This is my attempt to share my enjoyment of "ambient music."
What Is Ambient Music?: Ambient is a genre of music that can be found within many other genres. Take, for example, rock and roll. Think of the slowest rock song you've ever heard. Now, think of it without vocals. Then think of that non-vocal track if it were slowed down and stripped of its brashest qualities, but retained its originality and appeal on a more subliminal level. What you are left with might be considered ambient music.
Here's an ambient mix I made, which you can listen to while you read this essay:
Perhaps the earliest examples of ambient music can be found in the somber, cathedral-echoing vocals of singing monks. Or in the thumb-plucking, meditative rhythms of African kalimba players. The mannered, sitting-room compositions of Baroque composers such as Purcell, Vivaldi or Bach might qualify as early forms of ambient. Centuries later, classical composers more consciously strived to emphasize mood over form. Impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel tried to evoke organic, flowing contemplation. The piano composer Erik Satie took things down another notch, writing pieces with a built-in simplicity and stillness. Modernist and avant-garde composers such as Harry Partch, John Cage, Gyorgy Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen often took on ambient approaches, though their forays into atonalism, sound collage, repetitive polyrhythms and other modes do not qualify as ambient.
An ambient approach can be found in many jazz compositions, especially the more experimental musicians such as Sun Ra or Miles Davis. Early blues and bluegrass musicians sometimes made slow, instrumental types of music that might fit into an ambient context. Rock and roll, which started off mostly rambunctious, eventually became one of the most adventurous and exploratory forms of music, even while mostly avoiding any highbrow pursuits. Santo & Johnny's instrumental "Sleepwalk" offered an early hint of ambient style in rock, but the late 1960s psychedelic era opened the doors to an anything-goes approach that made ambient possible as its own genre.
Lower-tempo, dreamy music was being made within numerous genres, including electronic acts such as Tangerine Dream, Krautrock bands like Can, progressive rockers such as King Crimson and Pink Floyd, and numerous other artists at the fringes, such as another electronic pioneer, Walter Carlos. Low-tech bands like The Velvet Underground used minimalism as a key component of their style. The real breakthrough, however, came when former Roxy Music art-rock band member Brian Eno released a series of albums that were specifically designated as "ambient" works. The term ambient probably wouldn't be the name of the genre if Eno hadn't popularized it.
One of Eno's first all-ambient albums was titled "Discreet Music," and the liner notes he wrote for this album became a kind of guideline for what ambient could be. The music should "mingle with the sounds of the forks and knives at dinner," he wrote (that's a paraphrase), and rather than blasting it, the volume should be set so that the music is only just barely audible. The idea is that the music should meld with one's consciousness or subconsciousness, though Eno phrased things less pretentiously than that sounds. Another way to describe ambient is as background soundtrack music for a movie that doesn't exist (a concept explored on Eno's "Music for Films" album).
Eno released a series of four albums titled "Ambient 1," "Ambient 2," and so on. Each had subtitles, the first being "Music for Airports." Eno's liner notes explained the system of tape loops he set up to randomly layer a series of shifting tones and smooth chords on top of each other. The process was similar to John Cage's "chance operations," but done via analog, mechanical technology instead of being performed by a musician or musicians. The second album, a collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, was more in line with the Erik Satie approach to minimalist composition, and a third album touched on the genre's link to primitive African styles of music. The fourth album, one of the best in the series, was titled "On Land" and used a combination of eerie music and sound effects to evoke different geographical locations, such as a swamp, a forest, or a lonely hilltop.
Brian Eno's modest success with his ambient series made waves in multiple directions. (To be fair, Eno wasn't the only musician of his type whose efforts made these waves, but his versatility, production finesse and success at collaboration with other musicians significantly amplified his influence.) When other musicians realized there was an audience who would happily purchase albums full of slow, mood-based, unconventional sounds and effects-based instrumental music, a new niche sprang up that didn't require radio airplay for success. Much of the ambient-style music that emerged in the wake of Eno was very interesting and adventurous, such as other artists on Eno's publishing label, EG. Musicians like Jon Hassell, Michael Brook, Daniel Lanois and Phil Manzanera demostrated the diverse styles and approaches that could be forged within a strictly ambient format of music.
There was a downside to the success of ambient, some would claim: It helped usher in a sub-genre called New Age Music. New Age tied in with a particularly 1980s cultural trend that seemed to have resulted from '60s hippies growing into '80s establishment types while attempting to hold onto their sense of counterculture. New Age music often turned the ambient instrumental form into a cheaply "mystical" McMusic that was supposed to give the listener an aural fast track to meditative higher consciousness, spiritual awakening, and cosmic metaphysical oneness, or something. It was as if musicians were competing to see how little actual composition and invention they could get away with packaging into an album, with some music tracks almost consisting of single synthesizer notes held down for minutes at a time. That might be an exaggeration, and in fairness some New Age musicians had talent and creativity, but there was a toothlessness and safeness to their music, as if they didn't want to miss out on any potential album puchases by whoever buys the music to play in doctor's office waiting rooms. Musicians like Yanni and Kitaro come to mind, and the label Windham Hill -- home of George Winston and Shadowfax -- was another offender.
Meanwhile, on the darker side of the spectrum, musicians in the goth, industrial and even punk realms began dipping their rusty iron, black-nail-polished toes into ambient waters. Lush but gothy artists on the 4AD label turned reverb guitar riffs into the aural equivalent of swirls of opium smoke, and chaos-worshipping self-mutilating performance artists like Psychic TV looped the sounds of whale cries alongside large clanking factory equipment to tell a tragic story of man overpowering nature, then packaged the resulting noise as ambient experimental music. Punk and new-wave musicians, tired of watering down their subversive pop styles as if the only true measure of success was radio airplay or larger-venue concert contracts, dabbled in side projects making thoughtful, emotive music that didn't require labor-intensive recording nor a wide audience to buy the limited-release albums.
By the 1990s, as the electronica scene was exploding on dance floors, a new crop of so-called ambient artists arose, this time calling themselves (or being called by others) "chill out" or "dub" or even "trip hop" artists, but many still referred to as "ambient." Some of them, such as the Aphex Twin or The Orb, veered from high-BPM dancefloor tracks to after-party background coolness. But smaller-label artists retained a more purist "ambient" aesthetic, not linking their music to any cultural scene or activity, but continuing to carry the torch of pure inventiveness, making music that imagined an ever-increasing gallery of possible worlds, sonic combinations, and mental states.
The latter type of ambient music is the kind I like the most: Ambient music that is not tied to any cultural moment, and in spite of its slow, minimal format, somehow nonetheless carries a substance and combination of elements that renders it unique and subject to repeat listening. I find such music best when it almost seems to express inner patterns of thought, or conveys moods and feelings that do not exist in language.
Ambient music continued into the 2000s, and beyond into the 2010s, but the continued splintering and online music-streaming sea change of music listening has made it harder, or at least less inviting, for me to follow the genre. Ambient music styles have mingled with indie rock, math rock, post rock, the retro/lounge movement, scored and un-scored soundtrack music, and many other flavors of listening.
When I have more time, I will list some of my favorite artists and albums here, recommending some of the lesser-known titles that don't usually make the "best of" lists.