Nashville Ambient Ensemble Embraces Space and Experimentation on Debut LP Cerulean

Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz

With their debut album Cerulean, Nashville Ambient Ensemble reimagines the art of experimental music. Founded by native Tennessean Michael Hix, who returned to Nashville in 2018 after honing his solo craft in New York’s experimental music scene, the group rapidly expanded into a septet, proving just how rich Nashville’s scene can be. “Moving back to Nashville, I was impressed by how people wanted to make music together,” Hix tells Audiofemme. “It reminded me what is so unique about making music in Nashville, and that is that it’s much more collaborative in nature.”

Hix quickly became a magnet for artists across the city seeking collaboration. After connecting with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Diatom Deli through social media, the two teamed up for a live show at East Nashville bar The Crying Wolf in 2019, where journalist and guitarist Jack Silverman was in the audience and suggested to Hix that they collaborate. Hix’s longtime friend Timon Kaple was also in attendance and approached him with the same request, presenting the first sign of the community spirit in Music City.

As a self-professed fan of musical improvisation, Silverman says the Ensemble was a welcomed invitation to join forces with like-minded musicians in the experimental music world. “To me it’s about completely losing yourself, and that’s something I’ve always felt about instrumental music and improvisational music. It’s like playing in the purist sense,” Silverman explains, comparing the process of working with multiple musicians to that of walking a tight-rope. “Everyone has to really be patient and listen to other people. I felt like I was discovering a whole new world of musicians who I related to a lot more.” 

Hix continued to build the multi-faceted group into a seven-piece ensemble where he serves as composer and plays synthesizer, with Silverman on baritone electric guitar and Kaple on electric guitar. Rounding out the band is Luke Schneider on pedal steel guitar, pianist Kim Rueger, Cynthia Cárdenas helming guitar synth and Deli providing vocals.

Nashville Ambient Ensemble. Photo credit: Jeremy Ferguson

The Ensemble’s debut album, Cerulean, was an exercise in patience and experimentation. The septet only rehearsed twice before heading into the studio for a two-day recording session to create the album, which was released March 19th, 2021 on Centripetal Force Records. Hix provided rough outlines for each composition, along with loose chord structure that was left open to interpretation, inviting the musicians to play off one another’s strengths.

“We all work together very naturally,” Hix observes. “I think one of the things that we achieved as a group was the sense of space that we allowed for each other, listening to one another, along with that semi-improvised setting. That kind of environment that we set up allowed everyone’s personal contributions to be more effective and heard.”

Deli admits she felt a sense of trepidation when approaching the project and trying to find her voice within it. “I viewed it as a challenge for myself,” the self-described “loner” says. ”It felt right to really challenge myself and be a part of something that is out of my element.”

Her calming voice guides the listener through the album’s six meditative songs, offering gentle whispers and simple words that poured from her stream of consciousness, adding as much dimension to the music as the instruments themselves. “The voice is being used as an instrument where you’re hearing and feeling in the way that a guitar would,” she explains of the “subconscious-driven” verbiage that arose from “intently listening” to her peers. “Intuitively hearing how each part was coming in and out was a very ebb and flow feeling, and I was feeding off of that with the voice.”

“It’s almost like a symphony where there’s all these different movements of a piece,” Silverman describes of the project. “There’s this tentative exploring wonder of getting to know people. I think the fact that we were all in that moment [of] ’what are we doing?’ added a certain awe to it and magic.” 

That magic is captured in the mellifluous arrangements that allow each musician to shine, Silverman harboring a connection to the title track that he composed and invited his fellow players to improvise on. “Cerulean to me is a shade of blue that is very striking, but very elusive,” he says. “There’s something about that shade and that color that is very mysterious and other-worldly to me.”

Meanwhile, Hix and Deli nod to “Coda” as a personal favorite, with Hix citing “Conversion” as one of the album’s most “effective” numbers in the way that it enables each musician to perform a solo in the span of its nearly 10-minute runtime. “It shows in the most comprehensive way what we were trying to do with the project, that balance between structure and improvisation,” Hix says.

