In the liner notes for his 1978 album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (Editions EG/Polydor), Brian Eno wrote that the music contained within "must be as ignorable as it is interesting." Though that watershed release launched a thousand new age imitators under the banner of ambient music, Eno's ambivalent criteria still holds as a descriptive litmus test for any music that only partially depends on focused engagement in order to be fully appreciated.
Or as Adam Wiltzie, one half of the dreamy instrumental duo Stars of the Lid, puts it: "There is a narcoleptic feeling that I want to get within each tune. If the piece doesn't make me fall asleep, then it's probably not finished."
Wiltzie and musical partner Brian McBride have taken their time refining their soporific version of Eno's barely there aesthetic, releasing just a handful of beatless, slow-burning full-lengths during the past decade. Coming six years after their epic sophomore Kranky release, The Tired Sounds of (2001), last year's And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky) proved to be another gentle juggernaut: treated violin, cello, and fog-horn brass provided tonal counterpoints to the clouds of diaphanous guitars over the course of two hours. Given that the duo tours even less frequently than they put out new material primarily due to the fact that Wiltzie and McBride now live on opposite sides of the Atlantic their April 15 stopover at the Independent is the equivalent of catching a passing comet with the naked eye.
Eno is an obvious touchstone, although Wiltzie responds somewhat begrudgingly on the phone from Brussels when I bring up the comparison. "I grew up listening to Eno's ambient works and whether I liked them or not they must have influenced me somewhat," he explains. "But influences and whether or not people hear this or that artist in our work can be like a strange beauty pageant where everyone has their personal favorites."
Granted, Eno's earlier ambient experiments on Music for Airports and Discreet Music (Editions EG, 1975) focused on creating systems that would self-generate infinite variations from prerecorded tape loops. SOTL is a far more compositionally oriented project, and many of Wiltzie's "personal favorites" are composers: Gavin Bryars, Arvo Part, Bernard Herrmann, and Alexandre Desplat. Their influence is clear. And Their Refinement sounds, well, refined compared to the rough-hewn compositions of earlier releases. On many tracks the strings and horns are upfront in the mix, and even then only lightly brushed with a wash of delay and soft EQ, while longer pieces, such as the 17-minute album closer, "December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface," are suites unto themselves.
"Maybe my classical music influences are showing more and more," Wiltzie suggests when I ask him about And Their Refinement's more delicate arrangements. "I also am on a lot less drugs than I used to be as a kid. Maybe I just have more clarity now," he laughs. "I'm just growing older, I guess."
What hasn't changed is the evocative power of SOTL's music, even as it tends to massage listeners into slumber. Perhaps it is the blank-canvas quality of ambient music that has made "cinematic" such an ubiquitous way to describe what's being heard (as prescient as ever, Eno's Music for Films [Editions EG, 1978] offered soundtracks for imaginary movies). No one ever hears a song the same way, yet SOTL's music touches a specific emotional range one that is definitely in a minor key.
Case in point: And Their Refinement's "Don't Bother They're Here," a reverb-soaked gloss on the opening bars of Stephen Sondheim's maudlin ballad "Send in the Clowns." Stripping away the original's thick coating of show tune schmaltz, SOTL leave only a whispered trace of the lonely little melody at its center.
"We both love Judy Collins's version of that song. It's just a nod to beautiful melody," Wiltzie explains. "I've just wanted to create a beautiful sound that encapsulates a feeling of beauty and sadness in the same breath."
STARS OF THE LID
With Christopher Willis
Tues/15, 8 p.m., $15
628 Divisadero, SF