Features I by I 04.02.18

Ambient music at 40: Lawrence English examines the future of a drifting genre

As Brian Eno’s seminal ambient classic Music For Airports turns 40 this year, Lawrence English examines the genre’s impact, its initial manifesto and where it can go as it struggles past its mid-life crisis.

Ambient Music has arrived at middle age. 2018 marks 40 years since the release of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, which effectively introduced the term. As a musical form it has endured, even though its sense of self as a genre has become arguably obfuscated at best and ineffectual at worst. Genres, like human beings, can undergo periods where direction and clarity are lacking. When such periods take hold in the middle years, a mid-life crisis can often occur. With that in mind, I am reconsidering ambient music and its place looking into the 21st century. What might ambient music’s next decade (let alone 40 years) be concerned with?

Before gazing forward, it’s useful to recognize how we arrived at this point in time. But this is not a survey of ambient music recordings as such. This text is offered as an interrogation of what ambient music represents and, more importantly, can represent to the current and future generation of artists and listeners.

Ambient futures

With the release of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports in 1978, ambient as a genre arrived seemingly wholly formed, albeit atmospheric and elusive all at once. It was aided by a short, but provocative text that acted as a potent reminder that music is not just unto itself, but rather is part of a propagating sonic system bounded between composer, time, technology, society, space and most of all, us as listeners. Eno sought to build on the scaffolding of 1975’s Discreet Music, which reappraised the potential roles and relations of music and environment. Specifically, Eno’s ambient music experiments were about formalizing the relationship that exists between music, listeners and the places in which they encounter one another.

Since 1978, ambient has achieved a considerable legacy, offering a fertile ground upon which many divergent musical crops have been tended and cultivated. Its ability to refuse didacticism – the idea that the music should convey some kind of information or instruction – has remained a critical function of its success. Ambient proposes a chance for an open, impressionistic encounter that welcomes a wide array of potential readings, tailoring the music to individual situations and listenings.

Before its musical application, ambient and, more broadly, ambiences existed in a variety of forms; in literature, in the visual arts and in architecture. Its presence in music, prior to its formalization, is often as fleeting and mysterious as its affect. Like a specter, it ebbs and flows through various 20th century works without proper definition or interrogation.

Works such as Erik Satie’s “musique d’ameublement” (furniture music) reflected a certain interest in the decentralization of music, its existence and placement as an atmosphere in time and space and its ability to affect us and the places we find ourselves encountering it. Like Satie’s work, ambient music is about this spatial (real and imagined), decentralized approach. “It’s connected somehow to the perception of space,” says composer Felicia Atkinson, “to a point of view that reflects the viewer’s (changing) mood”.

Whilst not aesthetically aligned, some of the sonic philosophies espoused by John Cage helped open up the ways in which sound and listeners (and performers) might be made to serve each other differently. Equally, the atmospheric nature of the work, its promise to float us sonically, was reflected in the earliest popular field recordings publications, such as the Environments series. In a recent exchange, David Toop expanded on ambient music’s environmental connection:

“Ambient is often conceptualized as a landscape, an environment, and these days anything remotely ambient is described with R. Murray Schafer’s term, soundscape. In the past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about this word ‘environment’ and how it acts upon us. In my experience people tend to think about environment as an external field, something complex and tangible ‘out there’. From there it’s a short step to the individual operating at the centre of the universe, marauding like a tank in order to penetrate and dominate the world that is not itself. It’s stereotypically masculine, a vortex of problems, and music, even ambient music in its surreptitious way, often conforms to that binary gendered model since it wants to shape and hold static an image of so-called beauty that excludes all that is inconvenient.”

None of these sonic lineages though are wholly accountable for the arrival of ambient. They are as much on its fringes as a great many other musics that contributed to the gaseous nebula of ambient music. Tracing the roots of ambient music across the first three quarters of the 20th century is complex in the least. Aesthetic, philosophical, technological and environmental concerns all provide clues to ambient’s arrival, but no real answer; nor should they. Ambient started as an ethereal, atmospheric fog, created on the dusts of experience, collected from the fringes of comprehension. Bleeding boundaries, blurriness and muted, yet rich forms were in fact the raw elements from which the music itself was born.

