A Winged Victory for the Sullen – The Undivided Five

Ninja Tune / 2019

From its first chords—and from the ironic conceit of the opening track’s title—A Winged Victory for the Sullen’s third album immediately and explicitly situates itself more in the realm of Contemporary Classical than Ambient or Drone music, with a heavy emphasis on Debussian pastiche. But does this actually preclude the possibility of participation in ambient genres? Today we will attempt an inquiry into the boundaries between these very closely related styles of quiet listening music, and in the process provide an adequate meditation on The Undivided Five itself. Our findings may elucidate something about the changing social function of these kinds of music over time, and perhaps approach a better understanding of what it means for music to be “ambient” or for it to “drone.” For don’t those functional and formal descriptions of what this webzine assumes to be highly expressive modern forms of listening music seem odd to the engaged “Ambient music” listener?

            There has been a close connection between the rise of Ambient music and the re-emergence of Classical music since the inception of the former in the 1970s. At the time in which Brian Eno coined the term “Ambient” to refer to music-qua-wallpaper, Minimalism was in full force: Steve Reich and Philip Glass were at the peaks of their respective careers, writing some of their most well-known works. And what’s more is that tonally Minimalism was actually quite within the realm of Ambient music before Eno gave a name to the concept: consider Glass’s swirling arpeggios, Terry Riley’s sparkly electronic organ tones—La Monte Young was making Minimalist classical compositions that sounded like Dark Ambient music long before Coil came into existence. But since the turn of the century, it has become increasingly common for musicians who originated in the generic realm of Ambient or Drone music to add a light piano, perhaps a string quartet, or try their hand at full-on orchestral composition. A Winged Victory for the Sullen is probably the most obvious, readily available example of a project originating from a Drone producer (Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid) making something that sounds almost entirely composed for orchestra. And while yes, A Winged Victory’s other member, Dustin O’Halloran, is a classically trained pianist, that does not defeat the fact that the band’s cultural connections and draw originate from electronic ambient music—this album was released on Ninja Tune, for God’s sake.

            So then what of the music itself? Is it just pretty piano balladry and lush, sweeping orchestral brush strokes? No, not entirely. Synthetic drones underlie almost every track with the exception of the solo piano songs—which it should be observed, still have some very interesting slight string accompaniment and detailed reverb production. Some tracks, like “Adios, Florida,” foreground their synth textures and only incorporate strings for accentuation and dynamic build. That said, generally the melody and thrust of every song is carried by strings or piano, not by synthetic instruments.

            But that said, even our defense of the electronic, “ambient” elements of this work might set alarm bells off in the head of any Ambient or Drone purest. “Dynamic build”?? “Solo piano”?? “Melody”?? These phrases are not part of many an Ambient critic’s lexicon. But on the other hand, to call this album Classical music in the sense of 19th Century German Romanticism would be an insult to the extremely demanding complexity and tumultuous dynamism of the latter. And frankly the consistently subdued tone of The Undivided Five makes something like Music for 18 Musicians sound like a bit of a barn burner.

            So how do we reconcile these genre appellations? Is A Winged Victory out of place on a Drone webzine? Well, truthfully, I think the fact that this album does not easily fit into either category might point toward a larger cultural change in how we treat and listen to Classical and Ambient/Drone music. Classical music once was people’s only access to composed sound, and seeing a symphony was (for those who could afford the privilege) the cultural equivalent of attending an expensive stadium concert today—that is to say it was not only epic, but it was scarce. Now, Classical music is so ubiquitously known and so lightly treated that it might as well be Ambient music. It plays in the background at high-brow parties; perhaps you listen to it while you write an essay or read a book. But today the event of going to the symphony to see a Classical performance has been devalued to the extent that generally the only people who do go are over sixty (with the exception of myself, apparently, for how else could I report this information?). On the other hand Drone and Ambient music have been exalted to a status far above Eno’s original perfunctory description: some Ambient music is incredibly emotionally moving; Drone can be downright horrifying. You can dance to Ambient Techno if you’re in the mood, and maybe you can sing along with Ambient House. So somewhere in between these two cultural ideas lie a few syncretic artists like Max Richter and Nils Frahm and A Winged Victory who have tried to blend both worlds into something that reinvigorates the spirit of Classical music to move it into new territories or tempers the experimentalism of Ambient/Drone enough to make it more marketable and apparently more palatable for critics. You can decide for yourself if this is a positive development, but it appears to be the direction most Classical and Ambient music is heading these days.

By Isak McCune

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