The online home of Michael Bentley and The Foundry

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Non-fiction and journalism

Besides the many chapbooks, which tend to blend fiction and non-fiction, Michael has done a lot of writing in a more journalistic vein. He has written a number of articles related to his interest in the Scottish sport of Shinty (as well as writing and assembling the Decade Book for Northern California Camanachd), and has also regularly contributed music reviews to various print and digital publications. Below is a guest editorial he wrote for e|i Magazine back in 2005.



Michael Bentley
[Originally published under the title "Moribund the Listener" in e|i Magazine #4 - Spring 2005. Aether Ore was the intended title]

I like words. I have been known to spend hours perusing a dictionary, reading definitions and following meanings from one word to the next. This may sound tedious, but it's actually quite entertaining. I am always amazed at how layered word origins are, how the English language has grown and taken on new words, and how meaning is mutable over time. Sometimes following a word's evolution can serve as a kind of tool or key to other observations. I found this to be the case for me when I followed the history of one word in particular: ether.

These days we most frequently encounter ether in its adjectival form (ethereal, a word liberally sprinkled throughout many reviews of ambient releases), its meaning ranging from celestial and heavenly through unworldly and spiritual to immaterial or intangible. And that's just a sampling of its historical connotations. Archaically spelled "aether," ether came into Middle English through Latin from Greek. The original Greek meant to kindle or burn, and also to shine; think of illuminate or "cast light on." This was transformed in English to denote the element thought to form all heavenly bodies (planets, stars and celestial spheres in which these objects were thought to be embedded), in other words, the heavenly medium. (Interestingly, the same Greek root also can mean fair weather.) Some even supposed ether to be one of the constituent substances of the soul, and as such it was a rarified element that possessed a pseudo-mystical quality.

Over time this meaning evolved so that in early modern English it referred not so much to an element, but to the region of space that held the observable heavens, and even more simply, the sky and air. Further scientific advances helped to develop a new sense of the word, describing it as an extremely subtle fluid whose existence had been inferred by 17th and 18th century observers. This definition was refined so that in the 19th century ether was considered the medium for the propagation of light (in fact, of all electromagnetic radiation), and that it was weightless, transparent and frictionless, and permeated all matter and space. Eventually this use of the word faded as efforts to detect the ether failed and scientific thought followed other lines, but people still describe various transmissions as "sending our thoughts out into the ether." The most recent meaning of the word pertains to a class of solvents and anesthetics, the ether once used by dentists to deaden pain.

From heavenly medium to anesthetic - that's quite a trajectory of meaning. This path may sound familiar, as it appears that the evolution of what we call ambient music has followed same course. Where early experiments in sound were a way to actively create an environment, a complement to architecture and an expansion of interior décor, some recent releases simply aim to allow the listener to space out, to recede from the world, deadened by a sonic anesthetic.

Of course, every age has had its anesthetics. Beer and wine are ancient examples, along with various botanical substances, but perhaps our age is unique in utilizing media this way. Somewhat ironically, ether was once thought of as a medium of communication, becoming in time the conveyer of radio and television broadcasts. We have, in turn, created painkillers out of non-physical things, whether music or television or movies. Of course, these media are not without their physical effects, for there are those who suggest (with scientific evidence) that the frequency with which a television screen refreshes itself stimulates a physical response in the viewer, producing an alpha-wave state in which many conscious thought processes are suspended. Though the biochemical qualities are different than those produced by alcohol or narcotics, it is another way in which the senses are dulled. With the television's flicker, it seems that mass media has joined the list of anesthetics in the modern world.

I write these observations not to point fingers at others (I live in the glass house of my own recordings and sound files), but to make a point about how we approach the music we call ambient (or any music, really), as listeners and as composers. I wonder why it is that instead of aspiring to the heavenly medium (or even a medium for communication of serious ideas), ambient music seems to be devolving into simple anesthetic, a means to (artificially) soothe and deaden the minds of the listener. It is one thing for critics to say "oh, that's music for sleeping" by way of a put down, but another for ambient aficionados to aspire to nothing more than anesthetization.

All art is a means of communication and however we may choose to use a piece of music, a movie or book in our own life, there is always the potential to convey ideas and encourage discourse. The less we use our minds, though, whether in creation or perception, the more our abilities waste away. This atrophy can and will be felt throughout our culture and world. There is such potential for working toward meaningful change, that withdrawal from discourse seems shameful. The world may well be a wearying place and the very tools we have created may be increasingly demanding of our attention, but the response cannot be to slip away into a comatose state, can it?

Are my comments harsh? Have I drawn too much from a single dictionary definition? Perhaps, but these seem to be real issues. Does this mean we should never put on a CD to help us relax? Of course not, but we should not let ourselves fall into habits and be unaware of how we use and abuse our media. And even more important, we should not be afraid to try to engage in meaningful conversations through our production and consumption of art. Using our minds to envision things that do not (yet) exist is inherently human. Imagination is key for creating a new world. So while we may listen to a favorite recording at bedtime: is solely it to sleep, or perchance to dream?