Ariana van Gelder has schooled me on the origins of the genre and exposed me to some of the most influential avant-garde and ambient artists like William Basinski and Pauline Oliveros. She’s an ambient artist from Brooklyn, New York who calls her style “Dream Drone,” and she aims to create an immersive setting and really connect with her listener–with audiences ranging from fine art galleries to intimate DIY community spaces.
Going on tour in a party bus with 12 people proves to be a mental “work out”. As fun as it may be, it’s quite difficult at times to simply close your eyes and drift away into your own thoughts. I grabbed my cell phone and headphones and found Ariana’s SoundCloud. I closed my eyes and I began to listen to the ebb and flow of her loops in “Mirror Test.” It’s a mystery to me how she generates these sounds, but rather than focusing on the how’s of instrumentation and composition, I was totally giving up my thoughts to feeling the vibes. It sounded like drifting in space. I imagined myself lifting, floating, relaxing. I was then able to imagine myself in a dark wilderness on earth, approaching a still pool of brackish water. And on the horizon, I could see the moonlit mountains of rock, and the black pool began to open, funneling out into the vastness of ocean and stars.
Her first album, “Ellipses in Vacuum,” was released in 2011 and is a response to trauma, and just last year she created a piece entitled “Anthem for Children of War” as presented in Colombo Art Biennale 2016. It was sound engineered for two subwoofers and four mid-range speakers in collaboration with visual artist Ruby Chrishti’s installation titled “The Present is a Ruin without the People.” It begins with low humming that resembles helicopters or an explosion in slow motion. It begins to unfold into new textures and what sounds like the chirping of insects. It’s as if the angelic chirping interlaced with the booming low end illustrates the beauty of the history and culture…the country and what it once was. It’s as if hope still exists somewhere in there, hidden amongst layers of time and ash, drowned by the music of war. Ariana explains more about this collaboration, her theory of ambience, and new works to come.
BTRtoday (BTR): When does ambient sound become art?
Ariana van Gelder (AvG): When does anything become art? I think what’s perceived as art really has a lot more to do with context, perspective, and intent than anything else. Then, of course, the level of art, meaning, how highly it’s regarded, depends partially on funding and hopefully skill level. But again, also setting. Ambient music concerns itself with the transfiguration of experience. It’s about transforming spaces and the people who occupy them. Ambient music can take ordinary, often overlooked sounds and places, and exalt them to eminence. It’s about listening carefully and amplifying sound to create rich, immersive voyages for the listener.
As a composer, I measure the success of my work by its ability to connect, transport, and emotionally transform the listener. That’s where skill and intent come in. How effectively can a composer create the ambiance they desire? I think that depends on the extent to which one dedicates themselves to their craft and how thoroughly and meticulously one thinks through their work—both of which are distinct from formal training–which, while extremely useful and powerful–isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for effective music. As long as we’re honest with ourselves and our musical peers, we can grow. That’s one of the advantages that formal training has: critique. Professors aren’t interested in padding their student’s egos. They’re interested in churning out skilled composers and musicians. If we can keep up this level of rigor, any of us can achieve greatness, by which I mean the ability to completely metamorphose a listener’s inner and outer space.
Sometimes people almost seem to respond more to context than the work itself. Stick a master musician in the subway during rush hour, and nobody’s going to pay any mind. This was an actual experiment done by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten and award-winning violinist Joshua Bell in the D.C. subway. Bell’s busking, got him all of about 32 bucks and a few stray looks. Three days prior, he’d packed Boston’s Symphony Hall at 100 dollars per seat. The article exposes how easily people toss aside and ignore beauty when placed in an unexpected setting. It’s a pretty powerful article. Weingarten got a Pulitzer for it.
