Labradford's 1999 album, E luxo so, is more subdued than their previous, Mi media naranja. Subdued enough, in fact, that even if you weren't thinking of Labradford as ambient musicians, you should be now.
As such, I'm going to take a brief look at how E luxo so compares to some of my favorite canonical and not-so-canonical ambient music: Eno's Music for Airports, which kicked off the modern interest in ambient music; Erik Satie's trois Gymnopedies, which explored the same area as Eno, more than fifty years earlier; and Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, one of the most popular jazz albums of all time.
The music is slow, measured: taken at a leisurely pace. What percussion sounds there are, are watery and muted, evocative of rippling rather than striking. The foundation of the music is gently plucked strings (electric guitars, cellos, etc.) and a quietly shimmering Rhodes piano (?), played mostly one-note-at-a-time. A dulcimer shows up occasionally.
In this the music is much like Music for Airports, in that it meets the conditions Eno stated in the liner notes for Music...: ambient music must be as ignorable as it is interesting. It works well at different levels of attention, different levels of distraction; even, to put it bluntly (though ambient music is never reducible to this alone), different levels of volume. The same is true of Satie's Gymnopedies, and mostly, of Kind of Blue. It's that "mostly" that interests me here.
Kind of Blue can be ambient music in certain situations. If the non-musical situation in a room is more active, more lively, then the album works better. For quieter, less active situations, the music is at times too rambunctious: Coltrane and Cannonball's solos, in particular, are played with strong, hard-to-ignore attacks, thus violating Eno's rule of thumb.
I say "certain situations," though, because the album does vary. "Blue in Green" and "Flamenco Sketches," in particular, are "more ambient" than "So What," "Freddie Freeloader," or "All Blues."
Listening to "Flamenco Sketches" the other day, I was struck with, perhaps, an explanation: as the liner notes tell us,
"Flamenco Sketches" is a series of five scales, each to be played as long as the soloist wishes until he has completed the series.The composition helps determine the mood to a large extent: even though the solos are each packed with melodic invention, the harmonic underpinnings (reinforced by Paul Chambers and Bill Evans) are largely static. There are "changes" of a sort in each solo, but they're not changes of the bebop sort, and certainly not as extreme as, say, the changes in Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
Inherent in this sort of composition is a stasis - a lack of forward motion, of a certain kind of dynamicism. "Flamenco Sketches" is carried forward by its melodies, but it's a lazy (though not undisciplined) motion.
This is the kind of motion shared by Eno's compositions on Music for Airports, and Satie's in the Gymnopedies. Notice how in especially the Davis and Eno, the sense of stasis is gotten at through playing with time. Eno's songs certainly do change, but they do so slowly, no doubt because music that changes quickly is hard to ignore, being that it presents a stimulus more like foreground than background.
E luxo so is distinguished for me, then, because it seems to simultaneously remain in stasis, while being in motion. I'm not yet sure what kind of motion, or how fast (it's certainly not that fast...). As Labradford are eminently "cinematic," though, I'll end by likening their synthesis of the static and dynamic to this image: that of a still scene, shot by camera, slowly being panned.