Strangers – Kane Ikin and David Wenngren speak across the miles.

I try not to do too many write-ups on this blog about music that is no longer available.  But I picked this up at a Keith Fullerton Whitman concert earlier this year (fantastic, amazing concert) so I guess some copies are still in circulation. Either way, I like the disc so much I wanted to do a write up – so my apologies if this now sends you on some sort of wild hunt for the unobtainable. (I’m sure you’ll get it if you really want it however)

Ambient isn’t really my thing, although I can appreciate its beauty.  I think I was ruined by too many of those early 1990’s faux-meditation tapes that slung a crashed wave against a synth-washed rehash of Tubular Bells, plastered a picture of a forest, a sunset or an ocean on the cover and collected millions of dollars for the trouble. This being my introduction, I had this feeling that ambient was a bit of a con – a shameless use of music as mood evocation set against a desire to fool people with their own manipulations. (“WOW!  It feels like I am really at the beach”)

This is harsh of course, and speaks more to my previous lack of music knowledge.  Now, as a passionate lover and listener of sound art I can see certain kinds of ambient music as something reaching far beyond a shallow hippy-oriented desire to take financial credit for “nature”, just as I recognise field recordings as something beyond the desire to use sound as a way to inflict a mood.  However, to call a disc like Strangers “ambient” doesn’t do it justice. This disc is, as much as it is anything, a kind of artistic social experiment.

Two artists, Kane Ikin and David Wenngren who never meet, had never met, have never met. The long distance collaboration has been done before, but this time it is with sending the music to each other and rather than adding to it, they make suggestions and comments to each other in order to affect each others work. I’m always impressed by the ability to subvert ego that collaboration implies, however I am not always convinced it was achieved.  My listening experience of this disc is that this has been achieved here. The music stands separate to the artists, making its presence felt, symbolic of the relationship-as-third-entity metaphor; Waves of static and analogue enveloping daze send tendrils of deep glowing base and dreamy melody out to wrap themselves around the listener. Ambient can be so inert it sends one to sleep, but I had the opposite experience with this disc. The beauty here is complex, eschewing clear structure.  Sounds arrange and present themselves as questions that seek answers or relevant dollops of time that need to be catalogued and accounted for.

It was my experience of intense engagement that first had me sit up and take notice of Strangers.  Something about the way they collaborate imbues the disc with a quiet intellectual activity. I read that the artists only collaborated on email – no meeting, no skype, no telephone. In a way this speaks to a very old-fashioned communication. A letter. Except for the instant access and the ability to move sound across so many miles, they were effectively writing each other letters, as artists have been for so many centuries. This has imbued the disc with what I can only call a largess.  There is an enormous capacity for generosity of offering within this disc. The music is large, uncontainable. Kane Ikin is Australian and David Wenngren is Swedish. With only letter writing between them, it’s like the music swells to fill the space between, touching them both, reaching for both simultaneously. The listener balances and throbs between them, a swirling witness to an age old form of communication.

Communications like social media – and nowhere is this more obvious than twitter – condense communication to sound bites and bumper stickers, so that the written conversation looks more like a commercial advertisement rather than a form of self-expression. The immediacy, intensity and insistence of this form of communication makes each word an attack on the universe, a demand for sovereignty, an injection of self into an ocean of selves all using the advertising techniques to get themselves heard. The letter was never like this. Thought was poured into it, and the reader was addressed as surely as the writer was trying to be heard. Contrary to the social media of today, this creates an enormity of collaboration within each communicator. An expansive, encompassing form of expression – each word is precious, each letter a treasure. This is the spirit with which Strangers is imbued.  A dance rather than a demand.

Ultimately, despite the deep pulsing communication between these two what they presence the most is that they are still strangers. Strangers who send each other letters, strangers who are foreigners who call each other friend, strangers who will always be self-contained entities reaching for an unreachable other in order to be heard.