For all of music’s power, context still matters. When we put ourselves and our work in this or that venue, whether by choice or not, the audience treats us with whatever respect those contexts demand, and each setting can offer its own advantages. Fine art spaces can come with fine art pay checks, which means more time to compose, develop, and create projects. On the other hand, DIY spaces and smaller venues provide intimacy, a chance to connect with other artists, to hide in the shadows, think, play, and experiment. Both have been essential to my development, and I’d never give up one for the other.
BTR: Where’s the line drawn between noise and ambient music?
AvG: The line between noise and ambient is a vibrating string drawn loosely between artist and listener, a tacit agreement, a handshake between friends. If you ask around, you’ll get as many answers as people asked. Generally, noise invades, whereas ambience envelops. In physics, noise is a random fluctuation in a signal. Think white noise, room tone, or grain in a dark photo. It’s the black and white static on an old analog TV—which, incidentally, also contains signals from the first and oldest light in the universe. In that noise, we find beauty and meaning.
When we acquiesce and lend noise its own space, giving structure to the chaos, we draw form from darkness. When we do that with sound, we get noise music. Sometimes it’s quiet, the sound of reverberating silence or electricity through power lines in the middle of nowhere. Noise can also be harsh and unwanted-irreverent screams in an otherwise civilized conversation.
Colloquially speaking, noise often intrudes and imposes itself where we might not want it. It wakes us up from peaceful slumber and hammers through our walls. It’s a wrecking ball at 2 a.m., your incessantly squeaking chair, or your neighbors getting it on like they never have before. It’s obsessive thinking, inconsolable rage, and orgasmic desire. I remember going to this noise show in Beijing and just watching these kids whaling on an old piece of sheet metal, hammering it relentlessly with chains. Behind them, a bunch of musicians blasted it out on some horns, another one banging it out on the drums. They played as if nobody listened—though they’re often raided and monitored by secret police.
At some point, I think, every noise musician just stops caring, explodes inside, and just lets loose on the stage. It’s pretty cathartic. In many ways, it reclaims emotional, mental, and sonic spaces by ripping through them completely. We invade what’s been invaded and destroy what has destroyed us.
Ambient music, on the other hand, creates its own world entirely. Unlike noise, where we’re re-contextualizing sound, ambient music re-contextualizes us. It envelops us in its own cosmos, a cocoon of the composer’s making, an immersive fantasy in which we can effortlessly exist or mindfully explore at will. It can transport us to new places, letting us drift through, or we can ride its current into the inner workings of our own minds, holding us in an untouchable caress.
As a composer, I find it very healing, forgiving even.
BTR: Why do you make ambient music?
AvG: For me, recording is an almost nightly activity. I put on my headphones, engage the pedals, and lose my voice out into existence. The moment I start, everything else falls away. It’s the only time I’m not thinking a million thoughts at once. I’m a year away from my Ph.D. in theoretical physics with a concentration on cosmology and quantum gravity. I spend most of my time reading and writing equations, calculating black hole this, or entanglement that. I think about space-time a lot, how it emerges, how it expands, and I have a decent obsession with entropy and causality violations. Like most of my peers, I have high mental stamina, and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with my own thoughts, which gets exhausting and isolating. Ambient music keeps me sane. It blocks out all the other noise and gives me respite from the outside world. At first it was something to ease my own depression, but I want it to help others too.
Most of the music I make is largely escapist. It’s music to dream to, to get lost in. Lush, looped lullabies. I call it Dream Drone. I use ambient music to survive, to unplug from the sensory overload I often feel, from the sensory overload that I think many of us are suffering from—you
know, with everything that’s happening right now. I want to create sonic spaces in which we can all ease ourselves into a bit of fantasy. Now that so many of us are scared and fighting for basic civil liberties and justice, it’s more important than ever that we properly recharge and regenerate. I hope my music can give people that little bit of comfort we all need so badly, that little bit of
comfort that I feel when I make it.
I also make music on the noisier side, which I use to explore crisis and horror, to raise awareness. My first album “Ellipses in Vacuum” has a couple of apocalyptically cacophonous tracks written for piano, kangling, and reverberation. I recorded it around 2006-2007, while first recovering from one of the most traumatic times in my life. I held onto it for a few years and finally released it in 2011.
