Ambient Music has been around for along time now. We all know the type – often played in art museums (and especially art museum shops), it’s a low volume, usually highly consonant and low dynamic range form of background music.
Most of it is drivel. Drivel because it lacks any originality, strength of form or focus. Music such as this deserves to remain in the background and never come forward. The vast number of interchangeably bad ambient albums, usually with pictures of nature on the cover and psuedo-spiritual titles, almost beggars imagination. But then again, what is different here from the vast number of horrendously bad pop albums? In short, nothing.
But although the style has been ill-served by the majority of its practitioners, at its best ambient music is as fine as any music. It is striking how many serious composers in the latter part of the 20th century have embraced elements of the style, perhaps none more successfully than the American composer Ingram Marshall whose ‘Fog Tropes’ I regard as one of the masterpieces of the genre.
But Marshall can wait for consideration at another time. I wanted to use this article to highlight the contribution of Brian Eno to the form.
Eno is undoubtedly the grand master and main mover of all that is good in ambient music. In a way he was well placed to do this, emerging out of both the experimental (the Portsmouth Sinfonia) and rock (Roxy Music) musical environments on the early 1970s. Comfortably embracing cultural divides, Eno brought a new sensibility to music making that led to a series of masterpieces in the late 1970s.
According to the accounts of the time, Eno conceived of the concept of a low volume, essentially environmental, music as a result of being confined to bed following an illness and being unable (literally) to reach the volume control of the stereo in his room. Forced to listen to what I believe was a classical work at sub-optimal volume, Eno realised that the music, which of course blended into the environmental sounds of his room, had taken on a new character and feel. It had become ambient.
Eno’s primary instrumental skill is with the synthesizer and tape recorder, both instruments that are ideally suited for the generation of sounds that resemble and integrate the low level environmental noise that we constantly hear, and rearrange it into music. This is precisely what he did.
Begininng first with a looped and essentially minimalist sampling treatment of a classical work on the album ‘Discrete Music’, he moved onto his first true masterpiece of ambient music, “Music For Airports’.
“Music For Airports” is such an important record that anyone who loves music should have it in their collection. A series of four meditative pieces based on piano, voice and synthesizer, this is perhaps one of the most beautiful sets of music put on tape. It is best played at low (i.e. ambient volume) but the four sections are constructed so artfully that it can be played and analysed at normal volume with equal satisfaction. This is music that washes the soul clean.
Eno followed “Music For Airports” with a series of equally delightful ambient recordings, either on his own or in collaboration, most notably with Harold Budd on “The Plateaux Of Mirror” and “The Pearl”. My personal favorite remains “Ambient 4: On Land”, a series of short soundscapes based around impressions derived from real and evocative places. Some of these, such as “Lizard Point”, I have actually visited, and it is quite extraordinary how well Eno’s music matches the emotional aura of that beautiful rocky seashore.
Perhaps it is familarity with these works that has reduced my patience for the less-inspired workaday efforts of the host of other practitioners of the form. I think, too, that without the knowledge of Eno’s work I would have been inclined to dismiss ambient music altogether as just another example of wishy-washy New Age thinking. And that would be unfair. For the best ambient music is simply amongst the best music.