Ambient Conditions

Thea Ballard on Theodore Cale Schafer and minor music

Theodore Cale Schafer. Photo: Brad Trone.

TUCKED BETWEEN the few discrete layers of indeterminate guitar phrases that make up “It’s Late,” the fifth track on Santa Fe–based musician Theodore Cale Schafer’s latest album, Patience (2019), is a nonmusical rustling, like a phone recording of someone walking outside: boots on gravel or dry leaves, keys clanking, some laughter. These details stand out for the degree to which they’re effective, but not useful; of a place, but not a place the listener quite has access to; personal and intimate, but without the attendant narrative dramas.

Schafer has a dry way of arranging sounds. In his music, electroacoustic static meets instrumentation without coalescing into an affect-swollen whole. Guitar and piano predominate, sometimes looped to form a textural base, but more often crawling around in loose, stoned improvisations—inklings of half-digested American Primitive organics, a lightly uncool proclivity for noodling. Moods rise and fall only to be ultimately shrugged off altogether, leaving the listener in neutral space. “Hinoki,” Patience’s shortest track, builds up to one of those soft, sublime tone-bundles standard of tape-label ambient music. It’s almost funny how quickly Schafer lets that high—which, if stretched further, would satisfy the right kind of zoned-in listener for a whole side of a small-batch cassette—burn away into the distance.

With its idiosyncrasies and field-recorded layers, Patience has a very human, constructed feel. It’s a record one can imagine being made somewhere average, probably in an apartment. The LP’s label helps this DIY image along: Schafer in bed next to an open laptop, a phone, and lip balm. Patience is absorbing without the gravity that defines and makes gripping so much ambient music. It’s affecting while being somehow flippant; its moments of pathos can seem like an accidental achievement. I really do love listening to it, and yet if I challenge myself to set aside the rote critical modes of genre and/or my subjective pleasure made objective, it’s difficult to articulate what the record generates. In a sense, it’s minor music. All of its atmospheric shifts inch toward the imperceptible.

Interior label of Theodore Cale Schafer’s Patience (self-released, 2019).

How to talk about music like this, the kind without easy footholds? In a recent essay titled “Against Worldbuilding,” artist, curator, and critic Nick James Scavo articulated an anxiety in new music, much of which he argues sacrifices ambiguity for a kind of symbolic productivity: “In an era of sound-making with a clear industrial background, have we become totally dependent on the constructed legibility of music? Must we read and design sound to listen to it? Must music impress us with its stability as an explorable, colonizable, harvestable world, one that’s constructed with novel production, rich with demonstrable cleverness or ‘beauty,’ a unique use of assumed signs, and a stylized implementation of musical tools and techniques?” Simon Reynolds’s essay for Pitchfork’s end-of-decade package—coincidentally released the same week as Patience—branded a turn in recent “experimental” electronic music as “conceptronica,” a position problematic in its ungenerous reduction of the felt politics of recent dance-adjacent projects to “woke music.” Embedded in the piece is one possible response to Scavo’s rhetorical questions: “Concept-driven projects offer a way for artists to compete in an attention economy that is over-supplied while reflecting their enthusiasm for a vast array of ideas.”

Both Scavo and Reynolds leveled their critiques at the output of artists themselves, though the former did so with attention to the more structural forms of cultural imperialism—the will to power, the access to budgets—that underwrite elaborate, excessive conceptual projects by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never. I’ll set aside the possibility that one aesthetic is preferable to another and instead propose that an art-critical issue of our moment might well be one of attending to small things and attending to them well. Such custodianship feels urgent in the shadow of Scavo’s “world-builders,” of the attention economy in which a catchall term like “conceptronica” travels so expediently, of demands for things to express their value in unequivocal terms.

There has been a lot of great minor music of late: the subtle vibrational thrum of Leo Svirsky’s naturalist piano solos on River Without Banks; Clearing’s Spaces/Balance cassette on Lillerne Tapes, as well as much of the rest of that label’s output; the stretched and stitched interstices of bereavement as captured via iPhone in Coolin’s “grief piano voice memos”; Philadelphia producer Ulla Straus’s Big Room and her more recent release as simply Ulla, Tumbling Towards a Wall. Straus, especially, produces pockets of sonic experience similar to Schafer’s. Her music is made up of loops soft in texture and structure; this peculiar abstraction evokes emotions that are disarmingly specific. In a short review of Big Room, Joshua Eustis, who makes ambient-adjacent music under the moniker Telefon Tel Aviv, offered that Straus’s productions inspired “feelings whose power was matched only by how nearly imperceptible they were. I instantly began thinking of my childhood, and long-disused rooms in my grandmother’s house, an empty bell jar on a shelf next to a picture of my grandfather from a trip to some extremely distant place in the ’60s.”

Covers, clockwise from left: Leo Svirsky’s River Without Banks (Unseen Worlds, 2019); Ulla Straus’s Big Room (Quiet Time, 2019); Clearing’s Spaces/Balance (Lillerne Tapes, 2019); Ulla's Tumbling Towards a Wall (self-released, 2020).

If such sounds put up no active resistance to being crowded out, how do we remember them? Straus’s and Schafer’s music reminds me that sensory experiences can be savored without being too hastily affixed to theoretical, historical, or emotional narratives that might chip away at the very indeterminacy that lets things stretch a little at the seams. Both have been packaged by their labels as diaristic, which struck me as funny at first. The diary is loaded with literary baggage—notably its connotations of the excesses of the feminine and the confessional—plus, it’s a paraverbal form, a kind of storytelling. And yet there’s something relevant to the way Straus and Schafer capture (or evoke and then assemble) unresolved sound-snapshots of experience and feeling. Diary-keeping is a processual practice, more about the act of remembering and recording than ordering and editing—a kind of making sense through not trying to make sense. Perhaps minor music gives us access to a less-explored side of the diary form, a sensual realm in which we’re free, for a bounded period of time, to let memory pool around us without giving it shape.