In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extrememly low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music - as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience.
I realised I had been moving towards a music that had this feeling: as the listener, I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith (or stereolith, for that matter). I wanted to open out the aural field, to put much of the sound at a considerable distance from the listener (even locating some of it 'out of earshot'), and to allow the sounds to live their lives separately from one another, clustering occasionally but not 'musically' bound together.
The goal of ambient music is to create sound that functions as part of a background, but can also sustain listener attention. This is a more difficult feat than it might seem, and much ambient music either slides into the grating banality of new age or the bland colorlessness of Muzak. Successful ambient creates new textures and specific sonic environments. In this regard it is not foreign to Impressionism, and in fact the idea of ambient music can be traced at least back to Satie. Color, space, and a sense of purposeful disorganization are everything to ambient music, and these elements are as difficult for a composer to command as melody and form.
The following is a very incomplete list of ambient recordings. You may notice a decided slant toward Brian Eno, but Eno was the first to give the idea of ambient music a consistent realization, and one of a small handful of composers to do a lot of work in the genre. The meaning of 'ambient music' has changed quite a bit in the nineties, and while the genre has really exploded in recent years, the new ambient is quite distinct from Eno's work in both sound and underlying philosophy.
Brian Eno: Discreet Music. Eno's first foray into a new form. The title piece is an example of process music, and is made up of a few simple synthesizer patterns fed into a system of tape delays. The effect is soothing, but a bit monochromatic. Side Two is a deconstruction of Pachelbel's infamous Canon in D. Bits of the score are rearranged according to a specific plan, and then played by live performers. This piece is both beautiful and fascinating. I wish Eno had done more experiments of this kind.
Brian Eno/Robert Fripp: Evening Star. Fripp plays guitars, and Eno manipulates the tapes. The pieces are calm and lush, and lack the edginess of their first collaboration, "No Pussyfooting."
Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports.A classic recording. Here is ambient music fully realized at last. The four pieces on this album are quite complex from a compositional standpoint, and while this makes for engaging listening, the entire record functions as one long mood piece. You can leave this one on 'repeat' for hours and hours.
Brian Eno: Music for Films. A set of short pieces, some of which were actually intended for films. There is a great deal of variety here in both texture and mood, and Michael Hand has described the recording as a set of windows looking out onto different musical landscapes. Enigmatic and tantalizing. One of Eno's best.
Brian Eno: Ambient 4/On Land. Disconnected, organic, and austere. Eno employs more found sound here than actual instruments, and loosley organizes different textures into quasi-musical entities.
Brian Eno/Roger Eno/Daniel Lanois: Apollo. A soundtrack for a documentary on the moon landings. Bottom-heavy and properly evocative of vast reaches of space. "Stars" is simple and haunting, and the sounds on other tracks will make frequent appearances in your dreams. Lovely.
Brian Eno: Thursday Afternoon. Eno's first piece specifically recorded for the compact disc. "Thursday Afternoon" is one continuous piece of music about forty minutes long. Stylistically, it recalls Ambient 1, though with less dynamics. The cover painting captures the tone of the music inside perfectly.
Brian Eno: Neroli. Eno's most minimalistic work. It is nearly impossible to pay consistent attention to this album. No matter what the volume, it immediately sinks into the background. The light, airy, and vaguely Arabic timbres are bright and warm. While this may be the most successful example of music as ambience, many listeners find it dissatisfying simply because there is so little to keep one's attention.
David Sylvian/Holger Czukay: Plight and Premonition. The first collaboration between Sylvian and Czukay (a former member of the experimental group Can). The two pieces here are dark, moody, and dense. Instruments make frequent appearanaces, but found sound makes up the bulk of the recording.
David Sylvian/Holger Czukay: Flux and Mutability. The second Sylvian/Czukay effort is still focused on organizing non-musical elements into a form that can be parsed by musical attention, but the overall tone is much brighter.
Rain Tree Crow: Rain Tree Crow. The former lineup of Japan (including David Sylvian), reunites for a passive set of mostly acoustic pieces. Call it "southwestern ambient."
Harold Budd/Andy Partridge: Through the Hill. Recent recording by former Eno collaborator and XTC guitarist. It is comparable to "Music for Films," in that it covers a wide range of sounds and moods. Most of this music is quite interesting, though two selections where Budd reads Partridge's poetry are ill-advised.
