As a netaudio ambient music aficionado, I’ve developed a sense for sniffing out the best stuff, and as I’ve said before, the good stuff is as good as anything you pay for. One of my favourite discoveries has been the music of Lucette Bourdin, a French painter and ambient musician. I faithfully collected her releases as they were put out by Earth Mantra netlabel, and not a week went by that I did not (and do not) listen to at least one of her albums since I acquired Timeless Shore in 2008.
So I was blindsided in 2011 by coming across the announcement that she had passed on in February of that year. It turns out, unbeknownst to me and no doubt many others who enjoyed her music, that she took up the making of ambient music as a result of her diagnosis with breast cancer. As her site (still up) says: “Her music was especially the product of her transformation through cancer. When diagnosed she said of her desire to create music, ‘if not now, when?’.” Essentially, then, the making of this incredible music was therapy for her, but also, I speculate, born of her desire to bring as much beauty into the world as she could before the end, should that end come.
Sadly, it did. But mission accomplished. For this musical legacy she has left us is of such consistent beauty and quality that it’s mind-blowing how quickly she became a master of this most difficult musical form.
Lucette’s death affected me deeply, as much as the loss of a few other musicians whose music touched me, and I can remember them all: George Harrison, Grant McLennan and Stuart Adamson, people whose work enriched my life in ways that I wish I could have expressed to them when they were alive, but never could or did.
Bourdin was also a very talented painter, working mainly with scenery expressed through blocks of vivid colour that bring out the hidden wonder and beauty of nature — the suchness. In that, her work strongly resembles that of Nicholas Roerich, another painter I greatly admire. Her artwork adorned the covers of her albums (well, the jpgs, I guess!) and is a fitting complement to the sounds therein.
She experimented a bit in her music with beats, field recording sounds and longer and shorter pieces, but essentially her style was expansive classic ambient, beautiful waves of synth pad sounds and evocative harmonic textures. There is a femininity to the music that is quite fitting with her paintings of the Earth.
Bourdin was incredibly prolific in the years before her death, with more than 20 albums listed on discogs.com. I do not possess all of them — I must point out that Dark Duck Records has put out a number of presumably excellent albums (some posthumous) for which they charge, and when I have a fistful more dollars I will add them to my collection. (2020 update…these are now on Spotify and YouTube, and I can say that the massive work Nordic Waves is easily on a level with the best of Bourdin’s work.)
Hence, I can only point out some highlights so you will know what to expect when you decide to improve your quality of life by downloading the lot. Bourdin also offered a number of earlier musical works on her site, including Colors, Shapes and Rhythms, Soaring Above the Thunder and Oceanic Space. These are all excellent and also worth getting. Do it while you can!
–Timeless Shore is an enchanting 70-minute long-form piece featuring a field recording background of shoreline sounds and seabirds. There isn’t much variation in this soothing piece — it’s definitely for drifting away and taking a nap as the waves of synth sounds match the ocean waves crashing on the shore. Right away when I heard this, I knew I had come across a talent. Ambient music is not easy — it can sound overly new agey and cheesy without appropriate tastefulness being wielded. This calming music is perfect and definitely for lovers of Steve Roach’s long-form albums.
–Seeking Ganesha stands out a bit in Bourdin’s discography, being a concept album about India. I’m a big fan of David Parsons, the king of ethno-ambient, and this strongly resembles his output. Samples of Indian sounds (ie tablas, sitars) are used tastefully to add an exotic texture without sounding like musical tourism. Street sounds and train sounds (being the primary mode of transport between cities in India) are also incorporated. Another amazing album — most musicians might take a decade before developing the skills to put out something of this quality.
-Bourdin then released three “sky”-themed albums in 2009. Radiant Stars is very much a nighttime album, three long pieces of murky pads and chiming percussion noises. The massive space-music synth chords will be perfect for fans of Jonn Serrie and Constance Demby as well as Vidna Obmana and Thom Brennan. It’s definitely a trip round the heavens.
–Golden Sun to me is tied with Nordic Waves as Bourdin’s masterwork, a two-CD set (if you burned ’em) of pieces of shimmering beauty redolent of the happiest sunny day that you can remember in your life, those golden-hued memories of an idealized youth. It’s one of the best ambient music recordings ever made, from start to finish. Need I say more?
–Silver Moon can be seen as a nocturnal companion piece with darker, moodier textures and even some mellotrony synth choir action that conjures up the nobility of a starry sky. Like Golden Sun in reverse, this album will take you to a night in your life when you sat in a garden under the canopy of stars in contemplation of your smallness. You were presumably not stoned at the time.
–Horse Heaven is the closest Bourdin got to pure space drift music, big slabs of pads that reduce the listener to a drooling, happy mass of bliss. Another album of dark but peaceful textures. It reminds me of the two excellent Telomere space music albums. Another must-have.
-Rumours from Cypress Town
is collection of shorter pieces that ostensibly serves as the soundtrack to an unmade movie. As such, there’s a bit more variety in the tracks, but the overall tone is closest to the sunnier textures of Golden Sun than the other more nighttimey albums. Another great start-to-finish listening experience.
-Finally, she also collaborated with Darrell Burgan on Prasantih and Samhata, two excellent albums with a character of their own, much moodier and closer to dark ambient — not Lustmord-dark, but definitely bleaker in a compelling way. Her last recording was a collaboration with Phillip Wilkerson, another top ambient artist of a similar bent, on Coast to Coast, an excellent melding of the two composers’ strengths.
And then she was gone. This woman released a lifetime’s worth of work in six short years. Not only that, but it is a body of work that should be envied by any musician with aspirations of artistic success.
If you make music like the next day could be your last, it’s amazing what you can achieve: work of such breathtaking immediacy and soul that it betters the lives of all willing to listen. Purity of intent really is everything in art.
That was Lucette Bourdin’s gift to us, and I for one am grateful that she left it behind as she departed on her journey to the places only hinted at in her music.