Ambient futures

The early years are often carefree and the intoxication of the new can be absolute. In the case of ambient music, as time passed and as more voices were added to the choir of composers, the clarity of the atmosphere that ambient had assumed started to become heavy with competing elements. Ambient grew from an almost monophonic voicing (let’s face it, Eno’s messaging across those early ambient records published by Virgin was pretty well absolute for a moment), to polyphonic and then swelled into a wall of diverse musical expressions that had tethered themselves to various aspects of the genre.

By the end of the 1980s, ambient music’s intentions, aesthetics and potential applications had collided with, merged and in some cases been overwritten by a variety of music that radically expanded and arguably confused its initial understandings. Its conflation with new age music is just one such example outlined by John Twells recently.

Ambient had, like so many musical terms, become profoundly diffuse – a product of sloppy application and overuse. There were moments where it could mean just about any music that might be used as an audio blanket, something constant and lulling, within which you might be gently consumed. As the ’90s unfolded, ambient’s usage in tandem with chill-out and an exploding list of electronic music genres further eroded the promise of its determinate qualities.

Ambient’s usefulness as a point of navigation in music was only really saved by books such as David Toop’s seminal Ocean Of Sound, which pondered ambient extensively at a meta-level: culturally, historically and experientially. In some respects, Ocean Of Sound offered a critical sense of direction and value to the otherwise exhausted genre by arguing largely for a rejection of genre in favor of a more effective reading of how ambient might operate within music culture – an understanding that floats and seeps, just like the potential of the music itself.

Simon Reynolds wrote a wonderful summary of ambient in 1993 for Melody Maker: “Ambient is un-rock and roll because it’s built up by layers, whereas rock is about jamming: instruments fit together like cogs, forming a rhythmic engine that kicks your ass. Ambient is kind to your ass. It’s sofa rock, Erik Satie’s ‘furniture music’.” Ambient eventually outlived all of the increasingly fragmented sub-genres it spawned in the ’90s, including my personal favorite, electronic listening music, but its vaporous form continued to be restless and ever-present.

Ambient futures

So where does this leave us? What is the value of ambient in an age where distraction reigns supreme and music is so often just another data flow to filter out of the everyday. If we struggle to hold our attention on even the most dynamic of experiences, how can a music of tints and shades possibly maintain meaning, let alone relevance? When Eno formalized ambient, the world surrounding the music was radically different at almost every level and yet, it’s in Eno’s initial provocations that a fresh understanding of why ambient should persist might be found.

These early provocations have acted more as mantra than an opportunity to make inquiry with respect of ambient’s intent. On Music For Airports’ liner notes, Eno wrote, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” This phrase ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’ which has echoed since the release of the record, has always seemed problematic to me in that it counteracts the preceding words of his statement. Listening is about agency and application; it’s about us being invested in something; to ignore music is not to listen to it. It is to not hear those sounds as music, but rather let it slip into the subconscious flow of acoustic filtering that is our daily sonic daydream. It’s this unresolved statement that I feel unlocks the core of what ambient music’s future value is.

It’s critical to understand how ambient music is encountered and how it creates, augments and even interrupts spaces. When we listen to ambient music, be it to work to or even to sleep to, we are choosing it for a specific range of conditions it can help to realize for us in the places we work and live. It’s important to also understand how that process creates a temporally unique atmosphere that transgresses the boundaries of our interior thoughts and feeling, and the exteriority of the places we find ourselves in. Felicia Atkinson summarizes this: “Ambient Music is derived from impressionism, it emphasizes the singularity of perception, and it seeks to create an imaginative environment”.

Not to be confused with Eno’s Discreet Music, ambient is experientially discrete in that place and time maintain an affective relation with the music and simultaneously with us as listeners. Regardless of the ways ambient music is encountered (on ear-buds traveling to work, whilst cooking in the home or in bed just before you sleep) in these moments, place and music interact and our role as listeners is realized and ideally honed. As listeners, we perpetually come to the music in new ways as the relations between it and the events happening in parallel – as well as our capacities for listenership – re-contour the dynamics of the composition. Each impression, to use Atkinson’s phrasing, is just ever so slightly different from the one before it, and yet still we clearly recognize the nature of the composed acoustic masses. We can always tell that fog is fog, but the detail that exists within it is never identical.

