Furniture Music

by Andrew Staniland   ¦   June 15 2017

When Pat Carrabré invited me to contribute to the Omnivorous Listening Blog I took the opportunity to have an unbiased look at my own listening habits, easily done through Apple Music’s recently played view.  I adopted Apple Music as my primary listening hub about a year ago, and I now use it as a first stop for most of my listening, be it active or passive. Here is what I have been up to of late:

Andrew's Listening

Reflecting on this list, I noticed that much of my listening is passive: I was mowing the lawn to Peter Gabriel, and driving to Costco with Lady Gaga. On other occasions, I was listening actively, especially to Max Richter’s From Sleep, which ironically is a work written to be heard while doing something else.

I love online subscriptions because of the discovery they offer. Years ago when I was doing my masters degree in composition from University of Toronto (2000 – 2002), I worked in the library re-shelving scores. I had a Sony Discman with anti-shock technology that ensured it would not skip as I walked. During my shifts I would ask the desk attendant at the library to choose a CD at random for me from behind the counter, as they were hidden from view and accessible only through the catalogue. I would listen to that disc for the duration of my shift. It was fun, and I discovered a lot of interesting music. In the post-CD age, curated playlists are a new way of getting relevant but unexpected listening, and I am pleased to say that I have discovered a lot of new favorites.

Of all of this listening, none surpasses my joyous discovery of Max Richter’s composition From Sleep.

From Sleep

You can read all about Max here:

Sleep was released in 2015 both in its original 8-hour format, and as From Sleep, an Richterabridged CD version.  According to the composer, the work was composed quite literally to function as music to sleep to.  The premiere was broadcast live on BBC in its entirely, lauded as the longest continuous piece ever broadcast. This is possibly to the chagrin of the producers of John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, which is currently in progress at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany. It began in 2001 and is scheduled to have a duration of 639 years, ending in 2640.


Here is a screenshot of the album From Sleep in Apple Music:

Screen Shot Apple Music

Quite simply, I love this piece it because moves me in a beautiful and powerful way.  After all the academic discourse, the most real requirement of a musical work for me is that it must be moving, regardless of the aesthetic.

The musical language in From Sleep is stalwartly consonant and diatonic, which makes it pretty and accessible, but the deep beauty of the writing transcends harmonic language through mastery of line, pacing, orchestration and production. Composers trained in universities talk a lot about harmonic language:  tonal, atonal, neo-tonal, neo-romantic and so forth. To quote my teacher Gary Kulesha, this is largely smoke and mirrors. The skill of a composer can manifest in any harmonic language, as indeed it has across the brief history of classical music.  In current times, there is plenty of great music across the continuum of harmonic complexity, and I don’t favour one side over another, or at least I would like to think that I don’t. There is no doubt that From Sleep is a piece on the extreme edge of modal consonance.

The pacing and orchestration is nothing short of masterful. Patterns unfold, layers are added and taken away, and there are never any extraneous or unnecessary ideas. Things come and go at the perfect time, creating a spellbinding effect.  The mastery of pacing reminds me of Steve Reich, who I think also has an incredible knack for changing patterns in just the right way at just the right time.

There is a lot of contemporary classical music to be found on Apple Music that is similar to this superficially: slow modal soundscapes set in sometimes overly reverberant spaces with simple lines and even simpler chordal movement.  But none give me a comparable reaction to this magnificent work. I have played it many times and each time I enjoy something new. It is the piece I rave about to friends after a late-night dinner party. It is the piece that made me want to contribute to this blog.

The nature of Sleep’s unfolding and extra-musical intent (music to fall asleep to) brings to mind another favorite work, Brian Eno’s wonderful  Discreet Music, which preceded the famous Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Like Sleep, Discreet Music is meant to be appreciated in the background. Erik Satie, ahead of his time, coined the term “Furniture Music” to describe this aesthetic:

(screenshot from Wikipedia entry of Eno’s Discreet Music)

Furniture Music

Discreet Music is a gorgeous, affecting listen. It is even more enjoyable to appreciate it in the context of its historic importance, being one of the first pieces that would define a new genre: Ambient Music.  This work was introduced to me in 1996 by Jamie Philip, who was then the music technology teacher at MacEwan University (then Grant MacEwan Community College). It was a formative course for me, and it was in this class that I first heard the music of Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, and Varese.  Incidentally, it was at Grant MacEwan that I met my first composition teacher Gordon Nicholson. He helped set me on the path I find myself on today.

Music is often enjoyed as an accompaniment to life’s tasks: mowing the lawn, driving, preparing and enjoying food, and so on. Other times, it is focal point in an experience, like when attending a concert, or when sitting to actively listen. It is wonderfully interesting that some composers have woven this into artistic practice, writing music that is meant to be enjoyed while explicitly doing something else.  Interestingly, the closer I listen, the more I enjoy both From Sleep and Discreet Music.

Do yourself a great favour and make time to listen (perhaps again) to Max Richter’s wonderful composition  From Sleep.

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