“…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
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
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.
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.
- Seefeel — Quique
- Alessandro Cortini — Avanti
- Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto — Vrioon
- Ryuichi Sakamoto — async
- Andy Stott — Faith In Strangers
- Brian Eno — Ambient 1 / Music for Airports
- Brian Eno — Apollo
- Dedekind Cut — $uccessor (ded004)
- Deru — 1979
- Surfing — Deep Fantasy
- Stars of the Lid — And Their Refinement of the Decline
- Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven
- Max Richter — Sleep
- Global Communication — 76:14
- Heathered Pearls — Body Complex
- Terry Riley — In C
- Huerco S. — For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
- Luke Abbott — Wysing Forest
- Mark Pritchard — Under The Sun
- Tim Hecker — Haunt Me
- Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works 85–92
- 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.
- Etymonline.com. 2018. ambience | Origin and meaning of ambience by Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/ambience.
- “Salience”. 2018. Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/salience.
- “Salience (Language)”. 2018. En.Wikipedia.Org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salience_(language).
- Ihlein, Lucas. 2012. “Attending To Anthony Mccall’s Long Film For Ambient Light”. University of Wollongong, Australia.
- “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.