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.
"Ambient" as a signpost
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 avant-pop of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra to the lush ambient trance of Ultimae Records and its artists.
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. 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.
The classical avant-garde
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.
By the middle of the 20th Century the American composer John Cage had blown stuffy notions of "proper" music right out of the water. He pre-empted world music with pieces that evoked the sounds of Africa, India and Indonesia; he invented and composed for the 'prepared piano' with objects stuck in piano wires to create Asian-like tones and percussive textures; and he outraged and perplexed his audiences with collisions of randomly created noise and, most infamously, his piece "4'33" which challenged listeners to consider silence as a perfectly valid form of musical expression.
After Cage, the floodgates opened. The 1960's saw the rise of a school of American composers with classical backgrounds who became known as the minimalists. They took the idea of repetition and explored it over long distances, whether with orchestras, electric instruments or non-Western instrumental combinations. In turn minimalism was to inform music as diverse as techno dance and new age relaxation music. It was also during the 60's that non-Western sounds and modes of composition seeped into classical, jazz and popular music to an unprecedented degree. And German composer Karl Stockhausen further explored Cage's tape experiments with his radical tape collages, a precursor to modern digital sampling.
This was also a time of absorption of avant-garde ideas into rock music. In the late 1960's rock was enriched enormously by a combination of electronic music technology, psychedelic drugs, ideas from the classical avant-garde and the innovations of jazzmen like Miles Davis.
The Beatles showed what could be done in recording studio within a pop framework; 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. The tracks were instrumental, often improvised, spacey and long. Rock was undergoing its own avant-garde and the open-ended sound of one instrument in particular - the analogue synthesiser and its digital successors - has become such an important tool of expression that much dance, ambient and experimental music that's been released since simply wouldn't exist without it.
The soul in the machine
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 - is German band Kraftwerk. 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. Consequently they shook the rock world out of its mid-1970's complacency and set music off in all kinds of unexpected directions. As Kraftwerk's Ralf Hutter told Billboard in a 1977 interview: "Electronics is beyond nations and colours...with electronics everything is possible. The only limit is with the composer".
We may nowadays take synthesiers for granted, but to challenge such a guitar-dominated culture at the time was revolutionary. Kraftwerk's vision was urban, technological, post-industrial. Their futurist ideas combined with their equally futuristic sound was enormously influential, particularly on UK synth pop and on the black musicians of Detroit from whom modern techno emerged in the 1980's. And in turn, that legacy reaches into the various ambient and downbeat spin-offs of electronic dance music that have emerged since.
But there are other kinds of visions expressed through electronic instruments that have also touched a nerve. The concept of spacemusic is one tied up inexorably with the synthesiser.
In the late 1960’s terms like spacerock and cosmic rock were coined by listeners and reviewers to describe the atmospheric, electronic-laden music of progressive rock bands like the Floyd and Tangerine Dream. And this wasn't just the drugs talking. It is no coincidence that at the time of the first moon landing, the Floyd was transfixing audiences with pieces like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”. These bands were playing the soundtrack to a new era and the spacious, cosmic feel that purveyed much of their early work continues to inform a significant amount of ambient music to this day.
In fact, I find spacemusic the most fascinating of all ambient sub-genres. 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. Somehow, electronic sound can evoke a cosmic mood with a depth rarely achieved in an acoustic setting. The late 60's music of Pink Floyd, for instance, achieves that mood far better than a weighty classical work like Gustav Holst's "The Planets", a symphony which isn't really about space at all.
With the advent of the space age, it seems, has simultaneously come the perfect technology - synthesisers and electronics - for musicians to express their feelings about it. The implications have not been lost on Brian Eno. 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, until recently, had never before been experienced by humans.
Certainly, much new age music would be unthinkable without the synthesiser. The origins of new age date back to the 1970's on America's west coast, a kind of cottage industry supported by lifestyle fairs and alternative bookshops. The lightweight "healing" music of composers like therapist Doctor Steve Halpern has since become hugely popular. But new age is as much a religious movement as it is a musical style, and therein lies its limitations. During the late 70' and 80's new age unfortunately became a marketing tool for all kinds of instrumental music, regardless of whether or not it was associated with the lifestyle and its pot porri of psychology, theology, charlatans and money-making opportunists.
The gifted American musician and historian Don Robertson, himself a new age recording artist, was one of the true believers - at least for a while. Robertson was a fan of "positive" music and was fascinated by the return to tonality in classical music that began in the late 50's with the rise of the minimalist composers like Terry Riley and the discovery by Westerners of the rich drones of Indian music.
His story about a meeting with Halpern in the late 70' is revealing. I quote at length from his book Music Through The Centuries:
"For several years I had heard about a fellow named Stephen Halpern who had recorded some albums of meditation music, and I decided to find out more about him. To accomplish this, I attended one of his seminars. I was very happy to find someone who was interested in the same kind of music that I was interested in, so at the end of the seminar, I invited him to dinner at my home, which was nearby. During dinner we talked about new music and issues such as the use of a drone in place of chordal harmony. As he was leaving, I asked him about his album Spectrum Suite. The liner notes claimed that the series of seven pieces, each in a different key, could be used in meditation to attune the seven chakras. I wanted to know how he knew which chord matched a particular chakra. I pressed him because I though maybe he had found some mystical gold mine. He finally laughed and said it was just a gimmick. Needless to say, I wasn't impressed and our relationship ended there."
