VWAM: Feeding the Flame

Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshiping the ashes.”

Mahler was an innovative composer of the late 1800s. His work was sometimes controversial, and not always popular during his lifetime. In fact, his work was better appreciated a century after his death. That’s ironic, given his quote, because his acceptance came while living innovators were largely ignored. But this is a common story.

Photo by Enache Georgiana via Unsplash

Photo by Enache Georgiana via Unsplash

What is it about the past that’s so appealing? Is it a need for reassurance, a craving of familiarity, or maybe fear of an unknown future? Whatever the cause, it’s clear that nearly all music “consumed” today is either old material or re-working of same. That’s what sells. (See the Nostalgia and Comfort Zones in the Music Matrix.)

Mahler’s distinction is important. The tradition to take from the music revolution of the 1880s isn’t that exact music, but rather the process and experience of discovery. Listening to the same old stuff doesn’t honor the tradition, it diminishes it.

All music has a flame that preceded it. The challenge is to feed the flame.

Consider VWAM - Vancouver Women’s Ambient Music Collective. Four synthesists working in a field historically dominated by men, have completed their first album, Amphibian Star.

The record continues an electronic music tradition that began around 1950, as technology made synthesized sounds possible. A lot of that music started in obscurity and stayed there. Check out this cool piece about electronic pioneers in Iron Curtain Poland. Other synthesists gained a little fame in the 60s and 70s, e.g. Klaus Schulze, Walter (Wendy) Carlos, and Tangerine Dream. As the technology became more affordable, electronic sounds exploded in pop music, bringing us to today. (See this massive list of electronic music genres.)

VWAM, to my ear, pays homage to the pioneers and builds on their work, adding unironic electronica-influenced grooves, improvised stretches and a whimsicality that is rare in ambient music.

VWAM, along with other RBR artists, is feeding the flame.