In pop music, as in classical, there is nothing authentic or natural about the yearning for the countryside that goes by the name "pastoral." To be inspired by the quietly rural or the naively rustic, to want to evoke a landscape or mood alien to the city—this is a wholly urban phenomenon, something self-conscious and manufactured, a style. And it's always reactive. Pastoral music, be it Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 or The Basement Tapes made by Bob Dylan and the Band, holds up an idealized bucolic realm to which the listener escapes—escapes not only cacophonous civilization, generally speaking, but other music, music thought to have grown too loud or labored: decadent music. The pastoral exists to provide a balm for the ear and a calibrated back-to-basics corrective for music itself.
The surprising popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack has been understood as just such a healthy, hinterland restorative by a number of critics, who seem unconcerned that the bluegrass revival the CD has sprouted is actually a re-revival (remember Jerry Garcia and David Bromberg?) of a sonically, geographically, and temperamentally limited music never done better than it was in the '40s by Bill Monroe—or much differently since. A pastoral reaction doesn't have to be an aesthetic throwback (see under Romanticism). Sometimes it can nudge music forward, be something new or even wildly experimental—which is precisely what's happening just now in that most urban and cosmopolitan of pop-music undergrounds, that of the computer-generated music called electronica.
It gets called "organic electronic music" or "folksy electronica" or, more frequently, "electronic pastoral." None of it sells much, even by modest electronic-music standards, though its influence can be heard and felt in two of the most adventurous hit albums of the last two years: Radiohead's Kid A and Björk's Vespertine. It has nothing at all to do with the songs of the rural American South, and only intermittently with songs, period—like all electronica, it's mostly a music of soundscapes, of mounting and ebbing atmospherics and grooves. Much of it is best-suited for an elevator at a Big Sur spa. The best of it, though, with its hypnotic chord progressions and childlike melodies and ethereal textures built upon inventive mixes of electronic gadgetry and traditional folksy instruments, is lovely and transporting. Like no other music, it evokes a 21st-century pastoral, a sense of the temporal and spatial collapse of the distance between city and countryside: acoustic laptop.
The best-known of the relatively unknown acoustic laptopists are the Boards of Canada, aka Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, who are said to lead a sort of neohippie existence on the northeast coast of Scotland. (Like many electronic artists, they cultivate anti-rock-star anonymity.) The group's name has its origins in the National Film Board of Canada, or more precisely, the soundtracks for the nature films it's produced, which are an influence on the music Sandison and Eoin conjure. Other influences include the ambient music Brian Eno began making in the mid-'70s, in particular his seminal Another Green World—music in which shifts in synthesized sonic texture and coloration do the work of imagistic lyrics, suggesting place, narrative, meaning—and the early morning, post-rave "chill out" electronica made in the early '90s by such artists as Autechre and Aphex Twin. (This subgenre has come to be called Intelligent Dance Music, or IDM, as if electronica didn't have enough problems attracting listeners.)
The Boards' music is at once more infectiously rhythmic than Eno's spacious drones and less angular and metallic than typical IDM. Layering moody synth chords, looped found sounds (children's laughter, for example), and simple keyboard figures atop gentle electro-beats, the Boards construct wistful tone poems to an Arcadia glimpsed from a high-speed train. Their song "In a Beautiful Place out in the Country," which atypically features a vocal (electronically treated), is as close to an anthem as electronic pastoral has.
The Boards have gotten a fair amount of attention in Britain, and what sounds like their influence can be heard not only on several tracks of Kid A but on any number of CDs made in bedrooms and basements by do-it-yourself knob-turners. Among the finer of these recordings is Chiff-Chaffs & Willow Warblers, the debut album of Minotaur Shock—David Edwards, to his friends in Bristol. Edwards' music ranges from a kind of English-folk electronica, with pretty melodic passages that echo sea shanties and the like, to sunny (and witty) computer-beep evocations of nature at work: Wayfarer happens upon keypad. Edwards also employs an acoustic guitar here and there, as do a number of electro-pastoralists, none I've heard more affectingly than Kieran Hebden, a Canadian techno-wiz who records under the name Four Tet. His album Pause, on which you'll discern murmurings of harp and zither along with six-string picking, could be mistaken for John Renbourn with Pro Tools.
A couple of new recordings in the genre feature soundscapes that border, albeit restlessly, on the territory of more traditional song structure. An artist calling himself Dntel (what is it with these guys?) cuts and pastes acoustic-guitar samples and down-tempo beats into mellow instrumental soundscapes throughout his album, Life Is Full of Possibilities. But on a haunting track called "Suddenly Is Sooner Than You Think," he brings in a fragile-voiced female vocalist to sing a bare-bones folk ballad over drum loops, elemental bass notes, and what sounds like an electronically treated accordion.
And then there is Múm, poised to be the next new thing out of Iceland: A quartet (including classically trained twin sisters) who program laptops and play vintage analogue and newer digital synthesizers along with guitar, cello, accordion, and glockenspiel. Their debut album, Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK, created a hipster buzz internationally when it was released on a tiny Reykjavik label at the end of 2000, and its music-box washes, lullaby melodies, and naif programming found echoes in Björk's work with the San Francisco laptop duo Matmos on Vespertine. Múm will have a new album, Green Grass of Tunnel, out later this month from England's FatCat Records (which launched Sigur Rós in Europe and here), and there is an American summer tour being planned. They are not likely to remain underground or anonymous. Nor should they: There is nothing "difficult" about the experimental music they make. The title track from the forthcoming album builds from a whisper of glockenspiel and bells and blips to a trip-hop-meets-Velvet Underground syncopated folk drone before one of the sisters—tentatively and girlishly—introduces a gentle melody about what may be a swim or may be a daydream. It's perfectly pastoral, warm and soothing and, in more ways than one, far, far beyond.