Before Lo-Fi: A Guide to Ambient Music

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In an era when the influence of Ambient music is widespread in popular music, it is perhaps surprising that the core works of the Ambient genre aren’t widely known to the general public. Lo-fi hip hop beats to relax/study to dominate study playlists, YouTube recommendations spit out a stream fo obscure Japanese releases, and The 1975 start every album with an extended Ambient opus, but most have probably never heard of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Stars of the Lid, or Steve Roach.

Ambient music was pioneered by the British and German art-rock avant-garde of the 1970s, fusing together New York minimalism, Erik Satie’s “Furniture Music”, early experimental electronica, and a whole host of other popular and classical influences. In the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music for Airports (the first album to use the term ‘Ambient’), Brian Eno explains that Ambient music is ‘intended to induce calm and a space to think’ and ‘must be as ignorable as it is interesting’. Though Ambient music has evolved beyond demanding calmness, with some records verging on dread-inducing, the genre is unified by the mode of listening it facilitates, accommodating both passive and active listening. Ambient music seeks to create an ‘absolute background’ (in the theorist Roquet’s words), smoothing out the distractions of the subconscious soundscape and inducing a stable emotional backdrop.

File:Satie Carrelage Phonique 1917.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Image: score of Eric Satie’s ‘Furniture Music‘, by Volta Ornella via Wikimedia

If that sounded pretentious and overly-intellectual to you, then you will understand why Ambient music has failed to ever achieve mainstream success in its original form. The notion of intentional passive listening is mostly foreign to the general public, associated more with Ambient’s commercialised sub-genre Muzak, intended to induce an environment where shoppers will spend more money, or mood-music Classical radio stations. In a culture that favours groove, virtuosity, expression, and above all, vocal music, the comparatively emotionally and texturally static aesthetic of instrumental Ambient music is at odds with the general listeners’ tastes.

Ambient music was pioneered by the British and German art-rock avant-garde of the 1970s, fusing together New York minimalism.

Outside of Muzak, the genre really only reaches the general population’s ear as in an appropriated form, as a passing reference in music that does not demand the disengaged listening of conventional Ambient music, and indeed most are only familiar with the term “Ambient” itself as a descriptor for these fusions: Frank Ocean’s Ambient pop, Bicep’s Ambient house, Hans Zimmer’s Ambient film music.

Ambient music is perfect for studying, long walks home from the library, relaxing at home, or just about any situation where you want to think with a clear head.

However, despite its relative commercial unpopularity, Ambient music is perfect for studying, long walks home from the library, relaxing at home, or just about any situation where you want to think with a clear head. Even more excitingly for some, listening to Ambient music is a chance to engage mode of listening you’ve never experienced, passive extended listening. Given that Brian Eno’s extensive Ambient discography is required listening for any self-respecting music fan, here are some records to check out if your interest has been piqued:

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Volume II

Just two years after releasing Vol. 1, an Ambient techno masterwork, the ever-elusive Cornish musician Richard D. James returned in 1994 with a two half hour magnum opus that takes his Ambient sound even further past earlier dance music influences. The album is a stepping stone into Ambient’s long relationship with Rave music, though tracks on this work largely eschew downtempo beats and tend towards melancholic and occasionally sinister drones and loops.

Hiroshi Yoshimura – Wave Notation 1: Music for Nine Post Cards

In the early 80s, Ambient music hit Japan and fused with influences from Japanese traditional music and environmental art to create “Kankyō ongaku” (“Environmental music”). This record is a staple of Youtube-recommendation-core, with sparse melodies and static drones taking minimalism to an extreme level. Albums from this era often seem to be a reflection on Japanese culture’s relationship with nature in a rapidly changing world shaped by the nation’s dramatic 20th century economic miracle, a fact that perhaps explains their resurgence in popularity in the West during an age where the internet has caused similarly large changes in our society.

William Basinski – The Disintegration Loops

This four album series by New York composer William Basinski takes cues from Steve Reich’s tape-loop process music. As each loop plays out, often for over an hour, the magnetic tape is allowed to disintegrate and at an almost imperceptible rate the music gradually crackles into nothingness. Having finished recording the morning of the September 11th attacks, Basinski noted that ‘the events gave new meaning to the musical pieces created by catastrophic decay in my studio a few weeks before’.

Image: Tony Webster via Wikimedia

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