As I said last week, labels for genres in music are a subject of huge disagreement, but can be useful (and fun to argue about).
It is perhaps debatable whether “ambient” music is music or not. The term was coined by Brian Eno. He was recovering from an accident; he put on an LP of harp music, then collapsed into bed. The volume was far to low and one channel was missing, but he found himself hearing the music in the context of all the sounds around. It was a different way of experiencing music, as sounds that we “hear but don’t hear” (David Toop). You might even say “listening but not listening” (Mark Oblique).
Erik Satie, that very eccentric French composer, had the idea of ‘musique d’ameublement’ around the end of the 19th century. It was designed as music to fill the space in conversation, to dull the clatter of knives and forks. When he experimented with it he had to rush round to get people to carry on with their conversations rather than stop and listen. It was an idea before its time.
The background music called Muzak® was also written to be just that: a bland background, usually of strings, to make a softer ambience in shops, cafés and the like. Nowadays it seems to be replaced by pop music played at a very low volume.
But were Satie’s ‘musique d’ameublement’ and Muzak really ambient music? You were not meant to listen to them; in the case of Eno he was listening, which drew his attention to ambient sound. At its most basic, hearing or listening to ambient music could be thought of as just being aware of sounds in the environment. In that sense, would it really be music? Isn’t music created deliberately? Discuss. (10 marks)
Before the term ambient was used, John Cage wrote or conceived his piece 4′ 33”, in which the performer opens a piano lid and then closes it afer 4 minutes and 33 seconds to signal the end of the piece. Is it music? Or is it abstract art? Or is it a con? (10 marks. Use a pencil.)
However, the idea of ambience has given rise to the creation of a lot of interesting (but sometimes bland) music. There is a lot of music labelled as ambient which I feel is far from it. The label seems often to be another term for relaxed, minimalist and chillout music (see last week).
Having said that, the best work can be challenging, lovely or fun. There is a great sampler from the late lamented ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ of Exeter which has a whole range. (See footnote.)
At the other end from Eno and John Cage are Kraftwerk, whose track ‘Autobahn’ verges on ambience, incorporating sounds that evoke a late night motorway drive, down to the radio. I just wish somebody would do a very long mix of it, so that you could drive for hours with it on. (I don’t however feel that just adding a few sampled sounds to a track make it ambient, though that is not what Kraftwerk do.)
A book called ‘Ocean of Sound’, by David Toop, has an absorbing take on the whole subject of ambient sound and related ideas, with far more erudition and insight than I could ever attempt. I recommend it, although some passages now strike me as what used to be called “purple prose”.
I’m not going to attempt a definition of ambient music. I like it that any discussion of it inevitably leads to me listening to the sounds of the world. I used to play music low in the car and listen to the other sounds (tyre noise, engines, other car radios) that go on around it. I don’t think you can appreciate ambient music on headphones.
For fun, ambient sounds I have recently enjoyed include:
the hum of the refrigerator accompanied by the hum of my laptop
the roar of power tools, with the tapping of a cold chisel as a percussive coda
Oh, look what I did there, completely without thinking. I made constructs of the sounds, in the fashion of musical compositions. It reminds me of how as a teenager, unable to sleep, I’d listen out for the dawn chorus (surely louder then?) and imagine the sounds as a piece of music. Blackbirds, by the way, are sax soloists, repeating neat phrases with variations. But I’m rambling.
Maybe there is a continuum or spectrum involving ambience:
…and so on. Perhaps “music” occurs somewhere in between 3 and 4.
Enough of this. Theo Travis and Robert Fripp have a new album coming out which apparently could be labelled ambient. Go listen to that.
Footnote: The ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ were an offshoot of the Future Sound of Exeter, who put on some great gigs. The offshoot was often known as the SAS, which led to their two taglines: “Chill or Be Chilled” and “Mess with us and you’ll be going home in an ambience”. Both they and the FSOE now seem to be sadly defunct, and I don’t suppose you can get the sampler.
Photo of Eno by Jindřich Nosek (NoJin) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons