All Hail West Texas: Notes on Ambient.
Negating the Voice: Notes on Ambient.
The story goes something like this: a bed-bound Brian Eno requests that a visitor brings him music to listen to during a hospital stint. Said family member, friend or flunky comes armed with an album of harpsichord music and leaves the former Roxy Music man to listen to it. The thing is, and this is crucial, they left the record playing just a bit too quietly. Eno had to strain to hear it and started thinking about the possibilities of music that, could ‘accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.’ The maxim of what became known as ambient was that ‘it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’ Thus we got Discreet Music, Music for Airports, and Apollo. And then came swathes of gossamer thin synth washes and barely there percussive ticks and arrhythmic almost-whale sounds.
In 1978, Brian Eno compiled No New York – the record that essentially brought the delightful skronk of downtown New York’s No Wave scene to the wider music world’s attention – and releasedMusic for Airports. I need say no more, though of course I will.
The story I began with, as potentially apocryphal as it is, ignores a great deal of technicalities and advancements in music theory. But it’s a nice story so lets stick with it. Eno’s ambient albums chime delicately, the vapor trails of single notes drift languidly into synthesized, mechanized, unreal-ly heavenly voices, choirs arching gently, barely perceptibly towards the stratosphere. This is music that, paradoxically, invites the listener to disregard it whilst retaining a sense of formal and aural-aesthetic near-perfection which renders the audience awe-struck at the use of space and openings and the purity of minimalism. These records, – directly or indirectly – shaped the sound of music to come.
Ambient music has always lent itself to a variety of genres. Think of Burzum or Xasthur welding the mellifluous wash of Tangerine Dream style kosmiche ambient to black metal’s harsh party-wall of sound; or the Eno infused modern classical stylings of Stars of the Lid. Try and imagine William Basinski’s imperious Disintegration Loops series – a collection of gorgeous classical motifs decaying incrementally in front of the listener – existing without Eno’s pioneering tape modifications and manipulations. A group like Emeralds – a band whose recent output, including the stupidly wonderful Does It Look Like I’m Here, ventures deep into the realms of Popul Vuh et al – need Eno just as much as one imagines Wolfgang Voigt did when he produced the seminal GAS albums in the early part of the last decade. Ambient, be it the elegantly almost invisible piano sketches of Harold Budd, or the dance-influenced early Aphex Twin material, has transportative powers. It takes its listener away from regiment and marching rule.
As a committed house/techno fan, I veer towards music with a strict pulse, a definable rigidity, an automated and always regular heartbeat. Ambient does away with this computerized, regimented thud. I remember hearing the 2004 record by DFA’s analogue-synth wizards Delia and Gavin, Days of Mars, and wondering what it’d sound like with a huge kick drum over the top. Luckily DFA must have thought the same thing and commissioned Carl Craig to do a remix. The result, along with Craig’s ever-popular re-jig of Falling Down by Theo Parrish, became an inescapable techno calling card. I tired of it soon, though, and headed back to the original. I longed for music that didn’t always propel the listener, music that permitted me to do something else – often in my case either reading novels or playing Pro Evolution Soccer – without feeling as if I was betraying it. Ambient music relinquishes control and asks us to shape the sounds just as much as the sounds shape us.
Here is a ten track youtube playlist to compliment the above words.