Mono No Aware collects new ambient music that reflects our present moment. Each piece of the 80-minute compilation has its own unique identity, yet together it feels like the work of one mind.
Ambient music is always there, but the ways in which it intersects with culture is always shifting. In the 1970s, when the term first emerged thanks to Brian Eno, ambient existed as a corollary to space rock and psychedelia— solitary “head music” for the golden age of post-Dark Side of the Moon headphone listening. In the ’80s, as baby-boomers got older and busier, some of it became new age, a lucrative albeit niche market where the music was as crystalline as the rainbow reflected from the underside of a compact disc. In the ’90s, thanks to the rave-era chillout space, ambient returned to its druggy roots as collective listening, a sonic environment that facilitated shared consciousness expansion. And as that decade progressed and the millennium turned, ambient music came to be seen as a direct expression of technology’s state of the art, showcasing the ability of the newly fast computer to create sounds the likes of which no one had ever heard. Along these paths, ambient music is given meaning by what is happening around it—it’s a function of how the sound exists in the always-changing now.
Years on from its home hi-fi beginnings, ambient is now most likely to circulate on cassette, CD-R, or via streams on YouTube or Bandcamp. The communities that have grown up around it and nurtured it exist online, so creators and listeners are likely to draw inspiration, create, share, and discuss the music in the digital space. Mono No Aware, a new compilation assembled by the Berlin-based experimental label Pan, situates ambient music in this present moment. The set, assembled by Pan label head Bill Kouligas, is an invigorating survey of what’s going on in some of ambient’s obscure corners. Mixing selections from artists who come from all over but are mostly little-known outside of experimental music circles, Mono No Aware manages to be simultaneously an introduction to new voices and a deeply satisfying 80-minute mix that hangs together as an album.
Where ambient music was once dominated by auteurs—Eno, Richard D. James, GAS, Stars of the Lid—it’s now increasingly becoming the province of low-key producers working in relative anonymity who let the work speak for itself. Each track on Mono No Aware is distinctive enough to represent a personal approach, but there are clear connections between them that make the mix feel like a unified whole. A rustling noise lends a given track a kind of “floor,” an earthy grounding absent when purely digital tones hang in a silent space. Small scrapes, tape hiss, and hushed knocks and clangs wind through the album, offering a tactile sense of hearing music in a room. In “Exasthrus (Pane)” by M.E.S.H. (Berlin-based artist James Whipple), clouds of synths are mixed with the sound of feet moving across the floor and rain beating against glass, creating an enveloping nocturnal scene with an undercurrent of tension. “Eliminator” by Helm (London’s Luke Younger) sounds like music enclosed by a copper pipe, the drones echoing in the distance and escaping in a cloud of mist. Kouligas himself contributes “VXOMEG,” which starts with a blast of noise and then transforms into a kind of rusted-out wind chime, the sound of industry meeting the natural world. A strong feeling of space pervades, as tracks function like individual rooms in a sprawling building waiting to be explored.
The human voice is another thread winding through the set; we hear bits of conversation in different languages, snippets of song, whispers that hint at secrets but never quite give them away. “Held,” from the French producer Malibu, shifts between glowing drones, crunching footsteps, and a voice, soft and even, that sounds like it’s coming from someone under hypnosis. Yves Tumor’s “Limerence” combines a synth pulse and voices that move from joking and playful to pleading and desperate, evoking an early Harmony Korine film with its vérité power. The voices make Mono No Aware terrestrial, rather than abstract or alien; this isn’t music for imaginary worlds, but what surrounds us as we live in the here and now. While the environments are clear and evocative, they always seem populated by the living, and human emotion is never far outside the frame.
The music on Mono No Aware tends to amplify the subliminal, rather than evoking easily nameable states like “sadness” or “joy.” A given piece might have a tint of low-level anxiety, a sprinkling of menace, hints of relaxation or peace. But the music's subtlety, the record is ultimately a vehicle for exploring feeling, rather than just something nice for the background. The tracks feel like little mysteries to puzzle through, an invitation for active mood engagement. And the fact that so many different artists are brought here to participate in a singular expression of an ever-evolving genre makes it extra rewarding. Earlier this year Pitchfork interviewed Yves Tumor, and he was cagey about the details of his life, including his name and place of residence. “A lot of people are confused about my actual whereabouts, but that’s OK,” he said. For the duration of Mono No Aware, all that matters is that he found himself here, and he’s saying something.