Pioneered by Brian Eno, the genre is all about sound that is as ‘ignorable as it is interesting’
The joys of ambient music
People listen to music for all sorts of reasons. To dance, to feel sad, to celebrate, to rage, to be transported, to laugh. You name it.
Forty years ago, however, Brian Eno’s Music for Airports turned all these motivations on their heads and quietly changed the world. The album’s revolution wasn’t just aesthetic. Eno’s simple piano figures, looped into waves of lulling, melodic sound certainly defied most rock ’n’ roll conventions, including those of Eno’s own band, Roxy Music: insistent rhythms, memorable hooks, lyrics and concise structure. But Eno’s declared aim to “induce calm and a space to think” (as he wrote in the album’s original liner notes in 1978) was not without precedent. One could look to Eric Satie’s beautiful Gymnopédies, John Cage’s 4’33 of silence or even Eno’s own experiments in 1975’s Discreet Music.
Eno himself cited a different touchstone: the “spacious” (as he described it) 32 minutes of Miles Davis’s He Loved Him Madly, which opens his 1974 album Get Up With It. Listless cymbals punctuate Davis’s haunting organ, his echoing wah-wah trumpet and no less than three heavily reverbed guitars.
“As the listener, I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith (or stereolith, for that matter),” Eno wrote on the liner notes to his 1992 album On Land.
What distinguished Music for Airports (1978) was a matter of intention. Eno wrote: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
He coined the term “ambient music”, and when he said: “as ignorable as it is interesting”, he was really throwing down the gauntlet to genres, whether rock, jazz or classical. All of these rely in different ways on spectacle that petitions our attention. See for instance Jack White’s recent impatience with audiences who record his concerts. This desire to preserve the fleeting moment not only infringes upon the unique interaction of a live performance, it distracts attention from what White calls the direct “human” experience: “I want people to live in the moment,” he said.
However, when it comes to Eno, he says listen closely, or don’t. Ambient music can accommodate you either way. Has there ever been a more reasonable, even indifferent demand?
In one sense, Eno was merely articulating how we all experience art. There are times when we give ourselves completely to a piece of music, listening in silence to the exclusion of everything else. More often, above all in these days of headphones, portable players and constant background muzaq, songs wash over us while we are doing something else: walking or working, socialising or shopping.
So it was with Eno. In 1975, he was stuck at home after being knocked down by a London taxi. During his convalescence, an ex-girlfriend brought him a record of harp music. To increase its soothing properties, she set the volume so low that it blended with rain falling outside.
“After she had gone, and with considerable difficulty, I put on the record,” Eno recalled. “After I had lain down, I realised that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment, just as the colour of the light and sound of the rain were parts of the ambience.”
Eno’s account describes nothing less than a revelation: we never listen to music in a hermetically-sealed vacuum, but within a sensual world composed of sound, vision and touch. It is his own extension of John Cage’s dictum: “Everything we do is music.”
Eno’s ambience has become hugely influential, even spawning a genre in its own right: online electronic music specialists like Boomkat use “ambient” to describe seminal works such as Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 or Stars of the Lid’s The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops I-IV or Laraaji’s meditations on Eastern mysticism using the zither. What these compositions have in common is lengthy run times, a lack of drums (if not quite rhythm) and gorgeous, if melancholic moods.
Yet ambient music can incorporate harsher sounds too: white noise, drone and darker, more unsettling soundscapes. One might look at the recycled loops of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica or, even more extreme, the sonic “holocausts”
that concluded My Bloody Valentine’s live version ofYou Made Me Realise in 2008. The tsunami of undulating guitar squalls was loud enough to drive concert goers screaming from the venue, but its aim was to induce the same trance-like states that Eno had sought. “It’s like an infinite horizon,” Kevin Shields said on the BBC’s The Joy of the Guitar Riff.
Ambient music has also helped to spawn more recognisably “pop” subgenres like shoegazing (Ride, Slowdive, Catherine Wheel) and dreampop (Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star), both of which pit dreamy vocals against lush washes of sound. All are in plentiful supply on 7, the new album by Beach House, one of the finest exponents of both forms. Victoria Legrand’s husky, delicate vocals are borne aloft by her own synthesiser, driven by slow and stately drums, and glittered by Alex Scally’s tasteful guitar. The wistful effect is nicely summed up by Legrand herself on Pay No Mind: “Down the hall, I heard a song, Who knows, Drifting away”.
Another album released this month proposes an even closer heir to Eno’s explorations in quiet, silence and beauty. Grid of Points is the work of Grouper, to all intents and purposes the Oregon-based artist and musician Liz Harris.
It seems it’s now a legal requirement to use the words ethereal and haunting when discussing her work. Grouper has produced more or less purely ambient tracks: the two lengthy pieces, Rolling Gate and Sleep that comprise Violet Replacement. Rolling Gate gives the impression of a slow-motion car journey through a misty night with David Lynch, at once sinister, disorienting and seductive.
But Harris has also released more conventional, if still leftfield albums like The Man Who Died in His Boat or Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. Her modus operandi here is fusing heavily treated guitar drones with her own hushed, breathy vocals, whose exquisite folk-choral progressions smudge the actual lyrics towards pure sound. It is ambient music’s version of Kurt Cobain’s scream. The effect is spookily akin to eavesdropping on Harris singing to herself and no one else, a suspicion magnified by her live performances. Shrouded in shadow, she sits, strums and whispers her heavenly lines.
Grid of Points continues a new direction that Harris began on her last album Ruins and explored further on recent singles like Children. The guitar has largely been replaced by piano. Harris’s arpeggiated playing initially sounds stark against the background hush (one thinks of church halls or similarly cavernous space), the sustained notes are often allowed to ring in the air. The effect sounds eerily similar to 1/1, the opening track on Music for Airports.
Just as noticeable is the upfront placement of Harris’s voice, which is less adorned than before, if no clearer where articulating lyrics are concerned. Instead of woozy special effects, she bends notes like an expert blues singer on Parking Lot.
The main concession to technological tinkering is multitracking her hushed voice into layered harmonies. This is most obvious on the opening The Races, whose lovely a cappella puts one in mind of Julianna Barwick’s experiments with looping her lone voice into a polyphony.
On Thanksgiving Song, the chiming piano syncopates with Harris’s delay-and-reverb heavy vocals, creating an effect like cascading rounds of noise. Again, one thinks of Music for Airports’ experiments with voice like 2/1. Yet, Grouper’s spellbinding music meets Eno’s ignorable and interesting quotient on Harris’s own terms. Four years ago, I used to play Grouper’s Cover the Windows and the Walls to my newborn daughter to lull her to sleep. More often than not, it worked.
When I put Grid of Points on the stereo last week, my daughter listened with rapt attention. She already understands that ambient music works like a lullaby or demands that you listen even closer to hear what Liz Harris might be saying.
In our rushed, over-egged, over-caffeinated, over-distracted and over-loud times, ambient music’s desire to “induce calm and a space to think” has never felt more out-of-step or more necessary. Tune in or tune out. It’s your choice