To help define a condition (rather than the condition) that creates ambient then, we must recognize that this music is a type of unspoken contract. It is about acknowledging as a matter of primacy, that the experience of the music is an open dialogue between the interiority of our affective listenership and the exteriority of the spaces and places that hold the music as we experience it. Ambient embraces the variables of the situation in which it is encountered, it forgoes any sense of control in favor of prioritizing a discrete subjective perspective. This is paramount as a defining concern of ambient music.

Furthermore, the parties implicit in this contract, the composer and the listener, must recognize that total control can never be realized and the identity of the music is never wholly owned, but rather it is constantly becoming. Upon each re-visitation, in a different place, at a different time, through a different playback situation, the music evolves. It lives within the complexity of these relations and is primarily about, to use Eno’s initial provocation, “to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular”.

David Toop furthers this examination of the relation between ambient and listening: “There’s another possibility of listening that opens up to us, at a time when loudmouths prevail and to be a listener is to be considered a snowflake, to be slow or weak or ineffective. Combine that with new ideas on ecology, gender fluidity, anti-speciesism and the liveliness of matter and objects and the future has the potential to be almost unrecognizable. Potential, even though our current prospects point elsewhere. That means that a new conception of environment emerges and so ambient music (ambient meaning ‘surroundings’) possesses all of its radical qualities.”

It’s in this radical and relational space that ambient can sideswipe a mid-life crisis. There isn’t, nor should there be, a simple, singular answer to the question of what ambient is or moreover what it can be. Rather ambient, to use another Eno-ism, should be “constant but never solid”, a music that is conscious of how it can exist in the world and also how it shapes our world (inside and out). It is a contractual music that requires certain conditions met, if it is to be realized meaningfully. Ambient should always be a process of becoming, like the atmospheres it purports to create. It should be in states of arrival and departure simultaneously. Each encounter we have with it, as creator and listener, effects the way in which ambient music exists. In essence, we alter the potential realization of ambient music.

To this end, and given we have arrived at this middle age of sorts for Ambient music, I wanted to propose some (not so) gentle provocations to stir future conversations as this music persists into the future.

12 notes towards a future ambient:

Ambient is a music of lived moments.

Ambient recognizes control must be forgone with respect to how the music is encountered (but not how it is composed).

Ambient is experientially discrete, but not musically so.

Ambient acknowledges the deceit that is the promise of repetition.

Ambient is never only music for escapism. It is a zone for participation in a pursuit of musical listenership that acknowledges sound’s potential values in broader spheres (the social, political, cultural etc). It is a freeing up, an opening out and a deepening, simultaneously.

Ambient pulses; it courses. Rhythm is a rare friend to this music.

Ambient is never only music. It is a confluence of sound, situation and listenership; moreover it’s an unspoken contract between the creator, listener and place, seeking to achieve a specific type of musical experience.

Ambient is about the primacy of listening (for audience and creator). The music and the spaces and places (interior and exterior) it occupies are critical to how it is appreciated, understood and consumed.

Ambient is transcendent but does not seek some higher plane. It is not new age music. Rather ambient music’s transcendence is within, and invites us deeper into the lived experience of the everyday.

Ambient is never a documentation of somewhere or sometime. Instead it creates an individuated, impressionistic and imagined place. It is realized in-between our internal and external selves.

Ambient is a music of perspectives. It is never fully knowable, in that the music seeps between perspectives (micro and macro) and dimensions of listening constantly. It maintains a sense of the eerie (as Mark Fisher noted).

Ambient is friend to noise, to volume, to physicality. It is however, an enemy of uncalculated dynamism.

Ambient is never finished. It is an experiential process of becoming – for listeners, for creators and more broadly as a musical philosophy.

Special thanks to David Toop, Felicia Atkinson, Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds, Peter and Dale Fogarty and the many folks I had the pleasure of speaking with in the past few months.

Lawrence English is a music producer and runs the Room40 label. Find him on Twitter

Read next: How Japanese ambient music found a new audience



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