Originally released in 2003 on Edsel Records, this two-disc collaboration between synthesizer music pioneer John Foxx and ambient piano maestro Harold Budd was re-issued last year on Foxx’s own Metamatic label. Yes, it was sort of cheating to include its opening track (“Subtext”) on my “favorite songs of 2015” list, but I don’t feel too bad: Translucence / Drift Music ought to be required listening material for fans of elegant, serene ambient music.
It’s difficult to know how much the music here owes to Foxx, and how much to Budd. On Translucence, though, the music seems more in line with Budd’s oeuvre: that is, contemplative, deceptively simple, and gently melancholy piano compositions drenched in reverb. And I daresay these twelve songs represent a high-water mark for Budd, with the aforementioned “Subtext” easily being my favorite Budd composition, period.
Each note that emerges from Budd’s piano during the song’s six minutes is as exquisite as a finely cut jewel left shimmering in the light. Even as I wrote this review, I listened to it on repeat several times just to try and better comprehend the wells of emotion and sublime beauty contained within its timespan.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that for all of its loveliness, I have found Budd’s music a bit cloying at times — it’s too ephemeral, too pretty. But with Translucence, there’s none of that thanks to the duo’s use of silence and space, which is used to great effect on songs like “Subtext,” “Momentary Architecture,” and “Adult.” They isolate each note and hang it there in mid-air for what seems like a too-short infinity, suspended only by thin strands of reverb and echo. The notes are so beautifully crafted that you don’t want them to stop ringing, and yet they all inevitably fade in a perfect audio distillation of mono no aware. “Here and Now” comes close to cloying — are those bird songs in the background? — but Foxx and Budd’s use of space and silence again leaves it a subtle piece replete with nostalgia and melancholy.
Just as Translucence is aptly titled for the crystalline, ephemeral nature of its songs, so too is Drift Music aptly titled for its more purely ambient washes of sound. While lovely in their own right, and probably closer to what most people consider “proper” ambient music, Drift Music’s songs are far less defined than those on Translucence. Here, the reverb — either natural or electronically enhanced — is given full reign, and as a result, the striking, singular sounds that characterize Translucence all become blurred together (with a few noteworthy exceptions such as “Resonant Frequency”).
Which means that songs like “Sunlit Silhouette,” “Some Way Through All the Cities,” and “Curtains Blowing” are far more atmospheric and ethereal than “Subtext” or “Momentary Architecture,” but they lack the elegance and emotional clarity contained within the first disc — qualities that are hard to put a finger on until you hear them conveyed as masterfully and gracefully as they are on Translucence.