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  • Author Simon Lucas
  • Published June 11, 2014

Why you should listen to… Ambient

What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision editor Simon Lucas explains why ambient music – fascinating aural wallpaper – deserves a place in your collection…

Ambience

Existing, as one noted exponent said, on the ‘cusp between melody and texture’, ambient music can be described (without prejudice) as aural wallpaper. What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision editor Simon Lucas explains why it deserves a place in your collection…

 

Generally devoid of rhythm or melody, and with the emphasis on mood, feel or texture, it’s designed to be non-interruptive. Erik Satie’s 1917 musique d’ameublement (furniture music) was intended specifically as background material, but post-War popular music had to reach full maturity (and technology had to become at least a little democratised) before ‘ambient music’ became an acknowledged Thing.

 

And as is the manner of most musical movements or stances, of course, the moment the description ‘ambient’ becomes accepted, ambient music branches out in all directions all at once. Since the late-80s explosion in the club scene (to mention just one ‘for instance’), it’s morphed into ‘chill-out’ (by now, of course, a horribly passé and bankrupt description), intended to calm a clubber’s racing heart and gyrating limbs.

 

A special mention here goes to The KLF’s pivotal album Chill Out, which borrows liberally from Brian Eno, both in his more contemplative moments and his more strident sonic experiments with David Byrne. Of course, The KLF being The KLF, their music is nigh-on impossible to stream.

 

It’s impossible, in fact, to discuss ambient music without invoking the name Brian Eno. While by no means its only early exponent, Eno (ex-Roxy Music doyen of ‘treatments’ and feather-boas) has done as much as anyone to formalise, rationalise and contextualise ambient music.

 

Loquacious on any number of subjects, Eno’s 1978 ambient calling-card Ambient 1/Music For Airports (itself a kind of formalisation of Eno’s ambient notions originally served up in some of the more hushed moments in 1975’s Another Green World and the same year’s virtually non-existent Discreet Music) featured sleeve-notes that laid out what amounts to a mild-mannered manifesto. “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.”

 

Some ambient music is lyrical almost despite itself, some works better the quieter you play it, some is almost literally hypnotic. So tune in, sit down and get your feet up.

 

Popol Vuh: Ich Mache Einen Spiegel (1970)
Once Bob Moog went overground with his revolutionary range of modular analogue synthesisers at the end of the 60s, a whole new frontier of vaguely space-y music was opened up. Popul Vuh’s first album embraced the technology utterly, with part-blissful, part-unsettling results. If it’s dream-like random escapism you’re after, it’s here in spades.

 

Tangerine Dream: Sequent C (1974)
Much happier being described as ‘The Berlin School’ rather than anything as generic as ‘ambient’, Tangerine Dream had been ploughing their own distinctive (and undeniably German) furrow for seven or eight years by the time the Phaedra album was released in 1974. Textured, repetitive and equally useful for background ambience as for actually listening to, Sequent C is extraordinarily brief by Tangerine Dream’s sprawling standards.

 

Brian Eno: 2/1 (1978)
Deploying Heath Robinson-style homemade loopers, sequencers, delay boxes and a fearsomely mathematical approach, Ambient 1/Music For Airports is quietly and unobtrusively glorious. This vocal piece (track 2, side 1, see?) features several loops that repeat after 23, 25 and 29 seconds and so on. Incommensurable cycles like this are unlikely to come back into sync – so while the elements are unchanging there nevertheless seems a degree of variety in the piece.

 

The Orb: Star 6 & 7 8 9 (1991)

 

 

For a while there The Orb were chill-out, a necessary and welcome respite from the bug-eyed excitement of the frantic club scene. But they weren’t devoid of rhythm, often employed fairly standard song structures and were definitely no strangers to a dubby bassline… and yet their sound is definitively ambient in the (slightly more) contemporary sense. Star 6 & 7 8 9 borrows liberally from Steve Reich, but then The Orb are no strangers to the judicious lift: the Woody Allen film Sleeper (from where the band took its name) is all over this piece.

 

Aphex Twin: #6 (Mould) (1994)
This album has 25 tracks, only one of which (Blue Calx) is titled, with the others being represented by drawings or photographs… how much more ambient do you want it? Aphex Twin attributes the sound of Selected Ambient Works Volume II to lucid dreams and synæsthesia – but regardless of its inspiration, it’s a hushed, textured and evocative collection. It’s no wonder so many of these mood-pieces have shown up in film, TV and video-game soundtracks.

 

Harold Budd: As Long as I Can Hold My Breath (2005)
Harold Budd vigorously rejects the ‘ambient’ tag – he claims he was “kidnapped” into the category – but anyone who composes minimal gong solos and drone pieces called things like The Oak Of The Golden Dreams is, frankly, asking for it. And despite numerous, ongoing announcements of ‘Harold Budd’s Last Recorded Work’ the American is still going strong, having released upwards of 40 albums since his 1970 debut.

 

Carbon Based Lifeforms: Arecibo (2011)
Arguably Gothenburg’s leading exponents of the ambient vibe, Carbon Based Lifeforms avowed intention is “to combine earth and space in fine-tuned, but still solid, musical visions” – which is nothing if not ambitious. Whether or not the word ‘solid’ really deserves to be applied to the kind of tone-poems CBL specialise in is debatable.

 

Simon Lucas is the editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine.

 

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