Ambient in the Nineties
In the early nineties, a new form of music began to emerge. Bands started performing beat-heavy, trancey electronic music that grew out of techno. Dubbed 'ambient' by the performers, this music bears little relation to the minimalist textural experiments of Eno and others during the 1970s. Much of this 'new ambient' is either dance music played slowly and quietly, or mindless noodling that veers into new age territory. But a few individuals have taken techno as a starting point and created an entirely new genre. While still committed to ideas of texture and environment, this new ambient directly engages the listener. If the old ambient can be seen as quietly rising up out of silence, then the new ambient is a move into a new space from the hard beats and harsh textures of electronic dance music.
Orb: UFOrb. The new ambient is as dominated by the Orb as the old was by Brian Eno. Dense layers of samples, bright synthesizer textures, and deep, deep dub bass lines collide in a blissed-out and frequently wacky space. The Orb's allegiances to techno are still in evidence here - much of this album is quite danceable. But there's so much more going on that to call this 'dance music' is to insult it.
Orb: Pomme Fritz. This recording leaves dub behind to create a slow and massive river of sound. The tracks on this album create a sense of vertical space - the bass is almost subterranean, and light textures float high above, completely disconnected from the pulse. These pieces are static, and yet provide the listener with a great deal of novelty. Recommended.
Orb: Orbus Terrarum. With this album, the Orb stakes out its own unique musical territory. The approach on Pomme Fritz is taken several steps further. Each track is made up of distinct layers of sound, which cooperate even though they rarely interact. The result is an entire world of peaceful and engrossing sound. This is possibly the best album of 1995, and a must for anyone interested in new approaches to music.
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works, Volume Two. Just because it's ambient doesn't mean it has to be pretty. The untitled pieces on this double CD are often unsettling or anxious. The overall feeling one gets from this album is of a dark and brooding space that Richard James has illuminated with a thin ray of light. And given what we find there, an obscured view may be all we want.
William Orbit: Strange Cargo III. A terrific album that owes more to techno than Eno. The pieces here are highly structured and dynamic, yet still create a strong sense of atmosphere.
Higher Intelligence Agency: Freefloater. Restrained and lush soundscapes that remind me a bit of Aphex Twin. A wide variety of timbres and moods keeps things interesting, though the approach is fairly uniform. HIA creates a bright, open space, and their various elements parade though it at a stately pace. Beats frequently surface, but the tunes are driven by angular melodic patterns. Very, very nice.
Banco de Gaia: Last Train to Lhasa. The first disc of the set is exciting and kinetic, but disc two features three wonderful ambient tracks. The first two are remixes of tracks from disc one. The last, "Eagle," is a strange and lovely assemblage of electronic textures and samples of communications with the Apollo moon missions.
Synaesthesia: Embody, Desiridatum. The hardest-working guys in Vancouver, Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber, have decided to become a fifth band and make some deep trance music. I hope these two are a couple, because they can't possibly have lives outside the studio. These two albums are built on deeply psychedelic sound patterns layered over sampled and programmed percussion. Of the two, I think "Embody" is the better effort. It's brighter and more varied, and while none of the pieces could be said to really develop, the tunes on "Embody" seem more purposeful somehow. Minor gripe: the mix is a bit amateurish. Some of the drum loops have a completely different room tone than the rest of the elements of the track, which makes them stick out like a trombone in a string quartet (well, not that bad, but you get the idea). And in one place, the break in the percussion sample is kind of obvious - it misses the beat (actually, the beat is modified to fit the sample, but imagine the effect of a beat that makes 32nd-note distinctions in a tune that uses nothing finer than quarter notes). These little things wouldn't be so annoying if I didn't like this album so much. The synthesizer textures alone make it worth having. "Desiridatum" isn't as interesting, but it works along the same lines (though the mix is much better this time around). However, it is a double-CD that's priced as a single disc, which makes it very cost-effective bath music.
Excursions in Ambience: I-IV. This outstanding series from Astralwerks Records covers a lot of ground. Rather than trying to define "ambient music," the compilers of this series have simply tried to gather examples of "the best of new electronic music." So you get tracks with beats and rhythms, pure trance, and soundscapes built from samples all on one disc. Consistently blissful.
Ambient Dub: I-III. This series takes a little more focused approach. The tracks on these discs all feature solid beats and deep bass lines. But there's still an amazing amount of variety to be found here. Some of this music is very contemplative and involved (like the Sandoz cut on AD1), while other sections are simple bubbly fun. This is what you need if you really like the early Orb material, and want more of a similar groove.