Ambience

Ambience & Noise

A reflective essay and composition log including research and examples leading to the creation of my latest creative project

This article is part-reflective, part-descriptive. Here, I will, at different points in time, expand this post by writing updates about my current Creative Project for Organising Sounds as part of my Sound Design degree.

The project implements the thematic of genre-merging in music composition by combining the concepts and aesthetic styles of Ambience and Noise. It does so by not taking such definitions for granted. The back-story of my finished composition includes research in literature, sound, visual art, performance art, moving image, and a generous amount of hours of listening. I wanted not only to create a work I could be pleased with but, simultaneously, to learn more about the art that inspires me — its etymology, history, concepts and notable figures.

I have already talked about the theme of ambience in the arts and in relation to my sound practice on Medium here

[embed]https://medium.com/@francescoimola/the-unintruding-beauty-of-ambient-music-925f5db47351[/embed]

and about the “issue” of noise in music as something to be proud of here

[embed]https://medium.com/@francescoimola/the-unintruding-beauty-of-ambient-music-925f5db47351[/embed]

While the pieces above develop on the contents surrounding the many definitions of Ambience and Noise, here I will describe how I’ve applied such concepts to my composition.

Why Ambience? Why Noise?

I have for long been gushing about how much I connect to Ambient music because of its intrinsic ability to slow down time and make space for thoughts — yet, I realised that before starting to put my ideas together, I needed a broader perspective on Ambient Music. Not only that given by random Brian Eno quotes found on the web, but that which connects the history of Ambient Music to the ideas of Heidegger interrogating the relationship between ontology and phenomenology in our daily lives*.

*Heidegger presents a view that what exists (a question of ontology) cannot be separated from how we engage with it (a question of phenomenology).¹

I soon found that the term ambience represented broader domains of practice. There has [in fact] been a recent resurgence of interest in ambience in music and sound art [correlating] with a broad spike in interest around other ambient media.²

What better way to compliment the forever-looping slowly-changing aesthetic of ambience with the disharmony and disturbance found in noise. Ambient and Noise music are very distinct genres on the surface, but very similar at the core. If Ambient music maestro Brian Eno defined the genre of his invention “as ignorable as it is interesting”, could we say the same of noise?

While not as easily ignorable, noise position itself much in the background as in the foreground. It may be “louder” that some of the rest, but still shares the permeating properties of ambience. Similarly, loud sounds can become ignorable over time (see example below from Alva Noto’s Bit)

[embed]https://youtu.be/fOXxiM1Ujp0[/embed]

However, I’m not claiming to be the first attempting at such practice. A similar approach has been taken in drone music for decades. While not conceptually combining the aesthetics of Noise and Ambience, drone music sounds much like what I’ve had in mind for this work.

[embed]https://youtu.be/qNt1b9u7cZ4[/embed]

Many artists before —names such as Luke Abbott, Ben Frost, Fennesz, Black Mass, Alessandro Cortini and others — have produced beautiful music that merges elements of ambient and noise together. They are also some of the same artists who have inspired me to take this direction.

In order for my style-merging to be successful, I needed to find elements belonging to both aesthetics — or only to one of them — and combine those in a way that was pleasing to the ear. But it was at this point in my research that I had to face a major challenge.

Should my composition actually be pleasing to the ear, or should I strive for “noisiness” in every aspect?

The work I have created is not trying to sound like ambient music for noise fans; nor vice-versa. It implements concepts of noise, intended as unwanted interference rather than painful distortion. Disturbances can be embodied as randomly controlled pitch changes, a general disregard for quantization, generative sequences influenced by Jitter*, uncontrolled phase cancellation, and so forth.

*Jitter is the deviation from true periodicity of a presumably periodic signal.³

Creative Process

The fundaments of my compositions are based on a parallel stack of 3 synthesisers of the same type (Max for Cats’ FM Synth: Bengal) controlled by individual generative sequences. Each synthesiser plays a different semi-random sequence of notes over several octaves and at different speeds — disharmony par excellence.

Every chain is first EQed multiple times to enhance certain sonic flavours and then processed through a “gliding reverb” effect capable of adding rising and descending pitches to the reflections of a reverb.

