Somewhere out there, floating between the nebulous grey areas between time and space, lies a sometimes beloved, sometimes maligned, and often misunderstood genre known as ambient.
You know the names: Brian Eno, Erik Satie, Philip Glass, Laurie Spiegel. Truly some of the most challenging composers of their time dared not to add, but to consciously take away. To strip away. To create music that did not, in fact, sound like music at all. To propose that the most exciting venue for performance was not a concert hall or a stadium or a sweaty vibrant club, but perhaps an airport or an open field.
Ambient music often comes with a complaint from those who don’t “get it” by saying that it doesn’t take conscious thought, ability, or even talent. Neither does punk rock, but I digress. Just like any other form of music, the best ambient works act as a mode of transportation, taking you to other places and forcing you to view traditional sonic concepts, like rhythm, melody, and structure, in ways that you may not have before. In short, ambient music should make you feel something.
That is why it is with a heavy heart that I must admit that Sufjan Steven’s Convocations series has made me feel… nothing.
I’ve been lukewarm on Stevens’ ambient meditative collection so far, and the final track in the series, the recently released ‘Incantation VIII’, doesn’t do much to change my stance. Like the previous releases, ‘Incantation VIII’ is beautifully composed and easy to get lost in, but it’s also dense and unfocused. As it ebbs and flows, its movements and changes feel random and/or forced, alternating between being too caught up in its own web and getting bored with itself.
It really does feel like a minor work from a major artist, with the story behind its conception being far more interesting and emotional than the collective work itself. Stevens can channel grief and loss like few other artists can, but his vehicle for expression this time around only serve to obfuscate his true feelings. Maybe it was his intent to confront his emotions with a purposefully blurry slog. I know that I most likely wouldn’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve immediately after a profoundly soul-stirring event.
Still, if this were anybody else, it wouldn’t be worth talking about. But since it’s Sufjan Stevens, I’ve had to talk about it again and again. Maybe I’m just not properly appreciating the nuances and overall scope of the project. Maybe this collection will provide deep insight, even wholesale catharsis, for those who truly need it. Or maybe we’ll all forget about it next time Stevens puts out an album proper. Who’s to say? Just like the best, and even the most mediocre of ambient music, the answer is up to you. Take whatever you will from it.
Check out ‘Incantation VIII’ down below.