Intimacy has always been important to ambient music. Frank O’Hara conceived the poem as existing between two people, like a telephone call or a letter, and this was, for him, an intensely close and personal relationship. The idea can be applied to music as well and ambient/experimental music fits more than most genres. It is more rarely played in a live setting, and is more often produced by solo artists. But we can go even further than this. The genre is very often recorded in the bedroom, or at least the artist’s home, and consumed in the listener’s bedroom – I have never listened to the album in question here outside of that room. The bedroom and its various connotations are an important inspiration for the genre; think how many artists began by making music to soothe their tinnitus, or to relieve insomnia, or have names that specifically invoke the act of going to sleep (Stars of the Lid). Ambient music often takes the form of an intimate bedroom communication.
Meditations in Exile – the latest EP from Caught in the Wake Forever, solo project of Fraser McGowan – is very much concerned with this idea. Not so much in a sexual way (although sexy ambient/drone music does exist; some of Tim Hecker’s work, for example, has a corporeal, primal sexuality to it, or there are the smooth seductions of, say, Rameses III and others), but more as it relates to solitude – of both the freeing and the lonely kind – and dreams. McGowan writes of the EP: “I remembered how I used to make music over a decade ago, little home-made experiments with effects processors, four tracks & synthesisers, just for me. So I bought a few new toys & started messing about.” That sense of personal freedom comes through very strongly in the first three tracks. They are loose and cyclic, signs of their improvised composition, with static, bleeps and bubbles lapping over each other unhurriedly. The guitar in “#2” may be melancholy, but it’s also calm and content – a little sadness is nothing to worry about. The brevity of the pieces releases them from the burden of expectation and direction, so that they can simply be. In short, these opening tracks are full of the relaxation of retreating into your own personal space.
At “#4”, something changes. The background buzz is a little more unsettling, the melody and drip-like motifs are wobblier and they are punctuated by a rusty, metallic two-note figure. The track has the feeling of a dream teetering on the brink of nightmare, of familiar sounds playing in an unfamiliar way. The track recalls how in dreams, fantastical images can seem oddly normal and takes that idea to the brink of surreal, hallucinogenic fear. McGowan’s primary experimentations are not with sound itself (there is nothing drastically new here, although it may be new to McGowan’s own working method), but with the bedroom as a place of connection.
Music involves emotional transfers. From artist to music, from music to listener. Along the way, some things may be lost from the artist’s original intention, but intentionally or not the connection remains. There is also another link, from listener to music, your experience of the latter being determined by your mood, location and other things, but this does not sever the communion between artist and audience, though it may alter it. For instance, McGowan records personal sounds to free up his creativity, the music reflects that and sparks a similar feeling of relaxed, loose freedom in the listener. The music exists between two people. Meditations in Exile can be read as a brief exploration (the whole EP is less than twenty minutes long) of the ways in which these connections manifest themselves in that most personal of chambers.
The penultimate and, at five minutes, by far the longest track on the EP brings together the emotions and scenarios that McGowan imagines. It continues the two main ones that have already appeared (freedom and dreams), through its once again improvisational form and the dreamy fuzz that covers the track, and highlights a third: the loneliness that infected the guitar of “#2”. This loneliness pervades every part of the track with a regretful air that the peace of personal freedom or the escapism of dreams (even if they can be scary, see “#5”) is unlikely to last forever; the piece possesses much more of a driving force than any of its predecessors, like at some point it will actually have to get up and open the door. There is also, perhaps, a yearning for the very emotional connection that is made through the creation and consumption of music.
As a short trip through that connection and the various feelings that can be channelled across it, bedroom to bedroom, Meditations in Exile is a fascinating document. Perhaps the next Caught in the Wake Forever record will bring a little sexuality as well.