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History of Ambient

History of Ambient

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Published by: Jorge Andres Sánchez Albuja on Aug 02, 2010
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History of Ambient Sitting, listening, chilling. Music for background or foreground.

Music for tripping, for relaxing, or for making us uneasy and challenging us with a new perspective. At the start of the third millennium music to chill-out to makes perfect sense. As the Western world becomes faster, more complex, more rife with nervous energy, the joy of listening to instrumental music that expresses both our external environment (both man-made and natural) and our inner spaces (both emotional and mental) is now more popular than at any other time in the history of recorded sound. Such music has many names: ambient, new age, contemporary instrumental, experimental, spacerock, chillout, ambient techno, ambient trance, mood music, world music, new acoustic music. The protests of some musicians and A&R people notwithstanding, I believe one of these names in particular - ambient - is a perfectly useful signpost for the phenomenon. It points to music across a hugely diverse spectrum: from the gorgeous solo guitar of John Fahey to the environmental techno of Biosphere; from the minimal avantpop of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra to the chilled-out Celtic ambience of Enya and her clones. It was English musician, sound designer and conceptualist Brian Eno who first officially coined the phrase “ambient”. In the sleeve notes to his 1978 opus Ambient 1: Music For Airports he defines it as music "designed to induce calm and space to think". Eno's concept of ambience is music that can be either actively listened to or used as background, depending on whether the listener chooses to pay attention or not. It’s been a highly influential if not entirely original idea; at best informing the resurgence of electronic ambient via the dance world, at worst being taken to its passive extreme by many new age composers. Still, ambient is perhaps the slipperiest of all musical genres we ever dared give a name. Certainly instrumental music to chill-out to had been around for a long time before Eno chose to define it, in forms as diverse as Gregorian chants from the middle ages to certain forms of psychedelic rock from the late 60's. Some people complain that any definition is limiting, and beyond a point I would have to agree. So in this guide I haven't devoted long tracts to drawing lines in the sand and saying: "This is ambient". I do believe, however, it is worth spending some time giving the music some context by tracing a number of the sources that have informed eclectic ambient sound in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond. One of ambient music's prime sources is the classical avant-garde. Among the pioneers were two late-19th Century composers, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. Satie's concept of "furniture music" for solo piano or small ensembles now seems surprisingly congruous with Eno's concept of ambience: creating a sound environment that complimented the surrounds rather than intruded upon it. More musically direct but just as subtle and suggestive was the work of Debussy, who's wandering, impressionistic tone poems like "Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Fawn" (1894) heralded a new openness in Western music and broke all kinds of rules in structure and linear composition.

psychedelic drugs. jazz and popular music to an unprecedented degree. ambient and experimental music that's been released since simply wouldn't exist without it. that legacy reaches into the various ambient and downbeat spin-offs of electronic dance music that have emerged since. .By the middle of the 20th Century the American composer John Cage had blown stuffy notions of "proper" music right out of the water. Rock was undergoing its own avant-garde and the open-ended sound of one instrument in particular .. often improvised. but to challenge such a guitar-dominated culture at the time was revolutionary. In the late 1960's rock was enriched enormously by a combination of electronic music technology. particularly on UK synth pop and on the black musicians of Detroit from whom modern techno emerged in the 1980's. art rock bands like Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream then took the next step by downplaying pop's emphasis on lyrics and taking audiences into totally new spaces. his piece "4'33" which challenged listeners to consider silence as a perfectly valid form of musical expression. He pre-empted world music with pieces that evoked the sounds of Africa. And in turn. After Cage. whether with orchestras.. most infamously. We may nowadays take synthesiers for granted. spacey and long. he invented and composed for the 'prepared piano' with objects stuck in piano wires to create Asian-like tones and percussive textures. India and Indonesia. And German composer Karl Stockhausen further explored Cage's tape experiments with his radical tape collages. The tracks were instrumental. and he outraged and perplexed his audiences with collisions of randomly created noise and. technological.with electronics everything is possible. As Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter told Billboard in a 1977 interview: "Electronics is beyond nations and colours.is German band Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk's vision was urban. Consequently they shook the rock world out of its mid-1970's complacency and set music off in all kinds of unexpected directions. The only limit is with the composer". The 1960's saw the rise of a school of American composers with classical backgrounds who became known as the minimalists. They developed drum pads and used synthesiers in an explicitly rhythmic way to create a minimal style of pop that was purely electronic in origin. The Beatles showed what could be done in recording studio within a pop framework. Their futurist ideas combined with their equally futuristic sound was enormously influential. This was also a time of absorption of avant-garde ideas into rock music. It was also during the 60's that non-Western sounds and modes of composition seeped into classical. ideas from the classical avant-garde and the innovations of jazzmen like Miles Davis. post-industrial. But there are other kinds of visions expressed through electronic instruments that have also touched a nerve. In popular music one of the names most crucial to the evolution of synthesiser technology and thus to most of the electronic music that followed .has become such an important tool of expression that much dance. electric instruments or non-Western instrumental combinations.the analogue synthesiser and its digital successors . a precursor to modern digital sampling. The concept of spacemusic is one tied up inexorably with the synthesiser. In turn minimalism was to inform music as diverse as techno dance and new age relaxation music. They took the idea of repetition and explored it over long distances. the floodgates opened.

