Appreciating Ambient | Music Matters

MoyerWeb082614In 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 ambientambient1082614

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.

Listening list

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

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  1. Kathy Dueno says:

    Music is fun, expressive, imaginative, beautiful, energizing, relaxing, interesting, and freeing. Music is the soundtrack of life.

  2. Karl Helicher says:

    Hi, Matthew. Nice column. I seem to remember that Eno partnered with Robert Fripp in some early ambient music?

    • Matthew Moyer says:

      He did indeed! And “No Pussyfooting” (1973( is an immaculate album that I encourage everyone to invest in; I just wanted to concentrate on the work that Eno consciously categorized as “ambient” for the purposes of this article.

  3. Brian Flota says:

    Love the inclusion of Earth 2. Wasn’t Ambient 3 actually credited to Laraaji? No Pussyfoot is great, but I like its followup, Evening Star, even more. Great piece, Matthew!

    • Matthew Moyer says:

      Nice call on Evening Star! (I think the sleeve art of “Pussyfooting” is what nudged it ahead in the end for me.) “Ambient 3” is indeed credited to Laraaji, but I thought it was enough of a collaborative effort to be included in the Eno list…. plus I couldn’t resist with the numbering. I like the thought of more libraries potentially owning that album. (Thanks for the Earth spot!)

  4. Corinne says:

    Nice work! Summarizing an entire genre is no easy task, so kudos. I’m a librarian and my partner is an ambient musician so we went through the list together:) There weren’t any holes but thought you and your readers might also like the following….
    – Ryuichi Sakamoto
    – Jessica Bailiff ‘Even in silence’
    Best and cheers,

    • Matthew Moyer says:

      Thank you! Jessica Bailiff was on my list of possibles, but I went with Stars of the Lid instead for better or worse. I love her work, and “Even In Silence” is a total gem to my ears as well. What’s the name of your partner’s project?

  5. Karl Helicher says:

    Hi, Matthew, thank you for your response and insight into the Eno/ Fripp connection. I saw Fripp and KC in Philly in 1972, following their first (at least) breakup. Opening acts were two lesser known groups: the J. Giels Band and Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. Keep writing! All the best,

    • Matthew Moyer says:

      Most apprecaited. Would you tell me your impressions/memories of their set? From what I’ve read, they were very low key affairs that tended to get unsuspecting concertgoers, um, riled up.

    • Karl Helicher says:

      KC’s set was well received but didn’t get the audience riled up. By this time Greg Lake and Ian McDonald left the group, which seemed to be more influenced by jazz than rock. Fripp as was his style, of which I wasn’t aware, began with a somber, “good evening, we’re King Crimson,” then he played guitar sitting down. I never saw a electric guitar played in this manner.

      You were right the audience wasn’t riled up, in fact there were so many, um, campfires that the arena looked more like the Valley Forge encampment at night than a rock concert. I remember not being impressed with Humble Pie, just loud. But the emerging J. Giels Band, with its rock fused renditions of popular soul music tore up the place.

  6. Miriam Childs says:

    Hi Matthew, thanks for a spotlight on ambient music, a genre I have appreciated for many years. Would you say that the works of LaMonte Young and J.J. Cale influenced the genre? I read that those artists influenced Eno (one of my all-time favorite musicians).

    • hingehead says:

      Hi Miriam, I think you mean John Cale – not his ‘brother’ J.J.

      Joseph Lanza’s ‘Elevator Music’ (1994) posits that ambient has it roots in Erik Satie’s late 19th century compositions, with electronic music pioneers (such as you’ll find on Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music CD) and Muzak also contributing to the genre. Wikipedia also gives cred to German artists like Tangerine Dream who pre-date Eno.

      Anyway the best introductory anthologies to the style I’ve ever found are the first three volumes of Virgin’s ‘A Brief History of Ambient’ (vol 4 is dark/industrial ambient and not to my taste for the most part).

      I do get confused trying to define ambient music. Especially when you consider subgenres like Ambient Techno and Ambient Pop.