Boards of Canada: enlightening or alarming?
One of the more unusual names in contemporary electronic music, not to mention sounds, Boards of Canada derived their identity from the 1970s documentary films of the National Film Board of Canada, and consist of Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin; interestingly enough they hid their sibling relationship from the listening public for over ten years, claiming to be “just childhood friends” until a recent magazine interview.
Boards of Canada make music for a genuine love of music; the majority of their releases are without advertising and few interviews. They have only performed a handful of times, and not in public for over 5 years; by way of explanation say they make their music firstly for themselves rather than commercial release. Their albums, each an individual project, separate from what went before and what will happen afterward, are the result of selecting complimentary pieces from a vast arsenal of current work; the 23 tracks that comprise the album Geogaddi (2002) were chosen from 400 song fragments and 64 complete songs; one of them consisted only of silence. Unusually, Geogaddi premiered with performances in six churches around the globe.
The Boards of Canada “sound” is reminiscent at times of the warm, slightly scratchy, artificial sounds of 1970’s television, and often features samples of children. Stylistically, it would correctly be categorised as ambient, but with a unique, nostalgic yearning for childhood, for happier days. As Michael Sandison describes the group’s music: “We’ve touched upon the theme of lost childhood a few times because it’s something personal to me that gives me real inspiration through its sadness. I think sometimes the best way to get inspiration is to face up to the things that make you very sad in your life, and use them.”
“There’s a sort of purity of sound that they have, and I guess we are striving for that ourselves, in our own way. We actually record a fair bit of music that is in that direction, though it’s not been released yet. Most of our musical influences are things like this, not electronic music.”
They also claim the Beatles as an influence, although mostly during their psychedelic phase, and also the enigmatic, infrequently recording My Bloody Valentine—last sighted in the Lost in Translation soundtrack—whom many critics claim single-handedly influenced almost every British band of the 90’s.
Marcus Eoin: “The idea of the perfect album is this amorphous thing that we’re always aiming at. For us it can mean something that’s full of imperfection, because part of our aim has always been to destroy the sound in a beautiful way. It doesn’t mean that we expect everyone would like it. I’m not sure that we will ever get there, to make the perfect record. But the whole point of making music is at least to aim at your own idea of perfection.”
A sound which can only be described as uniquely their own is the product of a strong use of analogue sounds, a mix of instruments real and synthetic, and often unrecognisably distorted samples, all layered and blended together into new forms: “A lot of the synthetic-sounding things you hear are actually recordings of us playing other instruments, pianos, flutes or twanging guitar strings…”
Amateur sound-engineers with tape-recorders since childhood, they continue the same ethos, securing ‘found-sounds’ with portable tape recorders, like electronic beeps in shops or from vehicles, which are then distorted beyond recognition. They also build songs around vocals lent by friends.
Despite the abundance of sounds available to the contemporary electronic composer, Boards of Canada seem to intuitively grasp the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi (‘sad-beauty’), their music an example of a belief that less is more, in minimalism, and leaving a space for implicit meaning to emerge:
“It’s important to leave a certain space there for the listener’s imagination.”
Their ‘In a Beautiful Place in the Countryside’ (2000) is possibly one of the most beautiful, haunting examples of modern electronica, a profound depth—and space—evoked through intelligent use of reverb, subtle changes of volume and intensity, and silence; children’s laughter mixed with somewhat askew, vocoder distorted vocals adds an air of disquiet to a song whose only lyric is a phrase from a religious flyer: “Come out and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” For a pair of musicians living in self-imposed isolation in rural Scotland, one suspects if anything their sentiments are sympathetic.
Their music is full of subliminal messages and cryptic messages, deliberately; the sources or meanings are seldom acknowledged by the group themselves, yet references have been found by listeners to religious groups, electrical pioneer Nicolai Tesla and the occult. Boards of Canada deny the accusation by some that they are Pagans, Christians or even Satanists—rather than being alarming, their intention is simply to be inspiring:
“We just put symbols into our music sometimes, depending on what we’re interested in at the time. We do care about people and the state of the world, and if we’re spiritual at all it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.”
Which is surely inspiring, rather than alarming.
Listen to Boards of Canada’s ‘In a Beautiful Place in the Countryside’