© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
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In Oculus, 1997.
If you haven't noticed, the '90s scene has no identity of its own, but instead rips off or recycles other eras under the guise of retroism. In the early '90s the lads from Manchester were the craze with their mop-top hair-dos, Hammond organs and psychedelic wah-wah guitar licks. Around 1992 Nirvana and their gang of bummed-out, flannel-clad friends broke onto the charts brandishing a marketable mix of Punk and '70s Metal a la Black Sabbath. Now in early 1995 the '80s are coming back. Turn on your local modern rock station and in between Pearl Jam and The Stone Temple Pilots you'll hear "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Bizarre Love Triangle," "My Sharona" and "White Lines." Even new acts like Blur have started sounding decidedly post-punk. Hell, in 1994 there was a small revival of Space-Age Bachelor Pad music with the re-release of material by Juan Esquivel along with more contemporary work by the Coctails, Combustible Edison and others. There is nothing terribly wrong with this inherent retroism. The sounds, styles and fads of the past are things most of us find comfortable, entertaining and, depending on your age, nostalgic. That's not why I write about music though. So I wonder, how will music fans of the future define the '90s when they look back? What contribution will the '90s make to music? Alternative becoming mainstream? (But then it wouldn't be alternative music anymore, which would mean that it's mainstream. But then why is it still considered alternative?...oh forget it.)
For indie rock writers like myself who live for that one find that seems new and exciting in the midst of many, the search is long and tiresome. A couple of years ago Oculus received The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. The Ultraworld Double LP was a extraordinary montage of varying music genres, mellow beats and unearthly sounds that departed from standard musical structures. The Orb used modern electronics with dazzling artistic mastery. However, their music wasn't just good music to listen to, but rather a bottomless box of chocolates that never stopped giving new experiences at different levels. I first "awoke" to the pleasures of alternative music while listening to the electro-terrorist sounds of industrial-disco artists like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb, so I've always had a natural inclination for those who work in a purely electronic medium. Needless to say I was immediately intrigued and excited by the new style of electronic artistry that I had heard on The Orb's debut release. I guess I unwittingly became a casual fan of what has come to be known as ambient music.
As time went by I picked up any ambient release that I learned about through the press circle. I heard the hypnotic, syncopated rhythms of Orbital, the blissful, synthetic waves of Vapourspace, and the smooth tribalism of Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia. If only I would have had the time to dig deeper, for there was much that I missed. I guess I was too busy building my 'zine empire-busily poring over mounds of indie rock releases. Judging by the blank looks on people's faces when I mentioned ambient music, I was doing better then most in seeking this music out.
So What Is Ambiance?
"That is about as open-ended a question as you could get," says Terre Thaemlitz, a NYC DJ and an Instinct Ambient recording artist. That it is. One of ambient music's most alluring properties is that it really cannot be precisely defined. As Craig Roseberry, label manager for C&S Records puts it, "[Ambient music] is like some type of vapor. It's there, it's dense, you can feel it, but you can't grab it."
The definition of ambient music is as elusive as the vapor Roseberry compares it to. As soon as you try and grab it, and decipher it, it slips away and reshapes. The following notions regarding ambient music don't define it so much as they describe the composer's creative palette and the listener's options in experiencing it.
Ambient music creates atmosphere, environment and space
"Good ambient music will create it's own little room and invite you in," says Kevin O'Connor a.k.a. Tinty Music, a member of Epsilon, an ambient music discussion group on the Internet. "[Ambient creates] the idea that one can exist within the music rather than be limited to just focusing on it, unlike most popular forms that demand one sits up and takes notice."
It takes you somewhere and can create "a space to close your eyes and swim in," explains Taylor 808 of SETI. What is fascinating about this notion is that ambient is not merely a bunch of sound effects, but instead subtly works on conscious and subconscious levels to create an environment for the listener.
This concept sees ambient music as "sonic wallpaper." This idea of music as wallpaper refers to ambient's ability to add a tint to the room in the same subtle way that wallpaper does. You are in the room. You know the wallpaper is there, but you do not directly notice it even though it does affect your perception of the room. This wallpaper analogy originated from Brian Eno (more on him later) who attempted to create music that is not to be directly listened to, but rather to be treated as background music. Many ambient music fans and artists disagree with Eno's analogy because they feel that the music can also be written effectively for active listening.