Deli compares the album to a “musical jungle gym” that entices the listeners’ minds to play on the sounds while being open to the messages that apply to their own lives. “You’re just in this moment. There’s nothing else but this image that you’re watching and the world lights flickering on and off at the right moment of a sound coming in,” she shares. “The main message is be here and be here listening.”

“What it feels like to me as someone who participated in playing it is that you’re letting yourself be absorbed into a great whole and seeing what happens when you trust, let go and be in the moment to the point where you’ve lost all sense of self-consciousness. It’s almost like the music is playing you at that point,” Silverman analyzes. “What I’m trying to do is to find beauty in life and the universe and seeing how things connect. But there’s also a scariness in there. Life is intense; what I’m trying to do with my music a lot of times is process that. Sometimes there can be a darkness to it, too. There’s a lot of beauty and prettiness and chill melodies on Cerulean, but there’s also moments where it goes to slightly more mysterious and darker places. What I’m always trying to do is balance.”

Hix makes it a point to recognize the faint sound of laughter in the album’s closing track “Coda,” recorded during the final take of the sessions. It’s a sign of collective release from a group that leaned into trust and experimentation, knowing they conquered the journey with open hearts and pure intentions. Hix hopes listeners feel that same sense of liberation when they experience the music.

“I think everyone brought their whole selves and their whole lives to the music. I think it’s evident in their playing – it has a lot of heart in it. Their performances have a lot of power in them and it’s not just glossy, happy, bright feelings. The music has a lot of dimensions, and I think a lot of that is the result of everyone bringing their whole experience to the music,” Hix reflects. “My goal when making music is to create a space where someone can disconnect from the noise from their daily life and regain a sense of who they truly are. I turn to music for that, so when I’m making music, I’m doing that personally. I try to pass that on for the listener as well.”

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HIGH NOTES: Music Can Completely Alter the Course of a Trip

I’m in a living room overlooking the water in Vinkeveen, The Netherlands, surrounded by a dozen people tripping on ayahuasca, when the ceremony’s leader approaches my bed. “This song is for you,” she says. “I’m being guided to come to you.”

She sits down in front of me and looks into my eyes as Libby Roderick’s “How Could Anyone” plays:

How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply you’re connected to my soul

I’ve spent the past two ceremonies understanding the impact of my hypercritical parents’ words, and these are the exact words I need to counter them. Tears fill both our eyes as she says, “I’m crying for the same reason you are,” and we hug and cry and hug and cry.

Two months earlier, in the jungle of Yelapa, Mexico, I complain that I can’t feel the ayahuasca. “Focus on the chants,” the retreat’s leader advises. Three shamans chant strange sounds into the darkness as cartoons appear and disappear and warp and dance on the inside of my eyelids in tandem with the rhythm.

What the people in both The Netherlands and Mexico understood was that, whether through chants or pre-recorded songs, whether through tunes or lyrics, music can alter the course of a psychedelic journey.

The ancient tradition of chanting shamans exploits our brains’ affinity for repetition, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “A repetitive pattern can be grounding or evocative. Grounding can bring you to a continuous sort of neurological activity.”

The “inductive chant” in ayahuasca ceremonies intends to “put you in a trance-like, meditative state” to bring on the drug’s effects, while other chants may calm down a person in the midst of a difficult trip, he adds.

Music has the power to shape trips outside these ritualistic chants, and this isn’t specific to ayahuasca. “In aboriginal societies, music-making has often been closely linked to shamanic work: the medicine-man or priest is often also the musician,” says Mendel Kaelen, an Imperial College neuroscientist who studies therapeutic uses of music. “In our research, we have shown brain processes that music and psychedelics interact on to stimulate the imagination and intensify emotionality. In our therapeutic work, music is often described as a guide or even as a transportation vehicle that carries the listener to various places.”

This is why some designate “rescue songs” to play during bad trips, says Giordano. They find this helpful for the same reason a song we love might lift our spirits after a bad day. Whether it’s a tune we like, positive lyrics, or something we associate with pleasant memories, music alters our mood.