Beginning of April 2018: A first iteration of this process is the piece named “Noise Sketch” available below. Although it may not sound similar to the later mentioned finished work, it makes use of a very similar setup — yet this time pushed to the extremes. Here, the harsh and gritty soundscapes of the digital synths are paired with a couple of field recordings. While I don’t believe this first part of the work to be an extremely successful attempt per se, I could say to have learned what to take and what to leave from it.

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/noise-sketch-march-2018[/embed]

End of April 2019: With a now conceptually redefined approach, I went on repurposing the work to what it started to sound like the music I had in mind. This is where my piece was one month into the project:

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/untitled-sketch[/embed]

May 2019: The sample above is sonically very close to the completed piece. Much of the work done at this point was meant to add density and one more layer of “noise” to the composition. I decided to play with phase in a less controlled way than when using autopan-like effects.

I bounced down three iterations of the same live-running generative system. By doing so I collected 3 version of the already-three-layered stack of synthesisers. Pitch-shifted each of those bounced tracks by a few cents and nudged in time each by a few milliseconds.

Immediately, you begin to notice the effect that phase has on each element. It makes the composition move in an (almost) unpredictable way — gestures that suggest a struggle: the music fighting to climb to a point it will never reach. I’e always loved the idea of never-resolving musical sentences and here had the chance to begin and end on one.

You can hear the completed work below:

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/permeating-with-disharmony[/embed]

Screenshot of the Ableton Live session where all the work was produced. CPU usage running at 90% in some section of the arrangement!

References:

  1. Jaaniste, L. 2003–2007. Approaching the Ambient: creative practice and the ambient mode of being. PhD Project Doctoral Research. Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.
  2. “The Politics Of Ambience”. Sonicartresearch.Co.Uk. Accessed 10 May 2018. http://www.sonicartresearch.co.uk/the-politics-of-ambience/.
  3. “Jitter”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jitter.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

website| twitter | instagram | linkedin

The unintruding beauty of Ambient Music

neither-back-nor-forth

“…I ask Eno how long he’s been in this space. “All night,” he says. If that’s true — it’s 10:30 in the morning — he looks remarkably fresh. I clarify: But for how many years? “All night for the past 22 years,” he deadpans. The room’s appeal is obvious; it feels like an oasis. A few tree branches are faintly visible through the skylights, silhouetted against February’s slate-grey sky. The city feels far away.” (Philip Sherburne in conversation with Brian Eno for Pitchfork, 2017)

“Here it is…”, you’re probably thinking. Another bustling piece of writing praising the beauty of Music For Airports and celebrating the uniqueness of Ambient as the stress-alleviating genre for excellence.

And you may be thinking right.

Still, whilst I regard the statements above to be true, I feel the need to analyse and reason my beliefs as a way to challenge my personal take on the subjects I write about. Therefore, before start arguing why Ambient music does and will always matter, it is worth shifting our attention to the concept of ambience.

That which surrounds

It is fundamental to reflect on the abstraction of the term ambience — especially for those in the creative works — since its understanding could influence the way we engage with our surroundings both in our “daily and aesthetic lives”¹.

Ambience refers back to the Latin ambiens (“a going around”) and ire (‘to go’): to go around².

Through his research project, The Ambience of Ambience Luke Jaaniste “expands upon a mode of being that has been hinted at within creative practice and intellectual thought” which he calls “the ambient mode”. It alludes to the pervasion of space and “deals with how we exist in our surroundings”¹. According to Jaaniste, ambience is not just “somewhere within a surrounding”, but widespread, evenly diffused in a place. Anything that stands out is divergent, “salient”¹.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines salience as “the fact of being important to or connected with what is happening or being discussed”³. The concept of salience “has been studied with respect to interpersonal communication, persuasion, politics, and its influence on mass media”⁴.

By desisting salience while still remaining deeply connected with it, Ambience implies a political statement. To make art that incorporates the concept of ambience is to create something that is neither-back-nor-forth — articulating a belief in how things exist together, in our surrounding, and in society.