The notion of ambient as atmospheric also refers to John Cage's (Cage was an experimental composer who influenced Eno to a great extent) theory of naturally occurring sound being read as music. The wind in the trees, a grandfather clock ticking and a plane flying overhead are all music. Inside each of these enviroments exists a complex of sounds, with texture, rythmn and dynamics, much like any normally written score.
Ambient music explores new musical possibilities and the depths of the mind.
This notion is often overlooked, but is the main attraction for musicians and jaded music listeners looking for something different.
"[Ambient music] is breaking down so many boundaries and so many rules," says Jonah Sharpe of Spacetime Continuum and proprietor of Reflective Records. "I know a lot of musicians... feel an incredible amount of options open to them. Therefore [they can do] things that they never dreamed were acceptable. "That is the wonderful thing about [ambient music]. There really are no rules. There can be any type of beat. There can be any type of sound."
"It's really about intuition more than anything," explains Bill Laswell, one of the most prolific ambient recorders and producers. "Anything can happen, and intuitively you sort of have to know if you like that sort of thing or not. If it feels good, it is a whole new experience. It's not like doing a style- or trend-oriented music or music that has a fixed language."
Peter Namlook, who runs the FAX label in addition to recording numerous works of his own each year, puts it this way, "as long as we are open-minded enough to stop asking for the name of the music we love, and as long as we are more into the music itself than in asking what it is about, we will be able to do innovative music."
"There is so much ambient and techno music that there is something for everybody," says Mixmaster Morris, who records under the name The Irresistible Force and has been DJing 200+ gigs a year all across the world. "Okay, so some people are not going to like the Aphex Twin, well cool, then maybe they'll like Namlook. Okay, so you don't like Namlook or The Orb, well maybe you'll like Ken Ishii or Global Communication. There is so much stuff. I don't like people to hear one thing and be put off by ambient in general."
DJ Reese, label manager for startup record company Liquid Sky explains, "a person can sit down and put on a Peter Namlook record and it can mean a million different things to a million different people. Still, each person who listens to that record can identify with certain aspects of it, or it can transport them, or it can make them feel a certain way. The same song or piece of work can mean something different to every single person who listens to it."
As long as a listener is open to the music, it can appeal to anybody of any age or culture. Through its diversity and its lack of a definition of its content, any form of music we listen to can be brought into play. Ambient invites other cultures, sounds, and traditions into a melting pot to form a truly international form of music. The abandonment of the constraints of language makes the music instantly understandable by any person in the world.
Ambient music can appeal to listeners on numerous levels. Therefore opinions on the appeal of ambient music vary widely. "A lot of people seem to be drawn to ambient for escapist reasons, but I'm just the opposite," says Terre Thaemlitz.
"We invented ambient."
"No, ambient invented itself."
"Ambient wasn't invented. It was discovered!"
"Such silliness-you all know that ambient had no beginning, it has always existed."
It's probably not surprising that ambient's origins are as elusive and diverse as its definition. Arguments like the above are raised between ambient aficionados constantly. Too many artists to name have contributed to its development. How great an effect, if any, is open to interpretation.
However, if one had to trace the history of ambient, as I do, one would find that no other person is credited more often for the creation of ambient music than Brian Eno. While most people acknowledge the existence of a music which can be termed as ambient before Eno's time, Eno coined the genre's name and brought it into prominence as a valid art form. In his work throughout the '70s on such LPs as Music for Airports, Thursday Afternoon and Discreet Music, Eno used the latest technological advances in studio equipment to create open-ended, loosely structured music that treated sound itself as music. His initial concepts and techniques, which he wrote of in the liner notes to his ambient releases, laid the groundwork in forming what ambient is today.
Craig Roseberry notes, "There is always the one person you are going to point to as the most obvious focal point. I don't think he is THE innovator of the music. However he can be considered the godfather of ambient music because, in retrospect, he brought it to prominence."
Roseberry mentions names like Bill Nelson, Tangerine Dream, Can, Edward Froese, Karl Shultze, Hawkwind, John Cage, Satie and Harold Budd as people who are often forgotten for their contributions to ambient. "You can go on forever and there is always someone who you'll leave out," he said.
While Eno and many of the forefathers of ambient are still active today, ambient music has only crystallized as a legitimate genre in the last few years. Most people credited ambient music's discovery, or re-discovery actually, to rave culture and chill out rooms.
