explore music


by Sean Cooper


Ambient music remains something of the scorned, dorky cousin of current electronic music. Dabbled in by scores of artists working primarily in other fields, but still for the most part too esoteric to attract a large audience, the music has been characterized as everything from dolled-up new age, to intellectual, over-indulgent dross, to boring and irrelevant technical noodling. Partly as a function of its relatively limited appeal, ambient in a definitional sense remains extremely vague, a notion also related to the fact that artists considered to be working within its "borders" seem to be drawn from such a wide spectrum of different traditions; more "academic" experimental electronic (Chris Meloche, David Shea, Asmus Tietchens, David Toop, Oval), space music (Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Vidna Obmana, Klaus Schulze, Jeff Greinke, Alio Die), dub (Bill Laswell, the Orb, Mick Harris, Drome, Woob), ethno- or 4th-world electronic music (Jon Hassell, Banco de Gaia, Astralasia), gothic or industrial (Lustmord, Merzbow, Final, Aube, James Plotkin), and the vast contemporary hybridity of back-room club culture (everything from the KLF, Global Communication, and Mixmaster Morris to Biosphere, Higher Intelligence Agency, and Sun Electric, to Tetsu Inoue, David Moufang, LTJ Bukem, and Autechre). As dance-based electronic music moved increasingly toward the indiscriminant intermingling of influences characteristic of trip-hop, electronica, and jungle/drum'n'bass, ambient shifted away from being a concrete genre and more toward a less identifiable (though no less specific) approach to sound, registering its influence in terms of space, color, and texture rather than the presence or absence of a backbeat, recognizable melodic or harmonic structures, etc.

Nonetheless, like other strains of experimental electronic music whose branches stretch into the most complex of arrangements, ambient has its roots, and historical evaluations of ambient music usually begin with Brian Eno. Although Eno's application of the term to his "background" composing of the late '70s itself had precursors in the "furniture music" of Erik Satie, the dadaist and futurist manifestos of Marcel Duchamp and Luigi Russolo, the proto- and high-modernism of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky (as well as in non-Western musical and religious traditions such as Indonesian gamelan and African pygmy chanting), and New York School experimentalists such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, and LaMonte Young, it's with Eno that "ambient" music -- i.e. music designed to be heard as an integral part of the environment in which its played or listened to -- first became an end in itself. And his series of recordings bearing the term (and subtitled things like Music for Airports, Music for Films, and On Land) remain watermarks. Formerly a member of pop/new wave group Roxy Music, Eno was among the first to integrate found sounds and field recordings into the context of the recording studio in order to construct an environment with his music -- not necessarily (though in some cases) to recreate existing places, but to build from scratch a music which suggested a sense of context, one which could not only be heard but also experienced by the listener. It's also with Eno that ambient or "environmental" music was approached with predominantly electronic instruments; ambient has few contemporary examples of acoustic-based composers (Pauline Oliveros is one), although the combination of electronics and acoustic-based instruments is common (particularly among so-called electro-acoustic musicians such as Steve Roach, Carl Stone, and Michael Danna).

Of equal influence and importance to Eno's work was that of German synthesist Klaus Schulze, who represents something of the formalist arm of ambient's prehistory. Though aligned more directly with the European classical tradition than Eno (whose background in avant-garde pop and new wave had its consequence in the comparative subtlety and modesty of his music), Schulze's pioneering work in analog synthesis and his extended, highly conceptual compositions based solely on the timbral qualities of electronics were crucial in suggesting new directions for electronic music apart from not only its "pop," bit also its academic and classical contexts. Although Schulze's earlier work was more immediately caught up in exploring (and exploiting) the sonic particularities of his medium (a notion which has tended to garner him more criticism than praise), Schulze increasingly sought the fusion of his technical mastery with elements of the lived environment; pieces such as his Dresden Concert drew liberally from nature recordings and source tapes which documented the bustle of everyday life, and his mid-'90s recordings with noted new school ambient composer Pete Namlook (of the Frankfurt-based Fax label) brought Schulze's formidable role in forging ambient's early aesthetic full circle.

Although much of the more visible instrumental electronic and electro-acoustic music produced in the late '70s and early-to-mid-'80s appeared under the aegis of "new age" -- a marketing phenomenon more than anything else, applied most often to musics linked by some method or other to relaxation, meditation, and/or escapism -- even the overwhelming conservatism of that period had its antithesis in a range of musicians operating at the outer fringes of experimentation, pushing electronics-based composition into ever more challenging, abstract territory. Artists such as Steve Hillage (formerly of Gong), Harold Budd, early Tangerine Dream, Michael Stearns, Robert Rich, and Steve Roach, among others, sought to compose music as free as possible from the weighty baggage of both pop and Classical, as well as Western academic and high cultural traditions, turning instead toward methods of composition and performance lacking conventional developmental structure, music which relied instead on programmatic elements such as repetition, texture, alternate tonality, and harmonic and subharmonic relationships (over and against the chordal, melodic, pentatonic, etc. concerns of most Western musical forms). Members of this loose agglomeration of artists often referred to their work as "space music"; not, as is often believed, because it sounded like it was from outer space (although in some cases this was true), but rather since the music tended to refer almost singularly and directly to the space in which it was heard, as well as the inner, more subconscious emotional and contemplative spaces of the listener. Although quite apart from Eno's definition, which sought to locate music in some intermediate between foreground and background, space musicians sought to fuse the two in such a way that the music became the background of its own active exploration; the latter represented an extension of the former, since the relationship between music and the lived environment was the compositional preconception much of the music turned on.

