Portland is a great city for ambient and experimental music. Maybe it’s because of how conducive the city is to long walks, maybe it’s just because everyone seems to be in their own heads for long months of the year, or maybe it’s just the freaky, arty spirit of the city.
Some of the most interesting and influential artists in the genre hail from Portland, from the Japanese-influenced Visible Cloaks to the purifying noise of Yellow Swans and Daniel Menche to the synth wizardry of Jason Urick. This list shines a spotlight on five of the most inventive artists working in the city right now, plus a local legend who’s on an enviable hot streak despite having been dead for almost 30 years.
This local piano teacher, designer, and musician is skilled at the art of the hustle. Many of her releases are available only as limited-edition cassettes, and her website offers everything from a circle-of-fifths reference poster for musicians to sheet music for her piano arrangements of Pokémon themes (remember Lilycove City?). Her love of anime and video games permeates nearly everything she creates, particularly Vidya World, a 12-album series of “expansion packs” for a video game that exists only through sound. Essentials: Vidya World, Heart Scale
Recording both as Pulse Emitter and under his own name, this longtime Portland resident has turned a childhood epiphany listening to the NPR “space music” program Hearts of Space into a 20-year career exploring the outer realms of synthesizer music. This year saw no less than seven releases from Groetsch: six self-released ambient albums under his own name—all of them great, with January’s Home Again as primus inter pares—and one Pulse Emitter album, Dusk, on puckish Chicago label Hausu Mountain. Essentials: Home Again, Dusk
Ernest Hood’s had a hell of a past few years for a man who’s been dead since 1995. A co-founder of KBOO, the onetime jazz guitarist released a private-press album called Neighborhoods in the mid-’70s, which received a much-needed reissue from Freedom to Spend in 2019. As luck would have it, the label unearthed an entire album of unreleased material this year: Back to the Woodlands, whose graceful proto-ambient palette of primitive synths and blooming zithers picks up where Neighborhoods left off. Essentials: Neighborhoods, Back to the Woodlands
One of Portland’s most prolific musicians has put out no less than 17 releases on Bandcamp this year, from the frantic rave jazz of S/T to the powerful and personal sound collages on Shadowboxing Until My Hands Bleed (not to mention a send-up of virtual pop star Hatsune Miku as “Hot Sauce Miku”). Matsui’s work is emblematic of both ambient music’s recent transition to more personal themes and the freedom Bandcamp gives artists to flood the market with experiments and side quests. Essentials: Shadowboxing Until My Hands Bleed, S/T
A longtime DJ at Ground Kontrol, Paul Dickow dug into the roots of the goofy rave tunes he found himself incorporating into his sets with his album Unexplained Sky Burners this year. Yet his catalog stretches back several decades and encompasses dance music, wonky glitch pop, gorgeous ambient music, and shimmering vocal-distortion fantasias. His Bandcamp is worth a deep dive, and if it doesn’t quite have “something for everyone,” it no doubt has something for anyone who’s read this far. Essentials: Drumsolo’s Delight, Music for Lamping, Unexplained Sky Burners
When listening to Patricia Wolf’s ambient music, it’s as if you’re hearing the world through a different set of ears. The local artist opened the year with I’ll Look for You in Others, a stunning meditation on loss, and followed it shortly after with the cheerier See-Through. She recently released an album of recordings from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, which benefits the American Bird Conservancy and allows Portlanders to journey to the other side of the state from the comfort of their speakers. Essentials: I’ll Look for You in Others, Malheur Wildlife Refuge: Late Spring