Four Patterns, British tone synthesist Simon Slator’s third full-length, is the ambient album you embrace without a sell-by date, the one lasting longer than a cut flower. Free to be heard thanks to the loving dusting provided by Free Floating Music, the decade-old drifting cloud measures well compared to the style’s ideals, Brian Eno’s Discreet Music and Music for Airports. The former, however, is the most accurate comparison. Where Eno examined the algorithmic elasticity of two melodic lines, Simon Slator squares the master. The product echoes the original ambient intention while providing an intricate proof for adherents to pick apart. Yet, it’s the purity of the formula which wins out, eventually subsuming divergent desires and leaving a listener in a state of blissful focus. It’s Occam’s, essentially. Four Patterns doesn’t click or cut. Nor does it incite tinnitus like a white noise whirling dervish. It’s spartan traditionalism speaks to the power of unuttered simplicity. You reward it as your first mate on a raft riding tides of sleep or a guard against outside forces during a relaxing reading rendezvous. It returns the favor by being exactly what you expect when imagining RIYL explanations. The revelation is, of course, Four Patterns makes good on the promise.
Now, after ending a self-imposed hiatus, Slator has reappeared with grander ambitions. His newest, The Lake, reflects a private press new-age-y aestheticism/asceticism. It still walks the ambient line, this one traced by ’90s practitioners named Alio Die and Steve Roach. But, the shimmering synth spring is fed with an Iasos-ian tributary of self-awareness, consciousness, and transcendence. The three tracks attune themselves to your troubles, eating away at stress-created pathogens in the manner of white blood cells. That’s not a happy accident. The creator, in his own words: “The final track, “The Lake”, is about isolating oneself from the world. The imagery is that of taking a small boat out into the middle of a lake, and just floating there with just the gentle ebb of the water for company. You’re far enough out so that nobody can disturb you, but not so far away that you can’t get back.” In a way, it’s the matter equivalent of Lustmord’s anti-matter, achieving its goal through the same means, though evoking a contrasting emotional end.
Needless to say, heady stuff, in all senses. Thankfully, Simon was able to further elucidate. He filled me in regarding his process, past, and how he’s currently shaping his art.
To start, do you mind detailing who you are and how you came to compose ambient music?
By day, I’m a mild-mannered analyst/programmer from the town of Tamworth in Staffordshire; and by night I’m a waiter/chef/mixologist/Xbox technician to my two children.
I first started composing ambient music back in 2000 – I was making music using DOS-based tracking software at the time, trying to make something that sounded like Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre and Mike Oldfield. Back then, I just saw ambient music as soft randomness – a way of getting several minutes of music to pad an album out without any real effort.
In the accompanying liner notes of the Free Floating Music re-release of Four Patterns, you mention this work was born of a more mathematical and theoretical approach. Can you break down your process in that regard? And, did you have an inkling the four patterns would fit together so seamlessly, or was it more of an operation of chance?
A lot of my compositions from around that time started by developing distinct patterns and finding interesting combinations using different sounds; but after a while, I started getting an impression of what the piece represented. With “Four Patterns”, I wanted it to be more abstract. If memory serves, I’d been reading up on pieces like Terry Riley’s “In C” – which had a similar principle on a much larger scale. It was all strictly tonal, so I had no doubts that the four patterns would lock together seamlessly, but the chordal harmonies were (deliberately) pure chance.
Do you remember the first time ambient music clicked with you? What was it about that experience which inspired you to create your own soundscapes?
I believe it was when I heard Steve Roach’s “Structures from Silence” for the first time. I loved how gentle, fluid and rhythmic it was – very calming and meditative, but also very uplifting at the same time. I wasn’t much of a composer in the traditional sense – more of a pragmatist – and realised this music was more than just “soft randomness”. You had to trust your ears and your imagination more than your musical knowledge. Ever the pragmatist, it inspired me to start exploring and learning through composition and experimentation.
You’ve recently started composing again after a break. On this side of the divide, do you feel any differently towards your old work?
I must admit, since “Four Patterns” was re-released, there’s been a surprising amount of positive interest in my older works, so I’ve been taking the time to re-appraise them – trying hard not to listen to them with “artist’s ears” and stop listening for things to fix or tweak. It’s been quite beneficial as I’ve now started looking at them in a more positive light.
Is there anything new informing your compositions now that could only be captured or understood by the older you?
I’d say my new compositions are deeper emotionally – I don’t think the younger me would have made anything like “The Lake” as, while it still works as a series of ‘sound-paintings’, he probably wouldn’t have empathised with the spiritual and social themes within it.
Where would you like to take ambient? Is there a dream end goal — say, working with an orchestra ala William Basinski? If time, money, and outside forces weren’t an obstacle, what would you do?
If given the opportunity, I’d love to make ambient music with more exotic and traditional instruments – kind of like ambient/world fusion. It may sound a bit of a novelty, but I reckon if I formed a quartet of Hurdy Gurdy players, you’d at least get some of the most folksy drone-ambient music ever made!
How do you get into the right frame of mind to write, perform, and record? Is stoking the fire easier or harder the longer you do it?
Admittedly, it’s difficult when you work full time and have a family to support - you’re lucky if you get an hour to yourself each night; but I try and do a little bit each day, even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes or so; and if something’s working, I might go and make myself a cup of coffee so I can keep going for another hour.
Are there any new sounds/artists currently catching your ear?
As I’ve been out of the loop for some time, I’ve still got quite a bit of catching up to do; but recently, I’ve found the music of Phillip Wilkerson, Mark Ward, Scott Lawlor, C.Paradisi and The Lime Room quite interesting indeed.
Finally, to those who are beginning to create their own music, what advice can you impart to help guide their travels?
The only things I would say is: remain positive, be honest with yourself and have fun.