I often boast about the variety in genres of music I listen to. In fact, I have an entire show where I do exactly that. But, the reality is 80% of the music I listen to is dominated by one genre of music. Within that genre, there is a small number of albums I will consistently listen to from only a few artists. I’m talking about ambient music, a genre whose very existence originated from a place acting against conventional ways of listening to music. I don’t often combine ambient music with anything else I listen to, because listening to ambient music is a different process and understanding of music in itself. Now enough with the pretentious waffle and into what I’m going on about.
Ambient music’s origins are most commonly attributed to Brian Eno’s works in the 70s and 80s. The “Ambient” series consists of four albums, bus its best to start with 1978s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports.” The album consists of repeating piano and vocal chords, that ring out almost indefinitely. A simple collection of instrumental songs that mean what exactly? The intention is for the music to be played while waiting for a plane. To fill the gaps, to be in the background. The music is too be both ignored and studied. Eno himself described ambient music “as ignorable as it is interesting” and to create an environment that “induces calm and space to think.” There is a focus on the mood and atmosphere of the music. This means it’s often slow, repetitive and without rhythm, giving it an unobtrusive quality. But ambient is a broad genre, and different albums create different moods and aim to portray the slower moving and static parts of life. The following collection of records all give off varying tones, moods and messages using the same principles of creating music like Brian Eno. The goal is to create art where the substance can be ignored, but the intent cannot.
Calmness, Reflection and Beauty
A significant proportion of ambient music can be defined under the aim of creating an atmosphere of calmness. Whether that’s through the recreation of nature or the minimalism of synthscapes, it’s the most common use of ambient music. Using it as a tool to sleep, study or meditate to. This style of ambient music has multiple forms, whether it’s the pioneering works of Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Biosphere and the Orb, or modern 3+ hour long “Relaxing Sleep Music” compilations on YouTube. It all exists as ‘background’ music with the set goal creating an environment to complete a task. For example, Biosphere’s 1997 “Substrata” aims to recreate the power and isolation of the arctic circle. Chihei Hatakeyama’s “Void” series consists of drones flowing between each other. These albums fit Eno’s definition to a tee. What remains consistent is the beauty comes from the scale of these pieces of music. Something is enchanting about the minimalistic colourings of Hatakeyama’s music, the timelessness of the sounds wraps around the listener invoking a period of calmness and an opportunity for reflection. The music acts as a tool for focus, with the occasional guitar chord bringing the listener back in.
However, not all ambient music follows this trend of clean reverberations. Tim Hecker creates beautiful yet crushing music through the use of distortion, reverb and layers of synths. His 2011 album “1972, Ravedeath” is filled with darkness and industrial samplings but it still fits the description of ambient. There is still a place for reflection, and it’s undoubtfully beautiful. This style of creating dark, distorted soundscapes in ambient can be taken even further. Prurient’s work is the equivalent of a nightmare. Flurries of harsh noise, with drones of low bass, create a legitimately terrifying experience. But the music still allows for contemplation. Ambient music is made up of a wide range of sounds and textures but is ultimately unified by its power to create an atmosphere. Sometimes this atmosphere is used to explore complicated areas of the human experience.
Memories of a Better Time
The human experience is complicated and often impossible for others to understand. It can be argued that the point of music is to share one’s experience of the world through artistic expression. Ambient music can sometimes be purposefully opposed to this notion, but it can also be used as a tool to explore the long-term experience of people. The Caretaker is an artist who explores memory through his music. Mostly focussing on the experience of people with Dementia. “Everywhere at the End of Time” is a 6 “stage” musical project the caretaker has been gradually releasing over the past two and half years. It’s made up of samples of ballroom music from the 1920s and 30s, with each stage representing a different stage in the progression of Dementia. In the first stage, the samples are soaked in reverb, but the melodies can be clearly made out and sing a beautiful nostalgia for a time I wasn’t alive for. There are small cracks in the pieces, but the joy of the music still remains strong. However, as the stages progress, the music becomes more distorted and lucid. The caretaker reuses pieces we’re already familiar with but takes away the calm, soothing melodies we knew. Parts repeat themselves and fade away, the once clearly distinct instruments all meld into one central movement. I recommend listening to the version of “Libet Delay” from An Empty Bliss at the End of the World, followed by the version stage three of “Everywhere at the End of Time.” I’ve added links for both. Stages 4 and 5 are almost complete deterioration.
The music is disorientating and scary. Stage four has moments of near-clarity, vague piano motifs and melodies breakthrough, but these are short-lived. Sharp hits of distortion interrupt the music, and a background of shifting drones looms over. Stage 5 is entangled with itself. It becomes nonsensical and challenging to listen to. At this point any sense of musical clarity appears to be lost, there is a transparent attempt at the vague notions of the music that was there, but they interrupt each other. Distortions interrupt any melodies before they can start, and samples of people speaking start to appear and mess the situation. Stage 5 ends with a slow and impending drone. There are only the crackles of memories and drones of background noise. Stage 6 will be released on March 14th this year and will explore the totality of dementia. The experience of this album is disturbing yet eye-opening. The way the nostalgic and positive melodies of stage one disintegrate into the nonsensical confusion of stage 5 is one of the most impactful listening experiences I’ve ever had. Taking the time to experience it in one sitting helped give me a new perspective. It’s easy to let the melodies slip to the back of your mind at the beginning, allowing for the music to become more and more disturbed without noticing.
We All Return to Dust
Where I find ambient music reaches its most interesting points are where artists use it to portray tragedy. There is a lot of music that focuses on tragedy, but it often represents it as a crying outpour of emotion in one powerful moment. Ambient artists tend to focus on the long-lasting and painful aftermath. The most famous example is William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops”. At a total of five hours long, this can be a pretty intimidating listen, but it stands as one of the most essential pieces of ambient music ever made. Basinski found that when he played old tape loops, he saw they would slowly disintegrate and become more distorted as they continued to loop. Basinski was living in Brooklyn as he was experimenting with these loops. His apartment overlooked the World Trade Centre. On the evening of the 11th of September 2001, Basinski started to record the smoke that plumed from the remnants of the world trade centre and began to play and record his loops. The loops that slowly fell apart as they played became an audio metaphor for the horrors of that day. The music slowly falls apart and is hypnotic in doing so, the melancholy and the images of ruin that accompany the album create a stark, beautiful and heart-breaking listen. It’s comprised of six separate pieces, each unique in its representation of death and its impact on those who survive. I’ve included a link to Basinski’s video recording of the final hour of daylight on 9/11, combined with the first of the loops. I recommend watching it, even for just five minutes, and experiencing the emotion that comes with it. This is where Ambient music becomes most apparent in its goal, the atmosphere and feeling of the piece is so clear, yet the music itself is simple. It’s hypnotic. It’s beautiful. It can easily slip into the background of your mind while you do something else, but it won’t leave.
by Toby Wainwright
Libet Delay 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6ZvOCYSOVQ
Libet Delay 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59gBSWJTvAc
William Basinskis DLP 1.1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObdZ8lhC0f0