amazing! Great discovery. A nice soundtrack while I'm at the library studying for tests. Thanks a lot.Xavi (Barcelona).