For me—and I think for most people—music instills two urges: to resurface nostalgia or ride imagination. One directs you to the past, the other into the future. Even at a live performance, the presence you feel in that moment stems from the musicians and performers—the songs themselves are still from or about another time and place. There is one song, Romantic Sports by ambient artist Dasto, that I know for certain doesn’t take me in either direction of time. I can think of plenty of moments within certain songs that have given me pause and prevented my mind from wandering or wondering for a split second, but very few songs in their entirety that accumulate to the same pause.
So what makes Dasto’s Romantic Sports different? Opening with soft volleys of frequency noises, Romantic Sports quickly comes into focus with its repetitive six minutes of two twinkly guitar “riffs” drenched in massive amounts of reverb and echo. Like one of Brian Eno’s generative ambient loops,1 neither guitar riff seems to be played consistently, and the two different tempos at which they are played means they never overlap exactly at any point. It’s as if the volatile nature of this interplay is the sports referenced in the song’s title, while the romantic aspect is the echoing that fills the impending spaces of emptiness right when you feel they should. But these riffs are not just plucked strings and chords. Fingers distinctly slide along those guitar strings from one note to the next like quick shrieks from nails on a chalkboard, except these airy shrieks are transformed into heavy auditory weight thanks to the reverb. And they echo on and on until they become a soft muffled chatter underneath these guitars, like frogs croaking in a creek.
Romantic Sports finds itself within a limbo of existence. Maybe because there are a lack of distinct vocals, for even the most esoteric lyrics or glossolalia can give a song a where and a why for its subject. Yet even without such vocals, a corporeal and biological presence still exists within Romantic Sports: those aforementioned fingers sliding on the strings of the guitars are clearly human, and the engendered croaking and creek-like environment are reminiscent of an ecosystem. Other ambient songs, especially field recordings, have recognizable corporeal presences like these as well, but when I listen to them I’m still thinking of either aforementioned direction of time.
While it seems to avoid an attachment to time as we understand it, I of course have a vivid memory of my first encounter with Romantic Sports. At some point I had downloaded the Dasto album that Romantic Sports opens, but I never listened to it. It was during a time of Mediafire and Megaupload music file sharing on the blogosphere where I just grabbed anything and everything that seemed of interest and dumped it on my hard drive. But one night, feeling overwhelmingly alone in my college dorm room my junior year of college and listening to that gigantic accumulated music library on shuffle, Romantic Sports played for the very first time. I still remember freezing in that moment and just staring off at the white cinderblock walls across the room. As if I were put into a trance, I played that song on a loop for I assume the next two hours. It made me erratically pivot from feeling like I didn’t want to live anymore to never wanting to leave that moment. It later became the song that I played softly—again on a loop—while I tired to fall asleep every night for many years. And now, almost twelve years later, I still listen to it when I desperately need to fall asleep.
I have countless other memories of Romantic Sports but I can’t say that any of them were attempts to relive or revive a moment or feeling from the past. I certainly don’t want to recount the depression and anxiety I felt in my college dorm, and especially not while I’m trying to fall asleep. However, I think it’s telling that I most often return to Romantic Sports before sleep, for it seems that the power of Romantic Sports is that its constant change of form is actually producing stillness. Not homogeneity but rather a creation of the present. Stillness as newness: simultaneously the adage “the more things change the more they stay the same” (newness toward stillness), and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy “repetition is a form of change” (stillness towards newness).
Stillness and nothingness can bring about obvious reflections of John Cage’s famous 4’33” composition, but that work is about escapism into your surroundings, recognizing how our ecosystem and built environment are generative forces in composition. This type of escapism—from our bodies—is like the flash of light that signals the definitive moment between life and death. The escapism of Romantic Sports simply drives the point further like a spiral toward its center. In a visual sense, the paintings of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko are similar to Romantic Sports. The conflicting boundaries of those paintings’ color fields are interzones of stillness—one field of color pushing another into a void of undefinable color, neither side of these boundaries gaining ground. These moments don’t cling to and slide with the past, nor do they grasp for and be dragged into a racing imagination of the future. These “still” works are in a way short-circuiting over and over again, not allowing one to react intuitively and thus creating the present. Stillness as the nothingness of the now: an ever-changing newness that no matter how much you magnify it or halve it, you will never get to the origin. With no definitive origin, the present can be considered a void that allows us to escape into ourselves.
To seek an escape into oneself is not to vanish or extinguish the (seemingly increasing) “dimensions of wellness”2 and then be defined as such. It is a compounding of zones that were/are/will be open to simply existing. In other words, a notion of what it means to be enough, whether that be defined as sufficient or no longer tolerable. When your exchange with a still work ends, you ask yourself “what now?” because such work won’t tell you answers—they are not guides. Their beauty lies in the fact that they are what they are. And thus each time I listen to Dasto’s Romantic Sports—and few other works like it—it’s as if for the first time ever I am what I am just for that moment.