Texture and melody. Visceral noise or careful chord progression. Ambient music can survive, even excel, on the merits of either. Stars of the Lid’s incremental slide towards glacial string sections over the last three albums places them soundly in the latter camp. In their latest, And Their Refinement of the Decline, texturing exists almost purely as a function, a side-effect, of the melodies, in the emotive shading that emerges when a single chord eases by for the 20th successive repetition. The most recent Lithops album, last year’s Mound Magnet, took the opposite route, working directly with raw sounds, both processed and designed, to lay out dense, complex compositions that generally required no melodic content to convey themselves in full. Given that both those albums, though (perhaps through) taking near-opposite approaches, were seminal works of ambient drone, each in its own right, the combined application of melody and texture together seems almost an extravagance, overkill.
Of course, that’s usually not the case. Most music tends to balance its sounds between the two in some way, and plenty of ambiance is perfectly capable of applying both in concert without overpowering the senses (see: Chessie, Overnight). Especially clear-cut examples emerged in the last few years when the minimal glitched noise of Alva Noto (pure texture) and cool piano flutter of Japanese film score veteran and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (pure melody) collided on albums Insen and Vrioon. Alone, Alva Noto’s microscopic static compositions, something like the thrum of pure electricity granted sound, can be stark and aloof. Sakamoto’s unaccompanied piano melodies, on the other hand, are imbued with emotive color and immediacy, but little textural depth. Together, each breathes directly into the compositional spaces left open by the other, always revealing, never submerging.
It seems natural, then, that since 2004 Sakamoto has also been collaborating with Austrian experimental guitarist Christian Fennesz. As displayed on the recently reissued Endless Summer, Fennesz is also essentially a purveyor of fine textures, digesting his guitar into a near unrecognizable swirl and stutter of sound. Unlike Alva Noto, however, he uses these textures as a compliment and catalyst to instances of melodic beauty, either suddenly breaking through a slurp of white noise to reveal themselves, or else lurking as an undercurrent of clarity throughout. As such, Cendre forgoes the sublime austerity and restraint of Insen, opting instead for a fuller, richer sound, shadings of chords and occasionally intelligible guitar fragments easing in between the piano notes and buoying them up at some points, smears of feedback crawling beneath at others.
While Cendre may seem considerably more lavish in arrangement than its predecessors, those predecessors lay at a marked extreme of the spectrum; the new collaboration is still primarily an exercise in tension. Opener “Oto” is pensive as cool piano notes coil around deteriorating chords like decayed textiles, and by “Aware” the album has established its course. Fennesz here assumes a swirling stereo murmur of digital noise, bits occasionally lancing out into the foreground to snap at Sakamoto’s piano as it eases by, first as an ominous bass undercurrent, later as a treble progression that could be either hope in the face of melancholy, or melancholy hiding behind hope. The entire album maintains this pattern admirably over 11 tracks, its emotions ever complex, ambiguous, open to interpretation. Sakamoto’s extensive film work pays off: he excels at writing melodies that highlight scenes without telling the viewer how he should feel about them, and Fennesz’s soundscapes only deepen the feeling, enhancing the moods the way certain spices can bring out the subtler flavors lurking in a stew.
Cendre has its brighter moments (“Haru” and “Amorph” could almost be described as “tranquil”) and its bleaker (“Trace” and “Kokoro” tread more dissonant ground, pale and slightly disconcerting), but on the whole remains consistent, true to form. It’s a narrow vision (one wonders what a slightly faster piece from the duo could accomplish, or one that dared to shift in a more dramatic manner) but one which serves very effectively to fuse, like the efforts of the two composers in each song—texture and melody working together—into a single, unbroken experience.