PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Immersion was really the point: we were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.
For most listeners, instrumental ambient music is all about sinking into new surroundings. The best ambient music is a completely transporting experience, music to swim in, when you listen to it closely. At the same time, it can roll on in the background as part of your environment, adding texture to what’s going on around you. That was the idea behind Brian Eno’s brilliant ambient series, recently reissued on Astralwerks. As he wrote in the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music for Airports, “an ambience is defined as an atmosphere or a surrounding influence: a tint.”
The best of the contemporary musicians following in this tradition is Matthew Cooper, who records under the name Eluvium. His debut album, Lambent Material, released in 2003 by the progressive, Brooklyn-based record label Temporary Residence Ltd., attracted attention for its haunting, beautiful atmospheres. Feeling more like a cloud than a ‘record album’, Lambent Material was built from guitars that were looped, treated, and whatever-ed until they sounded nothing like guitars. Each track shimmered along with grace and beauty, but also a lot of emotion, not just surfaces.
“Lambent” = 1. Flickering lightly over or on a surface. 2. Effortlessly light or brilliant. 3. Having a gentle glow; luminous.
“Eluvium” = Residual deposits of soil, dust, and rock particles produced by the action of the wind. from Latin eluere, to wash out
To some extent, these definitions do more to describe Eluvium’s Lambent Material than any human being could. They get at the way the music feels like a force, and hint at a description of what the music sounds like. With Eluvium, though, nothing is easily summarized. Even the relationship to ambient music is complicated the more you listen.
Eluvium’s music contains a whole lot of melody; this is an important component, and something you might not expect from the talk of textures and moods. At the center of his most light-as-air and dreamlike soundscapes are melodies that are intermingling and wrapping their way around your mind. They progress slowly, but carry with them serious emotions. At first listen, an Eluvium song seems almost static, like many ambient compositions; yet as you proceed you’ll feel forcefully pushed along in very emotional directions. Feelings of awe and wonder will be generated inside, but also loneliness, fear, happiness—all of the feelings that many pop musicians rely on lyrics to convey are here, cloaked inside of sonic clouds.
Eluvium has released a recording each year since his debut. His 2004 release, An Accidental Memory in Case of Death, was a solo piano recording, seen as a surprising departure from the sound of Lambent Material even though the overall feeling and mood of the two are similar. Recorded in one sitting, without any overdubs, An Accidental Memory replaced the fuzz and glow of Cooper’s guitars with one starkly recorded piano, playing compositions inevitably compared to minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It’s a fascinating recording, both in comparison to Lambent Material and on its own. Again, stirring melodies are woven together to great effect, sleepwalking together, yet with intent. With surrealist paintings on the cover and liner notes that quote Douglas Coupland about trying to understand the pictures in your head, An Accidental Memory… feels like an external record of one person’s internal world, and the music reflects that as well, like Cooper is using a piano to express inner dialogues and moods.
An excerpt from the Temporary Residence bio on Eluvium expresses a similar idea: “Born in Tennessee and raised in Louisville, KY, Matthew Cooper relocated to Portland, OR several years back and has since spent many a night holed up in his house transforming the vibrations in his brain into sweeping walls of elegant noise.” That feeling of Eluvium’s music as the translation of interior moods and emotions is perhaps what gives all three of his recordings a strongly introspective feeling, even as they all have an element of transcendence about them, like we’re entering a new realm.
Eluvium’s 2005 album Talk Amongst the Trees is like Lambent Material with an even richer and fuller sound. It’s like a journey into the woods, when you get to that point where all reference points to remind you of where you came from have disappeared. It’s even harder to classify and pin down than his other works. The guitars sound even less like guitars. The music sounds even more like a mysterious being. And the result is even more likely to inexplicably call up hidden memories and feelings from inside of listeners. The compositions gently glide along, yet as they move they’re churning up raw feelings. Like all of Eluvium’s recordings, it completely transports you, floats you until you’re lost, yet that place in which you are lost isn’t truly removed from our own. In other words, you’re on a fantasy trip, but soon you’ll realize that the trip is inside your own heart and mind.