Although the context was in many respects radically different, it was a similar impulse that led to ambient's renaissance in the late-'80s/early-'90s U.K. rave scene, the source of some of the most exciting innovations in not only the music's sound, but also its presentation. The by-now familiar construct of the "chill space" -- that back-room alternative to the high-speed hedonism of main-floor raves -- was the nexus of that renaissance, with clubs such as Land of Oz (at London's massive weekly Heaven), Telepathic Fish, and Oscillate some of the first blips on the new ambient map. It was at clubs such as these that DJs like Alex Paterson (of the Orb), Mixmaster Morris (of Irresistible Force), and Jonah Sharp (of Spacetime Continuum) began blending together the early ambient experiments of Eno, Schulze, Hillage, Pink Floyd, Robert Rich, and Steve Hillage with everything from stereo-test and demonstration records, Songs of the Humpback Whale and other nature and field recordings, minimalist classical, non-Western ritual and traditional musics, Jamaican dub, and, eventually, live electronics. As crowds began turning out specifically for chill rooms, all-ambient nights and even weekend-long ambient events became more common, with the appearance of recordings by the KLF (Chill Out), the Orb ("A Huge Ever-Growing Brain" and Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, among others), Irresistible Force ("Space Is the Place" and Flying High), and the soon-to-be ubiquitous Pete Namlook (Silence, Air, Dreamfish) contributing momentum and a growing, non-club-based audience.

The proximity of chill rooms to rave culture meant much of the music reflected elements of acid house and techno, and hybrid terms such as "ambient house," "ambient techno," "ambient dub," etc. began to circulate, serving to differentiate this music not only from the more rigorously environmental experiments of the '70s and '80s, but also (and increasingly) from many parallel contemporary strains of ambient. Including such varied sources as the U.K.-based Beyond and Rising High labels, the (respectively) Frankfurt and Belgium-based Fax (Pete Namlook's prolific label) and Apollo imprints, as well as the electronic experiments of Mille Plateaux, dark ambient/industrial and isolationist artists such as Coil, Mick Harris, and Aube and labels such as Cold Meat Industries, Projekt, and Staalplaat, ambient soon, as journalist/producer David Toop put it, began taking on the properties of a "glue term," sticking to whatever it was thrown at. But ambient's steady demotion to the status of textual modifier also suggested the increasing fervor with which barriers separating styles were up for dismantling in the atmosphere of the mid-'90s post-rave experimental underground, a process that gave birth to more variations on the theme of electronic dance music in four or five years alone than in the previous two decades. This stylistic deconstruction prompted dozens of new genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres (ambient dub, dark ambient, ambient jungle, electronica, post-rock, experimental ambient, etc.) even as it made the very pursuit of "genre" a mawkishly naive task. This is not to say ambient artists working more or less within the tradition of many of the music's earlier strains ceased to exist -- indeed, ambient's proliferation during the mid-to-late-'90s also contributed a sense of focus to artists pursuing one or another of its mutant strains -- but rather that the palette of sounds which constitutes the raw materials of atmospheric or environmental music broadened to such an extent that many of the definitional criteria of the music (lack of prominent percussion and/or a strong melodic presence, etc.) were steadily reoriented or altogether abandoned.

Because of the range of musics (to say nothing of the ambiguity) implied by the term, no single, encompassing introduction to ambient exists. However, many good compilations are available which serve to fill in significant portions of the music's historical progression. Virgin's four-part Ambient series -- each a two-disc set bringing together many of the biggest name artists from the '70s, '80s, and early '90s -- is a good place to start. Also released by Virgin is the double-CD Ocean of Sound, compiled by musical historian David Toop to accompany his book of the same name (published by Serpent's Tail in 1995), and including everyone from King Tubby to Aphex Twin. Label compilations also provide good reference points (particularly with regard to the music's more recent mutations), with Beyond, Rising High, Instinct, Fax, Apollo, Warp, Silent, and Recycle or Die all reputable sources for high-quality various-artist collections.

Recommended Recordings (* indicates top 10):

Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II (Sire/Warp)*

Brian Eno - Ambient 4: On Land (EG)*

Eno & Fripp - The Essential Fripp & Eno (Virgin/EG)*

Global Communication - 76:14 (Dedicated)*

Tetsu Inoue - World Receiver (Instinct)*

Irresistible Force - Flying High (Instinct/Rising High)*

The KLF - Chill Out (TVT)*

Pete Namlook - Air 2 (Fax)

Vidna Obmana - The Trilogy (Relic)

The Orb - Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Wau!/Mr. Modo)*

Robert Rich & B. Lustmord - Stalker (Fathom)*

Throbbing Gristle - Second Annual Report (Mute)

Various Artists - The Ambient Cookbook (Fax)*

Various Artists - Ocean of Sound (Virgin)

Woob - 1194 (Instinct/Em:t)

Recommended Reading:

Ocean of Sound, David Toop (Serpent's Tail, 1995)