Then & Now: Ambient

Here at Songtrust, we seem to have a knack for picking deeply divisive musical genres for our “Then & Now” series.

If you thought Country, Punk, Jazz or Metal were controversial, try today’s topic: Ambient. Even those who love it admit that the genre can be, shall we say, undramatic. For those turned off by entire albums stripped of the melodies, rhythms, and dynamics that typically characterize “music,” listening to Ambient music can be torturous.

But even if you’re lukewarm on the genre, give it its due. What was once an experimental style found only in the fringes of academia has permeated deep into many of the styles we enjoy without a second thought, including rock, jazz, dub reggae, and electronica. Where did it come from (and why should you care)? Read on for the (smooth and unobtrusive) details.

Ambient Music: Experimental Beginnings

Most music historians place the roots of Ambient firmly in the creative ferment of the mid-1960s, when the explosion of pop culture (especially evident in the rapid evolution of Rock & Roll) unleashed a slew of fearless experimenters ranging from the well-known to the wilfully obscure. But half a century earlier, a French firebrand composer had formulated the notion of music designed to disappear into the background. 

Erik Satie is best-remembered today for his deceptively simple piano compositions. But early in the 20th century, he took inspiration from avant-garde Dadaists to pioneer a style of music called Musique d’ameublement or “Furniture Music.” Pieces like “Descriptions Mécaniques” (“Mechanical Descriptions”) challenged audiences to imagine music that served a purpose radically at odds with the finely wrought Romanticist works then popular. As Satie put it rather archly: 

“[It is] a music...which will be part of the noises of the environment. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometime fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks.”

Interest in this avenue of Satie’s output more or less died with him (in 1925, from the effects of severe alcoholism). But by the dawn of the 1960s, interest in experimental genres was bubbling in the margins of popular music. One unlikely entrant into something that might be called “early Ambient” was Raymond Scott’s album Soothing Sounds for Baby, Vol. 1, released in 1962. Created in partnership with the Gesell Institute of Human Development, the music was designed to track children’s development by increasing in complexity with subsequent volumes. 

 

We don’t have definitive proof the music actually aided any children’s development, but it did have an effect on the experimental-music community. Scott was a tinkerer as well as a composer, and much of the music was made by instruments of his own design, including the Clavivox (in which he was assisted by a young Robert Moog). A decade later, when early Electronica artists such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were growing in popularity, many would detect a stylistic link to Raymond Scott in their work. 

One other important thread in the tapestry of Ambient music would emerge here. After working with experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad in 1969 on a project involving field recordings, Irv Teibel developed an interest in psychoacoustics or the science of how humans respond psychologically and physiologically to sound. One of Teibel’s specific focuses became the sounds of nature, and that same year, based on ocean wave recordings he had made for Conrad, he released The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore, the first in what would eventually become a series of 11 albums called “Environments.”

 

The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore is a unique document in several regards. While LPs of field recordings had existed for decades, few—if any—had been designed specifically with the purpose of enjoyment (or even betterment) in mind. Nothing really “happened” in The Psychologically Ultimate Seashore and its follow-ups (although Teibel and his collaborator Louis Gerstman employed the then-novel technique of employing a massive IBM 360 mainframe computer to aid in the processing and enhancing of the original recordings to make them sound “more real than real”). 

Rather, the intended takeaway of the listening experience was to improve focus, concentration, even sleep. In an era many years before millions of us turned on white noise or waterfall sounds to lull us to sleep, the notion that listening to the sounds of nature—or of a soundscape devoid of the familiar melodic, rhythmic and harmonic content of popular music—could be at least stimulating (or even beneficial) was a provocative one.   

The sounds of nature and the man-made environment would continue to play an important part in the development of Ambient music, linking up with Erik Satie’s notion of music as “environmental noise.” This thrust would find a path forward through experimental art and theater groups like Coum Transmissions, who began staging happenings at British art schools at the end of the 1960s. But Ambient would have to wait until the dawn of the 1970s and the spread of the modular synthesizer to explode—quietly, that is—into the public’s consciousness.

