Music WritingWritings

The Importance of Ambience

The start of 2017 saw the release of a new Brian Eno ambient project entitled Reflection. It’s a sparse, minimalist soundscape which sprawls out over 54 minutes, reminiscent of his 1985 work Thursday Afternoon. This seems like an opportunity to discuss the role which ambient music can play in developing an effective method of stress relief – a topic I believe is fairly widely accepted, but (according to my research) little talked about.

Eno is one of the founding fathers of ambient music. Though he didn’t invent it, he did give it its name and contribute some of the genre’s finest works. ‘Ambience’ as a musical tool in fact seems to extend well back into the history of music across Eastern and Western cultures. Buddhist monks used singing bowls to encourage meditative states. The sitar in traditional Indian music makes use of a number of sympathetic strings which resonate in accordance with the notes played on the playable strings, resulting in a drone. Gregorian choral music makes heavy use of vocal layers to experiment with texture over melody. All of these genres contain facets which are integral to the modern, predominantly electronic Ambient genre which came into popularity with Brian Eno’s works from the 1980s.

At its simplest, ambient music is comprised of minimalist musical ideas, and slow, winding development. It focuses on texture more than melody and its primary goal is to create mood. This, however, is where the similarities between ambient artists end.

In the case of Eno, more often than not his ambient projects put the listener in a tranquil, peaceful state. The idea for his seminal (and first) ambient work Music For Airports allegedly came while Eno was sat waiting for a plane in Berlin Airport. He saw all the people rushing around frantically and thought ambient music, when played through the airport speakers, could have a calming effect.

Projects such as The Disintegration Loops play more on feelings of suspense and tension. This work was composed by William Basinski in 2001 after witnessing the 9/11 attacks from the roof of his New York apartment. Basinski first recorded short loops, no more than a few seconds long, onto cassette. He then let the tapes loop over and over again, gradually allowing the tape deck to deteriorate the cassettes and the recordings themselves. As the piece moves on, longer and longer sections are reduced to silence; it feels like a living, breathing entity.

Stars of the Lid’s And There Refinement of the Recline is haunting and melancholic. Stars of the Lid use effect laden guitars and string arrangements to create organic, emotionally powerful pieces. Perhaps more than other ambient artists, SotL‘s compositions feel somewhat more structured and formal, probably as a result of their live instrumentation.

All of the above are superb ambient albums, yet they all serve different purposes and elicit different moods in the listener.

This prioritisation of creating mood is what gives Ambient music its validity and its emotional power. It’s also what makes it so effective as a method of dealing with stress. When you sit down to listen to an ambient work, headphones on and all distractions laid aside, you put yourself in the hands of the composer. You surrender your own emotions to the emotions the music wants you to feel and let it carry you away. With proper concentration, it can be a meditative, cathartic experience.

A well composed Ambient piece will do just enough to capture your concentration, without causing your mind to become cluttered with musical ideas. It can quiet your mind of all external thoughts, while simultaneously keeping it occupied enough to ward off any sense of boredom or restlessness.

Below are ten of my favourite ambient works with links to listen on youtube. Relax and enjoy.

Brian Eno: Thursday Afternoon

Brian Eno: Apollo

Stars of the Lid: And Their Refinement of the Recline

Tim Hecker: Haunt me, haunt me, do it again

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: A Winged Victory for the Sullen

William Basinski: Watermusic II

Harold Budd & Brian Eno: The Pearl

Grouper: A|A: Dream Loss & Alien Observer

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Volume 2

Boards of Canada: Music has the Right to Children