Towards the beginning of his 1993 book Ocean of Sound, David Toop quotes the New Scientist reporting from an academic conference in Cairns. A member of the American Rock Art Research Association had speculated that Palaeolithic paintings were intentionally related to the acoustic echoes found in the caves in which they were created. The theorist, Steven Waller, suggested that ‘in caves such as Lascaux, where large animals were painted, the echoes are overwhelmingly loud, whereas in sites where felines adorn the walls, the decibel level of the reverberations is very low’.
A beautiful theory, not least because it reflects the continuing relationship between visual art, music and the natural world. It’s an ancient, elemental relationship that defies anything as artificial as musical notation or as coldly descriptive as the term ‘audio-visual’.
It’s a connection that underscores the work of Chris Bryant, an artist, music teacher and musician who releases his ambient album Language of the Ancients under the moniker S1gns Of L1fe tomorrow. ‘Each song that I create is like painting’, he tells me via email from his home in the Bay Area of California, ‘the sound is my canvas and I start painting with it. I begin by laying down “textures” which become my foundation. I then let the track decide where it wants to go.
Diversity is important. ‘If I feel percussion should be involved, I start crafting it around the initial sound. Like I said, it’s all about contrast. Most of my music on this album is what you could call “rhythmic ambient” which centres percussive elements on deep atmosphere’.
Language of the Ancients. It’s a good title, I tell him. Is it that commonality that you’re trying to describe –that we share with the ancients the common language of the environment, biology and astronomy? ‘It derives its meaning from the relationship we all share with both nature and the modern world through vibration and sound. Its roots [lie] in the ambience of the natural world as well as the interconnectedness of the universe and the scientific systems that we use to explain it.’ The redwoods that illustrate the album’s cover are symbolic of these ideas. ‘They have seen so many seasons, seen entire civilisations come and go and still they remain steadfast in their continual role in our ecosystem’, he tells me.
He is an enthusiastic interviewee. The project is very, very dear to him and he appears delighted, almost relieved, to be asked to talk about it. A simple one-line question yields a response running to several paragraphs and hundreds of words. I draw the assumption that Bryant’s head contains a universe of ideas, desperate to find expression through whatever means it can. Even if it takes ten years.
The album marks the culmination of a decade-long journey. 2003 was a particularly low point. ‘I was broke, living out of my pickup truck and playing acoustic guitar on the streets for anyone who would listen. To say I’ve taken the difficult and windy road would be a complete understatement.’ There was always music, at least. ‘I’ve been a musician all my life and released other projects in different genres. My musical journey began a long time ago when I was only nine years old listening to mostly metal. My first exposure to anything electronic was in high school when I heard The Orb for the first time. It blew my mind how much of an extraordinary sonic universe Alex Paterson could create. I had absolutely no idea how it was created but nevertheless, it was captivating at the time.’
Bryant is a guitarist of long experience and with talent enough to teach. ‘I started with one student on Craigslist. Eventually the mother of that student told another parent about me. I knew I was on to something. I started teaching at various recreation departments in the Bay Area as well as a private music school. That period went on for a good four years until I met my wife.
Jeanne was actually a student in my guitar class. She signed up for one of my adult classes with the best intentions. First of all, she had no experience and therefore no expectations. Secondly, she was happy I wasn’t a “Kenny Rogers” lookalike. The only problem was, she was the only one who signed up for the class! Feeling guilty I wouldn’t be compensated properly for my time, she begged me to cancel it. She was too good to be true. I ended up not cancelling the class and teaching her the entire eight weeks. We both had no idea we’d eventually fall in love and get married but that’s exactly what happened.
A year into our relationship, we knew in order to take my guitar instruction to the next level, we had to move the business to a centralised location. In 2009, we found an office to rent in my hometown of Los Gatos and opened up “Chris Bryant Guitar School” and the rest is history. We’re going on our fourth year of successful business here.
Teaching not only provided necessary funds for living, but as any good teacher will tell you, through teaching you begin to learn who you are as both a musician and as a person. It is a very enlightening process if you allow it to be.’
Still, the vast possibilities opened up by electronic and computer music soon eclipsed his love of six strings. ‘I began to dabble in electronic around the year 2001. Software was still primitive by today’s standards, but it was still amazing to me how what was once done only with hardware, was now moving into the software realm.’
A specialisation in ambient was a logical progression, the result of an innocuous conversation with a friend, musician and producer, audiophalanx. ‘We were standing outside of a Thai restaurant talking about “what’s next” for us, discussing software and the tools we use to create it. He looks at me and says “Have you ever heard the music of Solar Fields?” I nearly collapsed.’
It was at that very moment I knew what I wanted to do. I had been listening to Solar Fields for quite some time but it wasn’t until he said something that it I realised it, I should be making ambient music!’
He began to immerse himself in ambient production. ‘The software, the artists currently involved in it. I dug out old serial numbers of software that I had bought years prior and contacting software companies asking if my licenses were still valid.
However, I needed more time and more tools to perfect my craft and develop my own style. It wasn’t until I found a little known software project called Borderlands by a Stanford post-grad student named Chris Carlson that my style began to take form.’
He has nothing but praise for Carlson’s software. ‘It’s a granular sampler like no other. It allows you visually place waveforms on the screen while at the same time placing “clouds” -the granular engines themselves, at any point along the waveform. You can move them around, duplicate them, it’s an astonishing piece of software.’
This ease of production helps Bryant’s creative process. ‘I try and let everything else go while I’m working. I have listened to so much music that I feel like I’m pulling out memories, without even thinking about it, every time I sit down and start writing. Just like painting, I have developed a sense of what colours/sound textures work well together. I’m becoming more critical these days which doesn’t speed up my writing process, but it does help polish up the final outcome’.
The future looks bright. After Language of the Ancients, Bryant will be releasing music through Arecibo Records, an ambient netlabel based in Spain, sharing a roster with other ambient artists such as Massergy, Hilyard, Spidergod, and Rildrim.
Aside from that, there’s ambient online, a forum that Bryant describes as a ‘haven for other ambient producers to come and not only discuss ambient music, but share their work and discuss production methods as well.’ Bryant started the site with some ambient producers in October 2012. He’s proud of the reach it has found since launching. ‘It has quickly become the fastest growing and number one resource for ambient music on the internet. On any given day you can find 20 to 30 active conversations going on by people who live and breathe ambient music.’
Living and breathing. Painting and composing. The conversations may be digital, but the pattern remains the same. Groups of people gathering through sound, creating and imagining, just as they did in those caves seventeen centuries ago. The language of the ancients. The language of now.
Language of the Ancients is released through Bandcamp on the 23rd January.