Ambient Music: Soothing Its Way To the Masses in the ‘70s

If the ‘60s had served to blend ideas from the worlds of experimental music, pop, theater and field recording, the following decade would find them synthesized into a more or less fully-fledged genre. Krautrock pioneers like the aforementioned Tangerine Dream plus others like Popol Vuh and Ash Ra Tempel were finding their inspiration drawn to extended, synth-led soundscapes. 

 

Of course, they weren’t the only ones undertaking such heady excursions. But if quiet “chillout tracks” served as palate-cleansers between some rock bands’ heavier offerings, for the emerging clutch of Ambient artists, minimalism and low intensity were the point, not merely a respite. Just as the popular “Environments” series suggested a new use of sound, artists and composers in the growing Ambient field suggested a new kind of sonic experience alongside—or as an antidote to—the loud, heavy, sometimes assaultive music then finding mass appeal.

 

Ambient’s rise coincided with that of New Age, an admittedly wide and nebulous catchall term for the spiritual movement that spread through the West in this decade. Incorporating European occult traditions dating back to the previous two centuries but including Eastern and more far-flung religious and spiritual beliefs as well, New Age and its loose focus on melding mind, body and spirit was a perfect match for this new musical genre. Because Ambient was largely devoid of musical and cultural landmarks, and designed at least in part to foster a pleasurable, even beneficial mindstate, it proved to be the perfect sonic backdrop for many New Age practitioners and gatherings.  

One of Ambient’s first “stars”—if that term can be used here—came not from New Age, but from the world of Rock. An admitted non-musician, a chance meeting in 1970 led Brian Eno to Roxy Music, a band on the far experimental side of Glam Rock. Eno’s experimentations with early synthesizers and homemade tape loops added an unpredictable and often unsettling element to Roxy’s already provocative performances. But it was after he left the band, in 1973, that Eno’s music truly catapulted Ambient onto the world stage.

After creating a series of largely electronic art-pop albums—themselves well-received and influential—Eno firmly entered the realm of Ambient with 1975’s Discreet Music. Created using a bespoke tape delay (helpfully offered in diagram on the back of the LP jacket), Discreet Music is much like the offerings of the “Environments” series in that the musical climaxes, such as they are, seem largely accidental, even incidental to the outcome. There are few musical “payoffs,” so to speak, yet the experience is quietly and undeniably stimulating. 

 

Brian Eno would go on to have a long career spanning multiple musical genres. But of all of them, it was perhaps Ambient more than any other that was shaped and guided by his original approach, one sparked quite by accident, as the liner notes to Discreet Music explain.  

Ambient Music: The ‘80s and Beyond

If in the ‘70s Brian Eno had required a bulky, temperamental synthesizer and a homemade tape delay system to create his signature soundscapes, the subsequent decades saw an exponential simplification and streamlining of these musical tools. By the middle of the ‘80s, inexpensive, reliable polyphonic synthesizers had permeated the mainstream, putting electronic music creation firmly in the hands of anyone with the inclination to experiment.

And experiment they did. The Orb’s 1991 debut Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld was an ambitious, sprawling, and hugely influential synthesis of Ambient, Dub, Electronica and seemingly every other musical genre. Seemingly purpose-built for the “chillout rooms” demanded by exhausted ravers, the music created by The Orb, Aphex Twin and many others became the backdrop to an era of massive dance parties, festivals and smaller gatherings. 

 

This genre, known as “Ambient,” “Ambient House,” “Ambient Techno” and other names, had more or less faded from the limelight by the turn of the century. But the rise of YouTube and other music-sharing sites gave Ambient a most unexpected lease on life. Circling back to “Environments” creator Irv Teibel’s original thesis, countless videos—often titled “relaxing music”—offer quiet natural or “enhanced” soundscapes to untold millions of listeners. 

This highlights the strange contradiction of Ambient music. If it’s a musical style in which “nothing happens,” why do so many of us depend on it to relax, spur focus, and renew our optimism? Even if it appears “there’s no there, there”—to borrow from Gertrude Stein—it’s clear that a great many of us are finding meaning in the void. And though some musicians might hate to admit it, this may qualify Ambient not as a genre devoid of substance, but quite the opposite: The most popular music on Earth.

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