Monday, March 31, 2014

What Ambient Means to Me, or How do I know it's Good

by Nathan Glick. 

Let me begin by saying that I truly love Ambient Music (these days it is also known by a host of other terms including Chillout, Newage, Moodmusic, Spacerock, Drone, Soundcape and many others.) Ambient, or course, was the term first coined by Brian Eno on the occasion of the release of his groundbreaking album “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” back in 1978. It might be said that this album came about through a kind of “Inverse Inspiration.” Eno found himself one day stuck in a boring German airport with some very annoying “easy listening” tracks playing endlessly that seemed to want to take possession of his brain with their syrupy lumpiness. Eno found himself thinking about what kind of music could be created for an airport that would be at once unobtrusive, but interesting enough to be listened to if one was to actually lend an ear. So the concept of Ambient Music was born.

One can quibble over how well Eno’s Ambient musical offering would have fared in a real airport. The music, while slow, stately and relaxed, still has a certain avant garde edge to it which I imagine would actually annoy the average passenger with conventional musical tastes. Call it New age, Chillout, Drone or Meditation Music, the Ambient  genre still does not rate well with listeners whose tastes music fall within the pre-patterned or the predictable confines of Pop Music. At any rate, Music for Airports was for a while installed in one section of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. It did not stay there long.

Brian Eno, while often considered the progenitor of Ambient Music, is in actuality more of a popularizer than a creator of the genre (which is certainly not to imply that Eno is lacking in any creativity or that Ambient Music has achieved wide popularity.)  The basic forms of Ambient Music have deep roots in extreme psychedelic rock music, electronic music experimentations, jazz and of course, the modern classical tradition. Eno has been pivotal in calling attention to the ambient musical form and pulling together the scattered themes and influences and adding a sense of musical legitimacy. One could say.”Well I don’t just listen to weird insane sounds…I am a fan of Ambient!”

Trying to define a genre is of course, a futile quest. No sooner has one provided the ultimate all encompassing definition of the essence of Ambient, that someone will create a piece that defies that essence. Regardless, I can’t help but say a bit about what Ambient Music means to me.

Music is about feeling. That is so obvious that it hardly requires mentioning. There are certain feelings that we like to feel, be they joy, sadness, anger, hope and even depression. A Feeling encased in a musical vehicle can resonate with our deepest experiences, or they can open our hearts to feelings experienced by others. This is why much of the music we appreciate has a fairly predictable structure. It serves to connect people into larger social groups. Indeed the music one listens to serves as a major marker of one’s social affiliations. Unfortunately today, social groups seem to reflect various modes of consumption and a person’s musical preference is part of an overall style of consumerism that includes clothing, movies, foods, ideas, values and whatever else the marketplace seems to hold. Musical forms evolve, but they also maintain a solid kind of predictability that insures that be you Valedictorian, Stoner, Goth-punk, a Rapper or Good ole Boy…the music will reinforce your sense belonging. In addition, songs and other relatively predictable musical forms work their magic by awakening feeling, creating some kind of tension and then bringing the tension back to equilibrium, generally by repeating a chorus.

In contrast, Ambient Music works by awakening feelings but then refraining from channeling them in a conventionally structured way. The music does not take a specific course, but flows this way and that. Often the timing is slowed down, as in Chillout, or expressed by sound loops and other repetitive strategies. Ambient will open your feelings outward towards the environment, instead of constraining them to comfortable conventions. Ambient subverts your obvious sense of identity and weakens the hold of your consumerist label. I also imagine that by listening to Ambient, New age, Drone or Meditation Music, you are letting yourself step outside the constraints of ordinary awareness and into a revelatory space where you can discover new vistas of feeling and life formations.

To my mind, great ambient music breaks conventions and frees the listener from pre-packaged identities or established modes of perception. So far, it seems that Ambient is marginal and non-commercial enough to remain authentic. But then again, Ambient can become as conventionalized as anything else. It may also become a predictable commodity for consumption by an exclusively small group of people who consider themselves “with it.” Here then is the challenge for assessing the quality of Ambient Music. At some stage, as you listen, you need to ask yourself: “Is this music pushing me out of my comfort zone? Is it opening me up to something new? Is it presenting me with unheard of possibilities or just re-enforcing what already is?” Well, if you like your old familiar ambient melody and you think it’s cool to get in to experimental music that only a few people like…Hey, why not? We are all members of one clique or another and feeling a sense of belonging is part of our human nature. Belonging to a fringe group as opposed to a mainstream group probably does say something about your bravery and unwillingness to conform. Still, it would be a loss if Ambient Music lovers become just another consumer group doing what consumers do in the early 21st century.  There is always a danger that one’s spontaneity and freedom will turn out ironically to be just another episode of “Welcome to the Machine.”

So to my mind, good Ambient Music is that which keeps you challenged and keeps you open. The best of Ambient, Chill-out, Experimental, Space-out and Meditation Music holds the hope for breaking free of social constrains and pre-fabricated perceptions of reality…of opening our hearts outward to new experiences and vistas of possible worlds. That is the hope that drives my own humble musical quest.