Ambience in the arts

Around the mid-1970s artists began to embody ideas relating to ambience in their works. New practices originated, not only in sound but also in screen-based, literature, architecture, and performative domains.

Anthony McCall’s Long Film for Ambient Light (1975) is a work of “Expanded Cinema” exploring “the ambient materiality [becoming] vital part of the aesthetic experience”¹. McCall’s Long Film came at the end of a series of works in which McCall was stripping back cinema to its absolute minimum — light, time, and human experience/perception.⁵

Anthony McCall. “Long Film for Ambient Light” (1975). Installation view at Idea Warehouse, New York, 2pm, June 18, 1975. Photograph by Anthony McCall.

Ambient video is video not to be distracted by, intended to play in the backgrounds of our spaces. The most well-known ambient video trope is the venerable “yule log”, which has been burning in video screens on television sets since its introduction at WPIX New York in 1966.⁶ It also involves the long-take slow-changing video works of Andy Warhol, Michael Snow and Yoko Ono.¹

[embed]https://youtu.be/VEx4KMzPegc[/embed]

My relationship with Ambient Music

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in ambient music. I haven’t been listening to it for long and obviously haven’t listened to every ambient record out there. However, most of my time is spent listening to ambient. I have a special relationship to the genre as it has helped me get through some rough moments in life. Ambient music has pervaded the empty rooms I’ve been living in with a strangely suffused sense of calm — that calm that makes you feel connected to the ground and helps you find new clarity.

It is difficult not to mention the Eno’s coining of the term when talking about Ambient Music. He is not only a leading personality in modern society but also the “chief figure in any discussion of ambience”¹. Ambient music, however, has an important anthology that traces back decades before Eno and is still developing outside Eno’s studio through the work of others artists to this very day.

Erik Satie’s Musique d’Ameublement (1917) is probably the earliest example of ambient music ever composed. No, it does not sound anywhere close to sweeping synths and ringing bells of Eno or Harold Budd , but I still find Satie’s work to be way ahead of its time. Despite his natural extravagance posing him at the centre of scandals and litigations, with pieces such as Musique d’Ameublement and Gymnopédie No 1 Satie demonstrates to be the minimalist and ambient precursor par excellence.

[embed]https://youtu.be/CU2mDkZoYsc[/embed]

Of the many — but not all — records labelled as Ambient I have listened to, there are some that I particularly enjoyed at times only for their musicality, others for their ability to inspire my practice as a musician. A short sample of those is presented below in no particular order. Only need to mention that some of this music, while sonically close to Ambient is often re-labelled by the media belonging to a range of disparate sub-genres — including new-age, ambient-techno, drone, chill-out, space music, IDM, and others.

  1. Seefeel — Quique
  2. Alessandro Cortini — Avanti
  3. Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto — Vrioon
  4. Ryuichi Sakamoto — async
  5. Andy Stott — Faith In Strangers
  6. Brian Eno — Ambient 1 / Music for Airports
  7. Brian Eno — Apollo
  8. Dedekind Cut — $uccessor (ded004)
  9. Deru — 1979
  10. Surfing — Deep Fantasy
  11. Stars of the Lid — And Their Refinement of the Decline
  12. Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven
  13. Max Richter — Sleep
  14. Global Communication — 76:14
  15. Heathered Pearls — Body Complex
  16. Terry Riley — In C
  17. Huerco S. — For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
  18. Luke Abbott — Wysing Forest
  19. Mark Pritchard — Under The Sun
  20. Tim Hecker — Haunt Me
  21. Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works 85–92

References:


  1. Jaaniste, L. 2003–2007. Approaching the Ambient: creative practice and the ambient mode of being. PhD Project Doctoral Research. Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.
  2. Etymonline.com. 2018. ambience | Origin and meaning of ambience by Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/ambience.
  3. “Salience”. 2018. Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/salience.
  4. “Salience (Language)”. 2018. En.Wikipedia.Org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salience_(language).
  5. Ihlein, Lucas. 2012. “Attending To Anthony Mccall’s Long Film For Ambient Light”. University of Wollongong, Australia.
  6. “Ambient Video”. 2018. Ambient Video. https://ambientvideo.org/.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

website| twitter | instagram | linkedin