i. with the slickly packaged images of Australia's natural heritage proving very attractive.In the late 1960’s terms like spacerock and cosmic rock were coined by listeners and reviewers to describe the atmospheric. But far from Eno's vision of ambient. Whatever its benefits to our health (often misrepresented anyway). much new age music would be unthinkable without the synthesiser. This insidious marketing ploy was particularly prevalent in Australia. therapy before music. electronic sound can evoke a cosmic mood with a depth rarely achieved in an acoustic setting. and therein lies its limitations. Tourists loved it. And this wasn't just the drugs talking. had never before been experienced by humans. the market was flooded with extremely suspect nature-themed recordings. These bands were playing the soundtrack to a new era and the spacious. These recordings sold very well and made some very mediocre musicians lots of money. this music was not "simultaneously relaxing and engaging". Perhaps knowing this fact all along. The lightweight "healing" music of composers like therapist Doctor Steve Halpern and Iasos has since become hugely popular. theology. In the sleeve notes to his sublime album of electronic tone poems Apollo (1983) of his fascination with producing film music expressing a mixture of feelings that. It is no coincidence that at the time of the first moon landing. Certainly. new age/relaxation and . the Floyd was transfixing audiences with pieces like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”. it seems. until recently. In fact. Because of this. Its a style of music that was first made possible in the 1960's by a new music technology that appeared at exactly the right historical moment: the decade that human beings first left the Earth. cosmic feel that purveyed much of their early work continues to inform a significant amount of ambient music to this day. many of the perpetrators simply took the money and ran as the music's popularity inevitably waned. The origins of new age date back to the 1970's on America's west coast. Others survived by flogging their wares overseas. regardless of whether or not it was associated with the lifestyle and its pot porri of psychology. too. because it is the tag that has become most commonly associated with the kinds of music we might call ambient. has simultaneously come the perfect technology . electronic-laden music of progressive rock bands like the Floyd and Tangerine Dream. its intrinsic qualities as music often suffer badly. The late 60's music of Pink Floyd. Somehow. With the advent of the space age. The new age/relaxation issue is worth further discussion. function before substance. Fans of quality ambient were no doubt aghast as. But new age is as much a religious movement as it is a musical style. charlatans and money-making opportunists. a kind of cottage industry supported by lifestyle fairs and alternative bookshops. I find spacemusic the most fascinating of all ambient sub-genres. a symphony which isn't really about space at all.synthesisers and electronics .for musicians to express their feelings about it. for instance. In the 1990's new age music mutated into the more generic relaxation.e. The implications have not been lost on Brian Eno. achieves that mood far better than a weighty classical work like Gustav Holst's "The Planets". The underlying priorities of such music are always the same. During the 80's new age unfortunately became a marketing tool for all kinds of instrumental music. Most of it was just plain awful. via post offices and bookshops.

It's a journey in which the listener can choose to be an active participant. stranger or less-chartered waters. intelligent and often produced with the same technology that created the music these audiences were dancing to at raves and clubs. But what's important is that downtempo music produced partially or wholly by electronic means and often never exposed on radio or though other mass media has now achieved amazingly widespread acceptance. Just a few key pieces of the ambient puzzle and. If new age nearly killed ambient. Besides. Thanks to the rave generation. ambient styles of music generally ARE relaxing. Mixmaster Morris (aka Irresistible Force).. it wouldn't be too far fetched to suggest that electronic dance music rescued it. Admittedly "chillout" sometimes suffers from tacky excess and commercial blandness. New age has. even if most of it remains outside the mainstream. certain producers in England and Europe who were aligned with clubland started producing sounds that were an explicit antidote to the muscular. as Tangerine Dream biographer Paul Stump so succinctly observed. Much of it simply borrows gestures from more substantial sources and waters it down into musical equivalent an anesthetic: all senses numbed. The extraordinary confluence of events and people that gave rise to modern house. Each of these artists.new age. a debunking of the new age music myth is crucial. all real engagement removed. ambient has found a glorious new lease of life.. Classical avant-garde. Geir Jensson (aka Biosphere) and Pete Namlook's label Fax Records are among the many pioneers. Good ambient invites listeners to take a journey through some of modern music’s subtler. unrelenting beats of the dancefloor. Obviously.. far beyond the scope of this guide.. a journey that can be disarming and beautiful. as major record labels have jumped on the bandwagon with compilation CD's that show they really haven't a clue what they are doing. Yes. found a receptive audience among the dance underground with music that was subtle. Whatever else its uses.. at least it's multi-functional. New York and Detroit USA where rippling across the world.. By the turn of the millennium the word chillout had come to encompass an extraordinary variety of downtempo music associated with the electronic dance scene. . and therein lies its appeal for a substantial number of people. But towards the end of the 1980's. as dance music's first waves from Chicago.rock music. Alex Paterson (from The Orb). breakbeat and electronic dub music makes for a complicated history. progressive. not simply the passive recipient that new age music suggests. by the 1990's ambient music had found a much more credible champion. trance/psy-trance. aligning charkas or babbling with whales is irrelevant. you are free to use music for whatever purpose you wish. only the briefest of histories. hip hop. I admit..hemoginised and homogenized the nice bits of Rubycon".. ".its various bland jazz-pop offshoots have made only a limited contribution to the development of ambient sound. But whether you "use" such music for healing disease.electronic dance music.. from the beaches of Ibiza to the lounge bars of Berlin to the outdoor psychedelic trance parties of Australia. Therefore. Every album album I've recommended within these pages is music that can be enjoyed for music’s sake. and sometimes even just downtempo pop or rock. or uneasy and disturbing..electronic pop. in their own way. techno. There is no question that the new age tag has an unhealthy effect on the public's concept of ambient.

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