“Very often, you hear songs, and songs will stimulate your autobiographical memories: ‘Where was I when I heard this song? What does this song mean to me?’” says Giordano. The downside of this is that music you dislike or associate with bad memories can exacerbate a drug’s unpleasant effects.

Sometimes, the same music that uplifts you in your usual state of mind can also improve a trip. “There are a range of artists who have become excellent in creating music that help people feel calm, safe, and present in their body,” says Kaelen. “Ambient music was originally invented with this purpose in mind, but other styles – for example, calm neoclassical – can provide the same means.”

But this strategy can backfire if the music pushes down the emotions rising to the surface, rather than helping you work through them. If the song isn’t meaningful to you, it can detach you from your feelings.

“A common fallacy is to think that the best solution when someone is sad or fearful is to play happy, cheerful music,” says Kaelen. “In fact, this is likely to make it worse in most cases. At most, it may help temporarily avoid [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the pain] but not provide a long-term solution.”

“The purpose in psychedelic therapy is to not move away from oneself but to come to greater understanding and compassion for oneself,” he explains. “Emotions carry meaning, and music can be an effective aid in tuning into these emotions constructively.”

Psychedelics can take us to places where distinctions of sight vs. sound, body vs. brain, and self vs. other vanish. I’d like to believe the folk wisdom that says even plants know this, and that ayahuasca itself guided the leader toward me during “How Could Anyone” on that magical winter night.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

ONLY NOISE: Aural Anesthesia

Last year, before the presidential election tore through the fabric of reality like Dr. Who’s Tardis, a friend invited me to indulge in her Groupon – for a float. “Floating” aka “Flotation Therapy,” is a physically simple practice achieved by resting your naked self atop a highly concentrated saline solution. The super salty pool (upwards of 1,000 pounds of salt for just a bath’s amount of tepid water) suspends your bod like a buoy, and allegedly alleviates you of any tactile sensation. Though comprised of rudimentary ingredients, this spa trend can cost exorbitant prices ($75-$130 per “float”) when paired with mood lighting and Pandora’s “Enya radio.”

But what is the purpose of Flotation Therapy? The answer might be found in the treatment’s other name: the “Sensory Deprivation Tank.” Aside from sounding like the title of a Ken Russell film, the name taps into a deeper human longing than relaxation: the desire to feel nothing. Sure the tank suggests the separation of mind and body, spinal alignment, and even hallucinations. Benefits of a good “float” nod at the metaphysical – spiritual transcendence that can be accomplished by many trips to the tank over a period of time – but it was the nothingness I was most intrigued by (in part because I don’t believe in spiritual transcendence).

“Numbness” and “nothingness” are concepts more foreign to me than “health insurance” and “good credit.” Truthfully, I’ve always felt all the feelings; and if there’s one thing I’ve never felt, it’s nothing. I can’t help but wonder – if there’s a new age miracle treatment for feeling that boils down to a well-lit, salty bath – could music conjure a similar absence of stimulation…or better: emotion?

For music to negate feeling would be a true feat of inversion, like a baker un-baking bread. Music was made for emoting; it’s an especially potent dialect of emotional language that can make us dance to songs we think are crap and cry during trite commercials. But is there a song in existence capable of evoking the anti-feels? If so, I am desperate to find it.

Just as I was skeptical of the tank’s pledge of “sensory deprivation,” I doubted I could find a song, let alone an entire record, that would act as an aural anesthetic, an antidote to pop’s poisonous love songs, rap’s wrath, and disco’s boogie. But despite my suspicion, I knew right where to start looking: the ambient soundscape. After all, what better to numb ourselves with than the a-rhythmic, a-melodic wanderings of the ambient-electronic canon? I set myself up for a series of highly subjective, uncontrolled tests after a period of distress when even listening to the new Harry Styles single would make me weep (and not because it’s bad).