The relaxation scam
New age music continues today in the form of lightweight instrumental pop confections (witness the Grammy Awards New Age category), but in the 1990's it also gave birth to the more generic sub-genre of relaxation music. This insidious marketing ploy was particularly prevalent in Australia. Fans of quality ambient were no doubt aghast as, via post offices and bookshops, the market was flooded with extremely suspect nature-themed recordings. These recordings sold very well and made some very mediocre musicians lots of money. Tourists loved it, with the slickly packaged images of Australia's natural heritage proving very attractive. But far from Eno's vision of ambient, this music was not "simultaneously relaxing and engaging". Most of it was just plain awful. Perhaps knowing this fact all along, many of the perpetrators simply took the money and ran as the music's popularity inevitably waned. Others survived by flogging their wares overseas.
The questions raised by both new age and relaxation music are worth further discussion, because these are the tags that have become most commonly associated with the kinds of music we might call ambient.
The underlying priorities of such music are always the same; i.e. therapy before music, function before substance. Because of this, its intrinsic qualities as music often suffer badly. Whatever its benefits to our health (often misrepresented anyway), new age/relaxation and its various bland jazz-pop offshoots have made only a limited contribution to the development of ambient sound. Much of it simply borrows gestures from more substantial sources and waters it down into musical equivalent an anesthetic: all senses numbed, all real engagement removed. New age has, as Tangerine Dream biographer Paul Stump so succinctly observed, "...hemoginised and homogenized the nice bits of Rubycon [a TD album]".
There is no question that the new age tag has an unhealthy effect on the public's concept of ambient. Therefore, a debunking of the new age music myth is crucial.
Yes, ambient styles of music generally are relaxing, and therein lies their appeal for a substantial number of people. Obviously, you are free to use music for whatever purpose you wish. But whether you "use" such music for healing disease, aligning charkas or babbling with whales is irrelevant. Every album album I've recommended within these pages is music that can be enjoyed for music’s sake. Whatever else its uses, at least it's multi-functional. Good ambient and downtempo invites listeners to take a journey through some of modern music’s subtler, stranger or less-chartered waters, a journey that can be disarming and beautiful, or uneasy and disturbing. It's a journey in which the listener can choose to be an active participant, not simply the passive recipient of new age "healing".
Besides, by the 1990's ambient music ideas had found a much more credible champion.
Electronic dance music
If new age nearly killed ambient, it wouldn't be too far fetched to suggest that electronic dance music rescued it.
The extraordinary confluence of events and people that gave rise to modern house, progressive, techno, trance/psy-trance, hip hop, breakbeat and electronic dub music makes for a complicated history, far beyond the scope of this guide. But towards the end of the 1980's, as dance music's first waves from Chicago, New York and Detroit USA where rippling across the world, certain producers in England and Europe who were aligned with clubland started producing sounds that were an explicit antidote to the muscular, unrelenting beats of the dancefloor. Mixmaster Morris (aka Irresistible Force), Alex Paterson (from The Orb), Geir Jensson (aka Biosphere) and Pete Namlook's label Fax Records are among the many pioneers. Each of these artists, in their own way, found a receptive audience among the dance underground with music that was subtle, intelligent and often produced with the same technology that created the music these audiences were dancing to at raves and clubs.
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 sometimes even just downtempo vocal pop or rock. Admittedly "chillout" sometimes suffers from tacky excess and commercial blandness, as major record labels like Sony have jumped on the bandwagon with compilation CD's that show they really haven't a clue.
But what's significant 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 a surprisingly widespread acceptance even if much of it remains outside the actual pop culture mainstream. Thanks to the house and techno generations - from the beaches of Ibiza to the lounge bars of Berlin to the outdoor psychedelic trance parties of Australia - ambient has found a glorious new lease of life.
Just a taste...
Classical avant-garde...rock music...electronic pop...new age...electronic dance music. Just a few key pieces of the ambient puzzle and, I admit, only the briefest of histories.
For those wanting to dig deeper the following books are recommend:
The Ambient Century by Mark Prendergast, Bloomsbury, London, 2003
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, Virgin Books, London, 1992.
Music For Inner Space by Neville Drury, Unity Press, Lindfield, 1985.
Healing Music by Neville Drury and Andrew Watson, Nature & Health Books, Chatswood, 1987.
Adventures In Wonderland: A Decade Of Club Culture by Sharon Garret, Headline Books, London 1998.
Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening & Other Moodsong by Joseph Lanza, Quartet, London, 1995.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Rock, Salamander Books, London, 1982.
Art Rock by John Rockwell from The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock And Roll, Random House, 1980.
New Sounds: The Virgin Guide To New Music by John Schaefer, Virgin Books, London, 1987.
Digital Gothic: A Critical Discography Of Tangerine Dream by Paul Stump, S.A.F. Publishing, London, 1997.
The Rough Guide To Rock, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1999.
The Rough Guide To Classical Music, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 2001
Ocean Of Sound by David Toop, Serpents Tail, London, 1996.
Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf To The Future by Tim Barr, Ebury Press, London, 1998
The Rough Guide To Techno by Tim Barr, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 2000
Krautrocksampler: One Head’s Guide To The Great Kosmische Musik by Julian Cope, Head Heritage, London, 1995.
Crossfafe: A Big Chill Anthology, Serpents Tail, London, 2004.
Klaus Schulze: Electronic Music Legend by Greg Allen, 2008.