If you’ve ever stepped out when the mercury dips below 20º F, you might recall how the sting of the air makes the moment seem larger, more immediate; how the snow crunches differently, and the sound seems to fly more easily across space; and how enveloping silence can be. Thomas Köner spent parts of his youth above the Arctic Circle, and the sonic and temporal transformations he experienced whilst walking on snowy surfaces in lethally cold air are part of his musical DNA.
Nunatak (originally entitled Nunatak Gongadur), Teimo, and Permafrost are Köner’s earliest albums. Originally released by Barooni between 1990 and 1993, they’ve gone in and out of print over the years. This three-CD set follows vinyl reissues of each record, and it makes sense to package them together. Each is sourced from similar material; recordings of gongs and homemade wind instruments that have been isolated, magnified and shaped (without resorting to melody and rhythm) into expanses of sound that warp the apparent passage of time, much like that cold polar air of Köner’s childhood. He dropped the track titles originally assigned to the pieces on Teimo and Permafrost; now the cover’s black and white images of arctic vistas are his only imposition upon the listener’s imagination. The sound does the rest.
Heard in sequence, one experiences how his methods evolved. The first record’s audible gongs and rare but striking contrasting gestures are artifacts of musicianship that disappear in the later volumes. Permfrost seems to hover rather than progress, its six tracks a series of massive formations of moving air and ribcage-ratting bass that bear slim resemblance to actual gong sounds. Played in sequence, these records are like a wormhole, a quick dip out of the here and now that wipes all slates clean.
These albums are regarded as cornerstone works of dark ambient music, but that seems like a diminishing label for a profound body of work. They do much more than provide an immersive listening experience; they’re object lessons in how much you can get from not much at all, their economy of means a stern reproach of the accelerating too muchness of contemporary life that has only gotten worse in the past 20 years. You don’t need so much, this music asserts; better to find something good and go deep.