good ambient (#amwriting corner)

Dear friends and readers,

At Allegheny, we are fast approaching that post-semester crunch time, that point where you are tired, and your students are tired, and at the beginning of class you just kind of look around the room at each other with thousand-mile stares. Do we want to talk about point of view again? Anybody?

Fortunately, I’ve got a lighter week coming up — lighter compared to the underground grind it’s been over the past couple months with class prep, and the collection coming out, and rewriting materials for the job market, and screaming inwardly about the job market, and sorting out the details of a new novel project, and rebooting an old novel project, and tending to basic self care, like sleep and showers and socializing with other humans, etc.


…Actual image of the infinite hellish yaw of work you will never get done…

So in this temporary space of calm, for those who might be approaching a similar period of stress, I want to share some ambient sounds. Ambient has become a weirdly significant part of my working and creative life, and which, in overwhelming moments, either helped me to be productive or chill the f out.

No, not kidding. According to Science™, it can actually lower your blood pressure. And who am I to argue with Forbes?

And I say “ambient sounds” because some would say it really isn’t music. It’s an ambient, and an ambient is not a song. I do like songs — they’re great — I just can’t really work to them because I want to sing to them, and I can’t write my own words while singing someone else’s. There is no urge to sing along to an ambient, as you will see:


Nautilus by Loscil

Album: Submers (2002)

This one has a “beat.” That’s unusual for Loscil, whose tracks otherwise give the impression of swimming in a gray sea, which is also haunted. Seriously though, Loscil is some of the best writing ambient I’ve ever come across. There’s just enough sound variation to keep the tracks interesting, and enough tension to keep the ambient from sounding cheesy, or, as one of my friends once put it, “too satisfied with itself.”


Microscopic by Gas

Album: 0095 (1995)

Also a good writing ambient. I don’t know why, but I work very productively to anything that sounds like it was made for those science safety videos I watched back in the early aughts in high school. My favorite Gas track is actually “Vapournaut,” which is featured on this album, and nowhere else in the world. It is not even on iTunes, so it may as well not exist.


Jupiter by The KLF

Album: Space (1990)

Ok, another obscure thing from the 1990s. The KLF is probably best “known”(?) as a British hip hop/techno/trance duo. This whole album though, each track is a planet (Mercury, Venus, etc.) and it is utterly committed to its subject matter. I especially like the part at the end of this track, where you get a rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that sounds like it’s being sung by the inter-dimensional space mice from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Procedural by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Album: Gone Girl Soundtrack (2014)

Fun fact: Trent Reznor attended Allegheny College, which is where I currently teach. This was the only question I could answer at a trivia night consisting entirely of questions about Meadville, PA. (Our team still lost.) But yes, I get excited about a good ambient film soundtrack. Gone Girl and The Social Network are both in my library.


Shinsen by Susumu Yokota

Album: Sakura (1999)

A good chill ambient. I like this whole album, though it’s quite varied, and this is the only track that features that creeping, mesmerizing harp. Yokota is probably a better “known” (again ??) ambient artist. Of course, Brian Eno is the big daddy, the visionary who was manually stitching together the choral harmonies in Music for Airports back in the 70s, long before everybody with a Casio was able to call themselves an ambient artist.


Last Place by Broken Social Scene

Album: Feel Good Lost (2001)

This almost entirely instrumental album was the lesser-known debut of Canadian indie darling Broken Social Scene. It’s steady and hypnotic, like the pulsing underwater tones of Loscil, but there’s actually something warm about it. Makes me feel like I’m riding a train with a group of quirky friends. All of us riding far and away from the academic job market.


Radhe Shyam by Alice Coletrane

Album: Transcendence (1977)

Technically jazz, and not an ambient, but I had to plug Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane, and a talented musician in her own right. Some of Alice Coltrane gets a little too high-octane to work or relax to — there’s one track on Astral Meditations that sounds like a ritual exaltation to a fulminous Sun God. It gets pretty intense.


I’m sure there are many for whom ambients are not helpful. Some writers I know prefer to work in silence, or with the conversations and noise around them in coffee shops. But I’ve also heard some folks I know say they wish they had better music to work to. So this is what I work to, and which has genuinely helped me when I’m stressed. When it’s hard to untangle words from brain to page.

Which — that’s the hard part of writing, isn’t it. The writing bit.

I’ll end this post by thanking everyone for their support in recent months in regard to the book release, to my editor, publisher, and amazing blurb writers (Emily Cataneo, Bryan Hurt, and Trudy Lewis). And thanks to everyone who bought a copy of Earthly Delights or voiced their enthusiasm — it truly meant a lot. I hope you enjoy the stories. (And for anyone who still wants to buy it, you can do so here or here!)


Stay strange, my friends


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