Well, sure—it’s in the dictionary: “a piece of music considered in terms of its component sounds; the sounds heard in a particular location, considered as a whole.” So right—, everything you hear, more or less. What’s to “remember,” then?
The way I mean it here, though, is in its very- ’90s default setting. Back then, “soundscape” became a way for writers (myself certainly included) to denote electronic music’s more somnolent forms, such as ambient or trip-hop. But the word has more applications than as a highbrow substitute for “chill-out.” “Soundscape” suggests vastness and range, but it also conjures a certain finite canvas: lLandscapes tend to have edges. And no one said it had to be pastoral.
Two of my favorite DJ sets of 2017—the two I hadn’t covered in this column till now—are, very broadly, soundscapes, though they don’t sound anything alike. And though one of them is certainly chilled out in tone, it’s anything but relaxed once you listen closer.
Sammy Dee is Berlin techno royalty;. hHe first began spinning techno in the late eighties ’80s and has been a DJ resident at some of the city’s premiere clubs, such as Tresor and Panorama Bar. He also produces for Perlon, the Frankfurt-founded label (now in Berlin) that reliably issues some of the most mischievous, twisted-sounding house and techno music you will ever encounter. My favorite example is the album Dee made with Thomas Franzmann as Pantytec in 2002, with the charming title Pony Slaystation. It grooves with a swing, but all the furniture’s bent.
Dee’s XLR8R Podcast #515 (November 8, 2017) doesn’t really groove at all, and everything’s a little crooked. It’s essentially an ambient set. “I wanted chill vibes and interesting layered sounds and music,” Dee told XLR8R, whose write-up further calls the selection an “easy listening” one. As we know from Trentemøller, among many others, “easy listening” clearly means something more sinister in Germany than it does here. The whole thing creeps along like a vine, the selections by turns sepulchral (a slow bass-led crawl with almost no drumming that begins around 42:00) and otherworldly, as when he cuts from snoozy scratch hip-hop to a gamelan ensemble at 6:13 to the long gassy (and probably Gas) ambient that closes it out. All of it is minimalist and hypnotic, and it has made me lose track of time more than once—that’s the tell. There still isn’t a tracklist available, but I’m not sure I necessarily want one.
OK, fine, of course I do—the historian in me demands it. The push-pull between loving and learning about music, new and old, in an orderly fashion versus the ahistorical one the post-streaming era has brought us to is the subject of a recent NPR feature by Ben Ratliff, whose Every Song Ever I recently devoured in paperback. “The real lesson of the past, now that cultural artifacts have become so easy to share, is the unwieldiness of it,” Ratliff writes. “Once there wasn’t enough, now there’s too much to go around. A national-library approach to old music, understanding artists of special stature in and of themselves, may be respectful and responsible and history-minded, but isn’t the only way, and can hardly be trusted. Who has bestowed the special stature? And what’s their stake in it?” And then he plays his ace—a soundscape that couldn’t be less placid.
Death Is Not the End is the label of British DJ Luke Owen, who does a regular show on the London web station NTS Radio of the same name. Last summer, Owen presented an episode titled UK Soundsystem Special (August 26, 2017) that stitched together highlights from various Jamaican ex-pat sound-system dance events, recorded and traded among cognoscenti and, like so many other rarities of this sort, now freely available online. (Ratliff points to the trove at the site Who Cork the Dance; my own education on this stuff came via the extensive and now deleted SoundCloud collection of one Mikey Glamour.)
Sure, the 19 sound tapes Owen sourced for this two-hour program are likely worth apprehending individually and within multiple other contexts—of reggae sound systems generally and UK-based ones in particular, of the state of the music at a given moment in history, of pop music in general at the time. But really, you just want the best stuff all in one place, and the two hours race by in a flurry. There’s a lot of talking and singing and screaming (Ratliff, correctly, exults over the one called Screamer) over records, a lot of Echoplex, occasionally some crowd noise. It’s almost over-rich, a cavalcade from which you may want to take some breathing-room pause time. Then you’ll dive back in.