In 1975, Brian Eno invented ambient music while recovering from being hit by a car. When the bedridden musician couldn’t adjust the too-low volume on an album of 19th-century harp compositions, he became entranced by the way the music blended into the background and began envisioning a new form of utilitarian music that would be “used” when the listener’s full attention was not required.
As Eno originally devised it, ambient was music (or, more accurately, harmonic sound) without any vocals, lyrics, beats, grooves, song structure, or linear movement; what remained were washes of atmospheric synthesizer, rising and falling according to a totally different harmonic schema. With no need to get to any particular sonic endpoint, the music simply existed.
Approaches to ambient
Since Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978, the form has been stretched and interpreted by several generations of electronic-music enthusiasts, with often surprising results. New Age music seized on many of ambient’s tropes to frequently cheesy effect, but rich veins of groundbreaking ambient music also exist in relative obscurity.
The “space music” movement of the 1980s, which centered on the Hearts of Space record label and radio show, was a form of ambient that added a cosmic shimmer and wanderlust and caught on with the mainstream for a time.
Additionally, a wide spectrum of gothic, metal, and black-metal musicians found freedom and possibility within ambient’s tools. Many of them recorded albums that were gathered under the loose banners of “dark ambient” and “blackened” ambient. Dark ambient musicians emphasize the inherent tension, unease, and melancholy inherent in a music that offers no catharsis or release.
Aphex Twin. Selected Ambient Works. Vol. 2. (Sire).
Eccentric boffin Richard D. James toned down the freaked-out, short-attention-span futurism of previous releases for this collection of darker, meditative sonic washes.
William Basinski. The Disintegration Loops. (2062).
As much a masterwork of process as product, the Loops were an attempt to transfer analog recordings to digital, but as they played/recorded, the tapes literally crumbled to pieces, and new and strange sonic permutations came into being.
Earth. Earth 2. (Sub Pop).
Dylan Carlson is usually footnoted as a drug buddy of Kurt Cobain’s, accompanied with a brief mention of his musical project Earth. It should really be the other way around, because alongside the Melvins, Carlson’s Earth was a gateway drug for several generations of metalheads to be initiated into the ways of ambience, drone, and minimalism. Earth 2 is his early, definitive statement, a masterpiece of guitar feedback somnambulation.
Brian Eno. Ambient 1: Music for Airports; Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror; Ambient 3: Day of Radiance; Ambient 4: On Land. (1,2,4: Astralwerks; 3: Editions EG).
Eno’s ambient polyptych of albums saw him developing and refining the parameters of this new background music.
Haxan Cloak. Excavation. (Tri Angle).
The second album from the UK’s Haxan Cloak makes some use of percussion, strings, and teeth-rattling bass frequencies, but the emphasis is on dense, glacial pieces full of ominous—though inert—portent.
Tim Hecker. Virgins. (Kranky).
A fascinating collision of ornate chamber music and ambient drones, Virgins sees Hecker expanding his sonic palette into realms of live instrumentation, where he reconfigures and deconstructs sounds from flutes, pianos, and harpsichords and combines them with his usual electronic idylls for a tapestry of quiet majesty.
Oneohtrix Point Never. Replica. (Software).
Daniel Lopatin here combines his usual battery of keyboards with an array of cut-up samples sourced from a DVD of television commercials from the early 1980s. Still surprisingly reflective.
Orb. The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. (Island Records).
Ambient music was enthusiastically embraced by the rave/techno/house set in the 1990s. The Orb’s Adventures was an early and defining moment in the “ambient house” genre.
Robert Rich & Lustmord. Stalker. (Hearts of Space).
New Age/space music stalwart Rich and dark ambient coffin-dweller Lustmord collaborated on an imaginary sound track for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, producing a melancholic, unnerving collection of mood pieces that shocked Rich’s fanbase while satisfying Lustmord’s.
Stars of the Lid. The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid. (Kranky).
The Austin, TX–based duo hit their creative peak with this double-CD (triple-LP) magnum opus. Heavily treated guitar fragments dreamily embrace ghostly sounds from strings and pianos, creating gigantic silver pools out of the absolute minimum of notes played. Nod out.
Matthew Moyer, Reference Librarian, Popular Media Department, Jacksonville Public Library, FL. He is a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker