I was recently engaged in a conversation with a friend and sound artist who spoke about their practice as a process of registering abstract violence in projects, in rooms, and in sound. Compositionally, their primary objective was to participate in these registers as little as possible. They talked about the influence of Michael Reynold’s Earthship Volumes on their work, broaching on topics of permanence and transience, specifically on how building codes become harder to legislate when structures are claimed to be impermanent. In our conversation, it was argued that establishing permanence in composition can often defy the medium of sound, a medium that often becomes a hideout and register for time. Referencing Reynold’s writings, the artist compared sound to dwellings made of sand, structures that are in fact more permanent in the context of the desert — where sand is abundant — over any traditional “permanent” structure that will inevitably weather away over time. As refrigerator hums and car traffic swirled around in between both our words and glances, we both acknowledged that listening is at times an implicit meditation on this sort of empherality.
Following this sensibility, perhaps all music is ambient music. Still, there are abstract human tendencies that defer and distinguish the categorization of sound based on distinct and varied violences, pacifs, assumptions. Perhaps, then, “mono no aware” — a pathos toward things, an awareness of the impermanence or transience of things — emanates from a lack of participation in engaging in these violences, in these projects of building immortality.
The eponymous use of the concept of “mono no aware” for PAN’s compilation takes this entire discursive frame and whittles it down to produce a general heightened sensitivity toward sound passing in time. Although the compilation’s title refers directly to Japanese aesthetic values of weathered, organic tones — acceptance of the imperfect, the incomplete — the compilation and the artists involved push this sensibility into a more cybernetic space, where questions of memory and hallucination, fiction and reality are investigated and probed against the divide between phenomena and human listening. In contrast to the usual concise albums and mixes made from TMT’s favorite acronym artists — HELM, ADR, AYYA, TCF, M.E.S.H., HVAD — it comes with the thrill of a slap to hear their methods leak out in less pressurized statements of their contemporary sonic identities. With this compilation, PAN has afforded their most contemporary pantheon of artists an opportunity to showcase sounds that capture silence, sounds that overlap, sounds with the polish that only comes from being listened to over and over again, sounds with a sheen produced from extended and regular handling, like a weathered, worn lacquer bowl blackened with oils from hands.
The compilation drifts along loosely-curated palettes of tone, arranged in wide areas that unfurl over three or four tracks at a time. Opening with a reticent sonic mist on “Fr3sh,” Kareem Lofty’s gliding pads establish an immediate meditative mood. The piece settles in on a cool timbre that blends effortlessly with Malibu’s “Held,” where similarly tinted synths evolve into a slowcore guitar section that recalls Red House Painters’ devastating emotional terrain. Her vocal meditations amble into the devious bounce of Yves Tumor’s “Limerance,” where a blithe synth arpeggiation choruses sweet nothings like “stop fuckin’ lookin’ at me,” a romantic one-sided exchange that recalls Instagram Stories exchanged in the throw of loose bedsheets at dusk.
These more concise audio fields also evolve into wayward terrain. ADR’s ambitiously episodic “Open Invitation” soars with the drama of anime soundtracks and science fiction environments, pushing the compilation’s cochlear “ambient” into righteously cinematic territory. The piece is framed by HELM’s “Eliminator” and AYYA’s “Second Mistake” — two pieces that necessarily capture sonic space through either timbre or repetition — as buzzing whirls of cybernetic tone or pining sharp synths again field introspective moods. More passing moments healthily contrast standout works that demand individual re-visiting. Bill Kouligas himself delivers one of the compilation’s most visceral moments on “VXOMEG,” where gamified synths resound with a resonance of a tin can, heterodyning into a special display of sharpened spectrum. Jeff Witscher (Rene Hell) offers the compilation its most compelling piece on “ok, American Medium.” Blaring digital synths descend into concrète rain and Frederic Mompou-style piano plodding, leading up to a minimalist drone that recalls Tony Conrad’s iconic viola buzz, that famed American medium that Whitscher carefully and playfully skirts around.
TCF’s “C6 81 56 28 09 34 31 D2 F9 9C D6 BD 92 ED FC 6F 6C A9 D4 88 95 8C 53 B4 55 DF 38 C4 AB E7 72 13” characteristically breaks the compilation’s tracklist in a work that critic Alexander Iadorola describes as ” a world of indiscernible detail hiding within its deceptively placid melodic framework.” TCF achieves this by black MIDI — specifically the overlay of 150,000 MIDI notes — where ambience is created through the aggregate of small events achieving a cohesive form on the molecular level, recalling the granular techniques of Curtis Roads and Xenakis’s stochastic theories but sounding akin to Jon Hassal’s vision of ambience as explored in his “Fourth World” music. In contrast, M.E.S.H. contributes the stunning “Exasthrus (Pane),” a barely audible and uniquely vacant piece in the artist’s oeuvre, where in place of sharp blares and acid-worn digital ephemera, we hear the faint rhythm of rain drops spattering on glass.
Overall, mono no aware reveals a careful celebration of ambient form while remaining insistently open and forward-looking. A reflection of PAN’s deeply studied navigation of music history, a practice so adaptable to emerging sounds and scenes, the compilation comes across as a tome of empathy in the otherwise deafening continuum of sonic identities and attempts to be heard. This is heard from the Satie-like piano rumination and urban melancholy of SKY H1’s “Huit” to Eve Essex’s deeply expressive saxophone signaling above James K’s noise vacuum; the works and artists highlight an activism in their efforts to participate in collective and associated listening. Some say that “mono no aware,” in all its celebration for transience, is an essentially pessimistic aesthetic — the aesthetic not of a celebrant but of a mourner. Perhaps it’s this mourning for the passing of time, this bright pessimism, that reveals our empathy — an opportunity for a shared listening so rare in our musical relations and projects.