As Ignorable as it is Interesting: A Short History and Introduction to Ambient Music (Part 4)

Chris Blog Final

For our section on Norway I’m going to talk about two musicians who have never feared or shied away from experimenting, from pushing the boundaries, or from doing things their way. Those men are Erik Wøllo and Geir Jenssen.

Erik Wollo/Photo: Spottedpeccary.com
Erik Wollo/Photo: Spottedpeccary.com

Wøllo started to play guitar at age 11 and has never stopped. Growing up he loved rock music. He listened to the likes of Credence Clearwater Revival for hours and wanted to emulate their music. Later he discovered the likes of Pink Floyd and got more into progressive rock, adding that to his musical style. He began to tour with several bands, but kept being drawn more and more to the electronic sounds of synths in the progressive music he liked. He eventually left every band he was in, learned to play keyboard, built his own studio and started experimenting. What happens when a life long guitarist who loves Pink Floyd branches into ambient? Well, in his own words you get someone who wants to use “the modern electronic studio as an instrument. Like a painter with his oil canvasses. I wanted to make a music that had expansive synthesizer textures and sequencer patterns, layered together with expressive melodic electric guitars. Working with depth, time and space. In those years in the early eighties the studio technology was new and revolutionary, and I wanted to explore all the new possibilities. To be able to control the infinite variations of electronic sound, using an endless palette for creative expression.” The key line is using electronic means with an electronic guitar. This was the 80s, ambient had been largely synthesizer based, Wøllos is built around the guitar. Soft, plinking notes and long, droning ones all meshed together with synths and other sounds to produce unique and euphoric soundscapes. If you’re a guitarist and reading this, definitely give Wøllo a listen, everyone else should as well. Since it can easily be found on YouTube, I’ll list 2003s Emotional Landscapes as the album to listen to.

Geir Jenssen/Photo: Vimeo
Geir Jenssen/Photo: Vimeo

Geir Jennsen was born in the icy city of Tromsø, in the Artic Cirlce. In his 20s, while he was studying archaeology and working on research into Stone and Ice Age cultures of Northern Europe, he began to listen to new music. One of the artists he listened to was Brian Eno and it was “like discovering a new universe—a universe which I wanted to be a part of.” He bought a synthesizer, taught himself to play, and started composing music. Geir Jenssen became, undoubtedly, one of the greatest ambient musicians there is. I feel that this is almost an indisputable fact. It’s not of course, but it’s quite close. Have your attention yet? Good, because this guy is amazing. Jenssen creates his music under the name of Biosphere and has pushed the boundaries of the genre many times. Originally a more classical style player (no drums) he began experimenting with an “ambient techno” sound that was unique for its time. While doing this he was also still making a more classical ambient style but was adding unorthodox sounds including samples from Sci-Fi movies and TV, sounds of nature, people talking, old radio recordings, and more.

Photo: Pitchfork
Photo: Pitchfork

Drawing inspiration from his archaeological studies, his far northern childhood, and these emerging techniques, he created a new style he titled arctic ambient. The undeniable best album to demonstrate this sound is 1997’s Substrata. What is Substrata? Droning classical ambient, haunting electronic sounds, samples from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, an old Moscow radio recording of Russian ‘telepath’ Karl Nikolaev, sounds of airplanes, dripping water, howling winds, creaking forests, crackling fires, and more all blended into the best ambient album ever made. The. Best. Substrata perfectly conjures images of the frozen north, I feel colder listening to it than I did when the wind chill was -45 this winter here in Chicago. It’s also so much more than feelings of cold, it is pure musical beauty. This is definitely Jenssen’s magnum opus, and one of my favorite albums of any type of music. If you only listen to one album from this entire article, make it this one.

After wrapping up in Europe with the icy north we now leave her ancient shores to explore the ambient lands of the New World.

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