More recently, I’ve made two noise tracks of note. One of them is part of the 50 artists, “NODAPL NOISE” benefit compilation, which raises money for the Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters and was released on Derek Rush’s Chthonic Streams label. It’s an uncharacteristically short and screamingly harsh noise wall track called “Standing Rock, Dripping Blood.” It imagines the feeling of water cannons in below freezing temperatures, of concussion grenades ripping apart a young girl’s arm, of rubber bullets on soft flesh, and tear gas in tender eyes—all real pains that the water protectors have endured.
The other track is “Anthem for Children of War,” which seeks to imagine the experiences of children caught in the Syrian war. It was used by artist Ruby Chishti in her installation “The Present is a Ruin Without the People” at the 2016 Colombo Art Biennale in Sri Lanka, a place that ended its own 26-year civil war in 2009.
BTR: Tell me about “Anthem for Children of War”
AvG: “Anthem for Children of War” is inspired by the millions of Syrian people slaughtered and displaced in the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation. The song takes the listener through a booming sonic landscape, where a comforting chorus rises just out of reach from the terror and assault of falling bombs. It places us squarely within the experience of a child whose only refuge is the voice and comfort of family and community, conveying the idea that despite the horrors the most innocent and helpless of us endure, human love and affection can triumph—even in the most desperate situations, where there is little else to give. It’s naïve, to be sure, but in total, I wrote it to build empathy, extend compassion, raise awareness, and send a wish for peace to those who live a reality of blood and shell shock.
Upon listening to “Anthem for Children of War,” Chishti expressed an immediate connection to the music. Not only did it speak to her message as an artist, but it also captured some of her own experiences as a child of the Pakistani-Indian wars, a time in which she and her family sheltered themselves underground, beneath the threat of jets and missiles. It was an honor to have her use my work with her own.
I even got to go with her to install the sound in Colombo. We stayed at this phenomenal multidisciplinary arts collective CoCA, or Collective of Contemporary Artists. They work with both artists and scientists to create all kinds of experimental work—most of which they take out into the community. They’ve used interactive touch-sensitive sensors on plants and have taught kids how to make tape loops. They do a lot of outreach with schools and orphanages, but always in a way that helps the kids develop their own imaginations, ideas, and projects.
BTR: What do you think is important about combining visuals with soundscapes? Do you use projections or visuals in your performances?
AvG: Combining visuals with soundscapes, or vice versa, helps to bring the audience ever deeper into the world of whatever art they’re experiencing in a way that neither form can do alone. It helps truly achieve my three-point criteria for great art: connection, transportation, and transformation. Of course, visual or sonic works can be and are strong on their own, but they’re unstoppable together. Given the chance, I always incorporate visuals into my performances, whether my own or those of another artist.
In general, I’m always looking to collaborate with visual artists. I’ve mostly composed for multidisciplinary artist, curator, and long-time collaborator Giselle Zatonyl. The first piece I wrote for her is called “Song for Virtual Space,” which was used in Zatonyl’s curation of virtual net-art pavilion “Conductivity: Resistivity” as part of The Wrong Biennale, 2013, the world’s first internet-based art fair. It involved over 300 artists and 30 curators around the world, including 12 physical galleries. The second piece was a 5.1 surround sound composition for her solo show “Discrete Systems,” a 3D rendered immersive landscape conceived for and installed at Brooklyn’s Transfer Gallery. We have a few other projects in the works for this year, but you’ll have to wait for those.
BTR: Anything else in the works?
AvG: I have a tape release of some super dreamy dream drone coming out this summer on Blue Pear Projects. I just finished recording it. Alex Norelli, the founder of Blue Pear Projects, hasn’t even heard it yet. Next, we’re working out the visuals. Nothing’s set in stone, but I know that I want the visuals to soothe, connect, and interact with the listener somehow.