I first selected a couple of records – my “test drugs.” Then, during a moment of particularly intense emotion, I would pop one of my pills and see what happened. The first tablet to swallow was William Basinski’s groundbreaking Disintegration Loops. In making this four-album saga, Basinski recorded fragments of ambient music through a tape loop that captured the gradual deterioration of the tape itself – the subtle corrosion of the magnetic strip barely audible, but somehow still palpable to the listener. The result is a somnolent meditation on repetition, impermanence, and decay. It is a beautiful and delicate work that could probably benefit someone with insomnia, but that wasn’t exactly my problem. Sure, “somnolent meditation” and delicate beauty sound all good and anesthetizing, but then I thought about it a bit more: the Disintegration Loops are literally the sound of something (though tape) dying. Dying is sad. Sad is an emotion. Next.

Surely I could turn to my trusty No Wave hero Glenn Branca for a good shot of sonic Novocain – he doesn’t even believe in melody! I swallowed the eccentric composer’s 1981 album The Ascension like a fistful of Advil, and awaited its sweet relief. Unfortunately, The Ascension goes down a bit differently when you’re having an off day, and though I’m all for aggressive music, the record should perhaps be labeled thus:

“Side effects of listening to The Ascension during a period of emotional distress may include: discordant notes, furious drumming, agitation, crashing synth-cymbals, blood-boiling rage, satanic distortion, terror, and face melting guitar solos.”

I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks. William Basinski was too soft. Glenn Branca, too hard. Where was my happy medium? And by happy medium, I mean complete and utter nothingness.

I trudged through countless artists; Michael Gordon, Nils Frahm, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Oneohtrix Point Never – each sound, though wildly unconventional, still managed to stoke that pesky human defect: feeling. I was about to call it quits on my quest…and then I remembered his name.

Steve. Reich. If I had taken in Basinski and Branca like vitamins, maybe it was time to inject myself with Reich’s 1976’s masterpiece Music For 18 Musicians. Reich has long been a pioneer of minimal music, and it’s silly I didn’t turn to his catalog for my little experiment sooner. Could his compositions truly make me comfortably numb?

The answer, at long last, was yes. I had found the song to feel nothing to.

Music For 18 Musicians, though technically an album, really functions as an unyielding 59-minute song. Its continuous nature (there isn’t one breath of silence in the entire record) is necessary for optimal catharsis, because while music is the space between the notes, those spaces can destroy you. Space allows for thought, and thought is no damn good when you’re trying to sedate emotion. Music For 18 Musicians on the other hand, is so relentless, so packed with notes, that your brain is constantly trying to keep up with them, and has no capacity for wandering thought. Perfect.

When looking into the history of Music For 18 Musicians, I found that Reich was inspired by Psychoacoustics, which is the scientific study of our psychological and physiological response to sound (noise, speech, and music). Knowing this I feel a bit less nutty for reacting in such an intense way to Reich’s piece. Perhaps he wanted to offer the ability to momentarily transcend sentiment in the same way Flotation Therapy seeks to transcend sensation. Maybe more than an aural anesthetic, Music For 18 Musicians is an antibiotic, obliterating the good and bad bacteria simultaneously, destroying all cells in its path. Like a natural disaster, it has no emotional motive; its dense mass is purely self-perpetuating.

Aside from being the anthem for neutrality, I must say: Music For 18 Musicians is also the best break-up record of all time – if you’re actually trying to get over the break-up, that is. Trust me, I’ve tried all the others, and a year ago my heartbreak playlist would be wildly different. I’ve bathed in Muddy Waters and drank Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.” I’ve anointed myself with Nick Cave’s rage and drowned myself in the cold cruelty of Smog. But all they’re good for is salting the wound. Now, I don’t want a Hank Williams Band-Aid… I want a Steve Reich IV drip.

So what do you do when you’ve found the perfect drug? Get it approved by the FDA, patent it, and stock up. But the problem with any medication is twofold. Firstly, the effects wear off after a while, and secondly, you tend to build up a tolerance. Sure, the flotation tank and Steve Reich can suspend you in salty and sonic pools of beautiful nothingness – they can even eviscerate the pain for a whole hour. But what do you do for the remaining twenty-three, when you can’t be naked in a bath or listening to music? I guess therein lies the real experiment.