Foregroundings: A notebook on ambient music

Monday, November 5, 2018 - 4:21pm

Brian Eno

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“Ambient” is an adjective increasingly used to describe music of all kinds, and the boundaries of the genre the word used to signify are becoming more porous all the time. The primary criterion for “ambient” music is that it doesn’t go anywhere, and in its immobility it becomes akin to an object or a presence. Most non-musical sound is like this: Sounds indicate some kind of activity outside of the frame, giving subliminal information about the environment. Ambient music zeroes in on these small, typically ignored sounds and takes them as a compositional model, using musical techniques to create the sensation of an enveloping background, a stand-in for organic acoustic ecologies.

It’s an interesting approach, and more than a little paradoxical. By its very nature, we generally don’t pay much attention to the “background,” or whatever borders the frame of human sonic perception, so making music that focuses intently on sound-as-landscape is almost contradictory in and of itself. Ambient music is the art of the afterthought, or else an invitation to pay a deep attention to the edges of perception. This leads to a certain confusion about the function and intentions of ambient music — is it music that’s intended to be put on in the background, for blending with the sounds of a situation, or is it music that creates the sensation of a new background? Can it be a little bit of both?

The composer and producer Brian Eno once described the difference between conventional and ambient music like the difference between architecture and gardening. His music exemplifies this sonic garden, and in many ways he has led the development of the form from the ’70s onward. He wrote in the liner notes to his 1982 album On Land that, “what qualified a piece for inclusion on the record was that it took me somewhere,” and he means that both literally and specifically. Titles are references to real or abstracted places where the listener can imagine the sounds living in — for example, “Lizard Point,” “Lantern Marsh,” “A Clearing.” The music in On Land doesn’t really go anywhere — tracks simply fade in, camp out for nine or so minutes and then fade out.

The liner notes for On Land are interesting to compare to the notes for the earlier Ambient 1: Music For Airports, where he alludes to the idea of sonic landscape but seems to suggest that the intention of Airports is to live alongside spaces: “Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, ambient music retains these qualities.” In 1978, Eno was still conceiving his music as essentially living in the background, but later moved to music that supplants environmental sound (and therefore a sense of place) altogether. The notes for On Land conclude that, “as the listener, I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith.” Airports “retains” its context, On Land “takes” the listener to a new place via sound. The space between Eno’s approach in 1978 and 1982 is encapsulated in the difference between “for” and “on.”

And indeed, the sound-world of Music For Airports is much more conventional than On Land, with its foregrounded piano lines and gently sweeping cadential gestures. There is little noise, whereas On Land is full of field recordings and various non-pitched burbles, often deeply submerging any recognizably “musical” material. Music For Airports, its materials basically being tones and silence, seems to suggest that the surroundings will provide plenty of site-specific noise. On Land provides all the noise you would need for a soundscape, and is thus more a stand-in or proxy for the background and all its environmental noise.

The kind of ambient music in On Land seems to have caught on. It’s rare to find an album of slow, filmic, largely empty music like Airports in the 2000s and 2010s, but it’s much easier to find the enveloping omnipresence pioneered in On Land. The work of William Basinski, for example, is generally as close to the Airports model as 2000s ambience gets, and he much more often suggests deep, thick soundscapes. 2007’s Shortwave Music uses a kind of Lynchian mode, with vaguely orchestral tones submerged under crackling, hissing and humming. The work of Sarah Davachi is less noisy than Basinski’s, but her approach is similarly immersive. She conjures slowly moving textures out of long, overlapping tones, and the sort of microscopic details she uses require a lot of focused attention for the music to pay off. The tracks on the recently-released Gave In Rest have the quality of a world made of tones. Davachi’s conventional ensemble (strings, a monophonic synthesizer and occasionally a piano) is placed inside the “field of loosely-knit sound” Eno describes, like people milling about in a room together, sometimes having conversations but usually just thinking out loud.

It’s unsurprising that ambient music evolved from a genre of music that stands behind an environment to a genre that supplants an environment, because the form Eno had in mind for Airports and the earlier Discreet Music is unstable. It’s ambient music’s refusal to go anywhere, to simply make statements, that makes it so unsuitable as actual music to put on in the background of a business or a social situation. Music invites attention, and music that has a low level of activity or progression invites a deeper, almost meditative engagement, the kind best done alone. In my experience, putting on an album of recent ambient music in a room will make conversation peter out pretty quickly, but most anything else, from Mozart to Young Thug (depending on context), is paradoxically easier to ignore. Ultimately, I think ambient music doesn’t work in its professed role, because by its very nature it overreaches.

What is the appeal of music like this? It seems to make sense that in a moment of accelerated technological advancement and media saturation, contemplative, immobile music is an appropriate response, a place one can go to retreat. However, music is also never entirely effective at putting up a front to society, always bringing pieces of the past and present with it. The writer Meghan O’Gieblyn argues that meditation and contemplative practice — what she calls the “Eternal Now” — represents a continuation of the logic of the internet rather than a repudiation of it: “In lieu of context, in lieu of vista, one is forced to find meaning in the microscopic details which must eventually come to seem intricate and endless … To exist within that room of perpetual updates and endless opinions is to believe that history can be divided not by centuries but by seconds, that every idea must lead to finer sub-points and infinite distinctions that eventually contradict one another.” Ambient music is perhaps sort of a record of cultural exhaustion, of being caught in situations that seem to demand a collapse of context. It seems to say — if we have found our present cultural landscape unlivable, the best we can do is create miniatures of it for ourselves.