Chill out rooms began as comfortable side rooms at raves where weary dancers who were too tired or too drugged out could go and sit or lay down. It was in these rooms that DJs such as Dr. Alex Patterson reinvigorated ambient music. Patterson took elements that Eno had defined in his music and combined techniques and styles from techno, dub and house. Patterson's work became so popular that it eventually lead to him releasing his own work as The Orb.
LET THE BUYER BEWARE.
Today a lot of different music is being tagged as ambient much to the confusion of the buying public. Much of this is due to ambient's amorphous nature combined with a growing interest. Furthermore, the concept of ambient can be applied to any genre of music to create an ambient hybrid. These hybrids, such as Ambient Techno, Industrial Ambient, Ambient House and Space Rock, are generally marketed as ambient despite this label being only partly true. Finally,
the term is often misused either out of ignorance or as a marketing ploy.
As Kim Cascone, President of Silent Records explained, "The idea of ambient has been around for many years. It's only recently that the music media has spread the ambient virus very rapidly. Casual usage has now resulted in a new stage of infection; it has become a marketing term which is being slapped on a glut of "me-too" product. Even some of the new-age labels are trying to dress themselves in ambient clothing by releasing albums with the ambient buzzword on the packaging. When a new-age label slaps the term ambient on their own new age product, the public will just be confused and repelled from buying any product with ambient on it."
Besides, as one ambient music fan on the Internet put it, ambient "...ceased to have any real meaning about 10 seconds after it was invented." Ambient has moved down so many different paths that it has become even less descriptive than the term "rock."
Unless you have a lot of money to gamble with, it is wise to heed some caution when buying in order to avoid wasting time and money on fodder. Remember, beautiful fractal cover art doesn't necessarily mean good ambient music inside. To add to the stakes, some of the best and most innovative ambient music is available only on import, so prices of twenty dollars and up are not uncommon. For information on ambient releases and shopping tips see "Exploring" below and the special ambient reviews section in this issue.
Ambient music is an aural experience that can enhance or induce an emotional response, reducing you to tears, or triggering goose bumps, calming or putting you on edge. Some listeners like to lay down and trip on drugs. Others use ambient to clear their minds, relax, and concentrate on the task at hand. When surveyed regarding activities undertaken while listening to ambient, people responded with tasks such as reading, writing, drawing and thinking. For more directed listening sessions, consider some of the following suggestions.
Find a comfortable place that isn't too comfortable. Being relaxed is important in keeping an open mind. If too comfortable, you will likely fall asleep.
Sit centrally to your stereo speakers. Centrally positioning yourself lets you experience the full stereo imaging of the recording. Artists use some exquisite mixing and recording techniques that lose their potency if the listener is not positioned in this optimal listening area. If your stereo's optimal listening area is not at a convenient place for you to listen from, use a decent pair of headphones.
Listen in a dark room. A dark room makes it easier to immerse yourself in the music, reducing the likelihood of being distracted by your surroundings, and making you more aware of what you are hearing.
Don't think. Blank your mind. See what enters into it. What do you see? What do you feel? Where are you? What do you really hear?
Good ambient music is full of many stimulating and thought provoking theories, concepts and techniques. The meaning of ambiance alone could keep you thinking for days, months, maybe more! Don't obsess over these points. Ambient music is meant to be enjoyed first and foremost and over-analyzing can ruin that.
The media has not yet, and may never, put their finger on ambient music; therefore finding out more isn't as easy as walking down to your local news stand. Knowing what releases to buy to fit your tastes can be an arduous task. To make more informed probes in ambiance it is very helpful to communicate with fellow ambient music listeners. If you have access to the Internet there is a plethora of fans, bios, discographies and reviews available. Recently a USENET discussion group (rec.music.ambient) was opened for discussion on the topic. If you have World Wide Web access, there also is an extensive list of information and pointers to other sites at http://www.hyperreal.com/epsilon. Finding an electronic music specialty shop or "play before you pay" store is also very helpful.
A Final Note
There is no true right or wrong in ambient, just general notions, theories, opinions and tastes that vary as much as the people who listen to it. Ambience is about personal choice. What I have given you is only a start to what is an on-going journey into some of the most exciting and revolutionary music being released.
And always, keep this in mind-ambient music isn't just music. It is an obsession, a puzzle, a science project, a methodology, a discipline, a religion and a study of the mind. But most of all it is what we make it.
Copyright © 1994-1997 Oculus Magazine