Opinion: how Boards of Canada create a sense of nostalgia and the passing of time in their music

"We just played the melody on a couple of whistles and then we bounced it back and forward between the internal mics of two tape-decks until the sound started disappearing into hell. Like when you look at an image reflected within two mirrors forever, in the distance it gets darker and greener and murkier.". 

That is Mike Sandison from Boards of Canada describing the creative process behind the track "Julie and Candy" from the duo’s 2002 album "Geogaddi". Since their 1998 debut "Music Has the Right To Children", the duo (brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin) have gained almost mythical status, renowned for their intensely atmospheric, genre-transcending sound. Multiple aspects of the duo’s sound merit discussion, but perhaps the most striking and often talked about characteristic is their ability to create a palpable sense of nostalgia and the passing of time in their music.

Boards of Canada's "Music Has the Right To Children"

When we think of nostalgia, it generally suggests a somewhat wistful sentiment for "the good old days". In consumerism, it can be seen recently in the popularity of products like the polaroid camera and the NES Mini Console. It can be seen in TV shows like Stranger Things and Maniac and in films such as the recent Star Wars offerings and the soft reboot of the Alien franchise.

What these examples have in common is how they trigger feelings of nostalgia. All involve the use of content that directly references the past. Accordingly, one’s sentiments for one’s own past are triggered and the psychological phenomenon called "rosy retrospection" (the tendency to remember the past with a disproportionate fondness) arises.

But this is not the case with the music of Boards of Canada. What their music conveys is not so much a feeling of nostalgia in the common sense of the term, but rather a vivid, tangible impression of time itself. The effect of listening to their music is often similar to the impression one gets when encountering ruined buildings, or viewing very early film footage.

Boards of Canada "Geogaddi"

The duo achieve this by a combination of means, the most distinctive being a "destructive" approach to production. The quote above is a prime example of their methods, which often involve using tape to essentially erode a sound source, resulting in the impression of a kind of "musical ruins".

Describing their utilisation of older tape machines for extreme saturation (when the level of a recording source exceeds the tape’s ability to record it), Marcus Eoin says "the great thing with machines such as the Grundig is that it's tragically bad. Whatever you record into it just doesn't come out unscathed. There's a ‘magic eye’ valve display on it, and when you hit the tape deck with the right volume, enough to fill out the magic eye, it's at that exact sweet spot that it is saturating the tape. So if you then sample back the playback, it's got a thousand years' grain on it."

This temporal quality of Boards of Canada’s sound is reinforced by other musical parameters. Cyclical, plaintive chord progressions and fragmented, layered melodies give the impression of having always been playing without beginning or end, like a musical analogue to M.C Escher’s art. A prime example is the track "Jacquard Causeway", which features a developing series of melodic figures set amongst a complex web of polyrhythms (layered, conflicting rhythms). The melodic figures gradually rise over the course of the track, and as the music fades, the suggestion is that they will continue to unfold, ad infinitum.

Boards of Canada "Jacquard Causeway"

The duo are known for their cryptic titular references. Besides the suggestion of the Jacquard loom, a 19th century precursor to binary technology, my personal theory is that the track’s title also alludes both to the Penrose Stairs (also known as the Escherian Stairwell, the famous depiction of infinity as an unending staircase) and John Coltrane’s "Giant Steps", a composition famous for its potentially unending chord sequence and melody. This theory is bolstered all the more by the fact that the melody of "Telepath", the track directly following "Jacquard Causeway", strongly resembles that of "Giant Steps".

"Jacquard Causeway’s" compositional method resembles the "additive process" technique of minimalist composers, particularly Steve Reich. This technique involves the gradual, cyclical assembly of a musical idea in fragments as the music progresses and the result is a heightened awareness in the listener of time passing. A similar resemblance can be found in the rhythm part of the track "An Eagle In Your Mind". The track begins with a slow emerging, timeworn drum loop upon which the beat is gradually teased into existence, only fully materialising two thirds of the way in at the 4:14 mark.

Boards of Canada "An Eagle In Your Mind"

As a final example, the track "Zoetrope" seems by its very title (which means "wheel of life") to suggest temporal connotations. It's named for the device that functioned as a predecessor of animation, a drum with a series of pictures inside which created the illusion of continuous movement when spun. The music perfectly mirrors this: haunting cycles of echoing, pulsating broken chords create the illusion of a perennial, shimmering melody that isn’t really there. The effect is akin to a kind of aural autostereogram, the 3D shapes hidden within abstract imagery that can only be perceived when the viewer relaxes and allows them to emerge. As a matter of fact, this analogy fits the duo’s cryptic musical aesthetic as a whole.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