Caught by the River

Music for Listening 

Ian Preece | 16th April 2022

Ian Preece takes in Michael Scott Dawson’s ambient pastoralism.

My mate Wayne was telling me the other weekend how, as he gets older, he loves embracing, and feeling more deeply, the changing seasons. This was ahead of his planned Sunday morning digging over the vegetable patch, spreading the muck and bedding in the courgettes and turnips. Although we live in densely populated neighbouring East London boroughs, I know what he means. Maybe it’s part of our eventual return to being a grain of sand on life’s infinite beach — space dust in the eternal cosmos — that we feel a stronger, elemental sense of being grounded in the calendar year as each one passes. I love the idea of homegrown rhubarb in the crumble, cherry loaf cake sourced from next door’s tree, tomatoes ripening for the start of school term in September — actually getting moving with the shovel is another matter. I’ve always tuned my reading and listening into the seasons, though. This time last year I was lost in the fecund byways of Tim Dee’s Greenery; this year I’ve been stuck in the kind of eternal spring of southern Belarus in 1986: lush green sorrel and lettuce growing in the fields, potatoes ready for picking, jars of pickle and strawberry jam abandoned — all under ceaselessly beautiful blue skies — as thousands were evacuated from the area that bore the brunt of the radioactive cloud which briefly made the soil glow blue, as recounted in Svetlana Alexievich’s incredibly sad Chernobyl Prayer

All of which is a meandering way of saying, rather than dig the garden, the record I can’t take off the turntable at the moment is Michael Scott Dawson’s Music for Listening: a gorgeous, kind of pastoral, ambient suite of short tracks that grew organically as Scott Dawson strummed guitar, or toyed at the piano and with tape loops, along to a bunch of field recordings he’d previously abandoned but rediscovered after a phone call with his 95-year-old grandmother, wherein she discussed the garden birds visible from her seat by the window. 

Birds in the morning, birds in the evening — they’re on just about every track, softly in the background, along with, now and again, the lazy buzz and hum of insects. ‘There’s also the rattle and hum from a faulty street lamp that I always notice in front of my in-laws’ house,’ Dawson, from Estevan, Saskatchewan, in the middle of the Canadian prairies, told the Stationary Travels website. ‘And a couple of different recordings from old electric fireplaces I’ve come across in random hotels are on the record.’ Unusually, I guess, rather than being grafted on, field recordings form the trunk, the very essence of the LP — woven through them is a beautifully minimal tapestry of dappled notes, gentle chords, quiet melodies and repeating loops. What I assumed was the warming crackle and ruffle of the needle stuck in the run-out groove is probably the thrum of those old hotel electric fires. Side A is probably the more pastoral of the two — I was going to say Music for Listening could be the Saskatchewan From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, but a track like ‘Summerfallow’ brings to mind the yearning, open vistas of pedal-steel maestro Chuck Johnson circa Balsams, and some of Virginia Astley’s 1983 opus feels almost busy in comparison; although the more I listen to ‘Two Solitudes’, which opens side B, the more it seems to be bursting with teeming life. This is not a record to listen to in the background; you have to submerse yourself in it. File alongside the forlornness of Eluvuim; the twinkling gloaming of North Americans; the glassy clearness of Mountains; the pure love of simple sound magnified on records like Robert Millis’s collection of Japanese 78s, Sound Storing Machines, or Steve Roden’s magical Oionos; and — on the beautiful run of the closing three tracks, but especially ‘Mineral Rights’ and ‘North Dakota Stars’ — the lunar-module airiness of Eno’s Apollo and the unhurried cosmic serenity of Stars of the Lid.

Wanting to avoid the notion of a ‘pandemic album’, Dawson told Stationary Travels, ‘I’m not certain a decade or two from now folks will be eager to go back and revisit pandemic albums. Please don’t take that the wrong way, I certainly don’t intend to imply that I think I’ve created some sort of timeless masterpiece that will warrant revisiting through the ages. I think maybe it’s more that if some kid finds an old warped copy in the landfill twenty years from now, I hope whatever story is tethered to the album centres around childhood, home, and family.’ 

If someone does pull Music for Listening from some future dumpster, I’d like to think they’d be struck by the care and attention and sui generis nature of the record — landfill ambient this isn’t. Dawson’s approach — strumming along with a morning coffee while the TV is on in the background; working up something slowly around a buried field recording — sounds more in keeping with the Japanese notion of shokunin katagi: imbuing the process of making something with a kind of quiet, thoughtful beauty. Or, as Joe Moran put it in First You Write a Sentence, a process that ‘invests the simplest daily acts with artistry, whether it be making tea, raking Shirakawa gravel in a garden or curating that work of art and lunch that is a bento box’. It also relies on routine repetition, the slow mastery of an art rather than dilettantism. To borrow from the life of the Japanese radical folk singer Kan Mikami, there’s no question the world would be a better place if we all took time — years — learning how to properly peel a daikon radish before we consider ourselves an itamae.

People say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Not true. The sleeve of Music for Listening has an arrestingly stark photograph (taken by Emma Ruthnum) of pale sunlight falling on green vinyl seating. The expanse of water and distant land through the pane of glass suggest a ferry somewhere, maybe trundling across Lake Winnipeg to Reindeer Island; the light and minimal beauty suggest a Robert Adams or Gerda Leo print — totally apposite for when you place the needle on the record. 

(Music for Listening is released on ace Toronto label We Are Busy Bodies — home also to the soulful jazz guitar and penny whistle of The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzman — that jazzman being Gabriel ‘Sonnyboy’ Thobejane on free-flowing cowhide drums and thumb piano. Originally released in 1969, it’s one of the reissues of last year. On completion of this review I have not only hit the ‘buy’ button on a garden strimmer but also on Dawson’s Peace Flag Ensemble’s Noteland, a beautifully warm-sounding spiritual jazz affair of piano, trumpet and saxophone, also released last summer on We Are Busy Bodies.)


‘Music For Listening’ is out now.