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by Philip Sherburne

November 30, 2012

Sub-Zero Sounds

by Philip Sherburne  |  November 30, 2012

Let the record show that I have absolutely no problem with the pathetic fallacy.

As you may recall from high school English class, the pathetic fallacy was John Ruskin's term, coined in 1856, for writing that imbued natural objects with the attributes of human sensibility and emotion (thus "pathetic," from "pathos," and "fallacy," because, duh, willows don't actually weep).

There's a contemporary corollary in music: The belief that a recording can embody the attributes of a particular place, climate, etc. -- such as, say, Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago magically translating the wood grain of his cabin walls and the howl of the wind outside into a rustic cri de coeur of the lonely, snowed-in soul.

We can all agree that this approach has been done to death, both by artists making claims about their own music and, particularly, by journalists desperate to spice up their prose with appropriately earthy language. The more reviews I read that detail the way Sigur Rós' otherworldly mewling mirrors the frozen landscape of their Icelandic homeland, the more I think that global warming might not be such a bad thing after all, if at least it spares us from any more metaphors about glaciers in music writing.

That being said, I know that I've succumbed to the sway of glaciers and swelling tides, forest canopies and the aurora borealis more times in my own work than I'd like to admit. And quite apart from whatever literary indulgences I may have committed in the name of barometric synaesthesia, I also have the unshakeable belief (and I'm sure I'm not alone here) that some music simply sounds best in certain seasons.

Perhaps my own fetish for naturalistic bathos and seasonal synergy stems from overexposure, in my youth, to George Winston's December. Maybe it's just a quirk of having grown up in soggy Portland, and spent the better part of my teenage years listening to Cocteau Twins with my face pressed up against the (metaphorical) windowpane. (Back in my gothiest days, I once made a song on my four-track recorder that incorporated the sound of falling rain -- and, on another occasion, an actual conch shell, which must have had to do with some kind of return-to-Atlantis trip, although I don't really remember now.)

In any case, this is all a lengthy way of saying that, despite my deepest suspicions of mood-music cliché, once winter comes, my listening routinely takes a turn toward a very specific kind of ambient music: pensive drones that evoke the crunch of boots on fresh snow, the crackle of fireplace logs and the slow creep of ice crystals on glass. In celebration of the plunging temperatures and shortening days, I've put together three hours of my favorite deep-freeze accompaniments. I haven't stuck to any particular style, school or era; the set ranges from ambient classics (Aphex Twin, Autechre, Biosphere) to synth pioneers (Laurie Spiegel, Daphne Oram) to new-school atmospheric travelers (Emeralds, Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin). Thanks to Flying Saucer Attack and Grouper, there are even a few guitars in the mix. (And Morton Feldman, just because.) But, taken together, it's just the thing for an evening spent taunting the elements from the coziness of your living room. Crank up the radiator and dig in.

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