Artists and composers are inevitably confronted with choices of style and genre. Many composers write and perform music without the slightest idea of where the style of music they create has come from and what the predecessors of that style were. For my senior project, I have decided to record a CD of my own compositions entitled "LVX NOVA" ("New Light" in Latin). This CD project bears the stamp of many styles of music due to my guitar playing, and the many styles of music which have crept into my guitar playing over the years. However, the primary influence on the project is the compositional style known as ambient music. The purpose of this essay is to elucidate the context of LVX NOVA, and to explore some of the musical and aesthetic implications of ambient music production and reception.
The first section of this essay will be largely historical. Following a preliminary description of the stylistic conventions of ambient music, the historical antecedents of the style will be discussed. The first two composers to be explored are Erik Satie and John Cage; the essay will then focus upon Brian Eno: a composer who is alive and currently composing in the ambient music style. Each of these composers has had much influence upon today's ambient music practice and composition in varying ways, and the three present a coherent family tree for the ambient style.
Next the essay shall turn to the proliferation of Muzak, which suggests other questions about how ambient music functions in society. Muzak is a form of background music, and many composers who work within the ambient style wish to distance themselves as far away from Muzak as possible. Though there are some similarities between ambient music and Muzak, there are also fundamental differences in both production and reception, and these will be discussed in this section of the essay.
Finally, the essay will address Theodor Adorno's seminal essay on musical reception, "The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression in Listening." Though written in 1938, Adorno's essay raises several issues that ambient music must confront, such as the decline in structural listening and what that decline implies for both composition and reception. Adorno concentrates in his essay on the differences between distracted and focused listening, and asserts that the capacity of listeners for active, structural listening has seriously declined in this century. The final section of the essay will be an "ambient rebuttal," or an attempt to defend ambient music from these challenges. Also, for those who are curious about the manifold recording techniques used in LVX NOVA, an appendix has been added.
Ambient Music. What is it, and how can we understand it? It is quite difficult to typify and investigate the stylistic tendencies and history of any genre of music that is still alive and growing. Groups such as System 777 and genre spin-offs such as "techno" illustrate this vitality. Ambient music in 1996 is quite a vital art form, still challenging our notions of how we utilize music, when and where we listen to music, and how we focus attention upon music.
Ambient music as a style is not easily characterized, but some of the hallmarks of ambient music are a decreased emphasis upon the use of functional tonality, usage of static or repetitious rhythmic patterns, and an increased interest in timbre and tone color. The word ambient, as defined by the Webster New Twentieth Century Dictionary, is "surrounding, encompassing on all sides; investing; as, the ambient air." Ambience is also a term used by audio engineers to describe the spatial dimensions and artificial environments created in the recording studio. Ambient music as created by Brian Eno in the period spanning 1978-1980 was made up of long, repeating textures consisting of vocal or instrumental timbres that had been processed heavily with electronics. When this music first appeared, the critical response was mixed. Ed Naha, in Circus magazine, said, "Dwelling in an eerie realm fluctuating somewhere between Fantasia and early sixties British pop, Eno dabbles in a musical world untouched by human hands...so far, anyhow." A more sober review was from Gordon Fletcher, who wrote, "His record is annoying because it doesn't do anything...in fact, the whole album may be described as tepid, and the listener must kick himself for blowing five bucks on the baloney." On the cassette tape which accompanies this essay, there are several musical excerpts of compositions by Eno that may illustrate why ambient music elicits such a disparity of response.
Ambient music can be considered a form of background music, yet it is quite different in content and function from Muzak and other forms of programmed music. The aural impression that ambient music leaves upon the listener is often referred to by listeners as mesmerizing, entrancing, or meditative. Most ambient music attempts to create a mood or atmosphere for the listener, and is intended to enhance an environment or space, rather than just regularize it as with Muzak. Regularizing an environment, by either keeping it silence-free or by attempting to emotionally or psychologically influence the people within that environment, is quite different than the enhancing effect of ambient music, which seeks to allow the listener to use the music as he or she sees fit to supplement their aural environment. One good list of ambient music's stylistic traits is given in Eric Tamm' book (the best I've read yet on ambient) entitled Brian Eno-His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound:
"quietness, gentleness, an emphasis on the vertical color of sound, establishment and maintenance of a single pervasive atmosphere, regularly or irregularly repeating cycles of events, modal pitch sets, layered textures tending towards an even balance of tone and noise, and a pulse that is sometimes uneven, sometimes breathing, and sometimes non-existent."
If ambient music can be distinguished from programmed music, so can it be distinguished from classical music in both compositional structure and reception. The birth of this style was characterized by its father Brian Eno when he related:
"My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of eighteenth-century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record (Eno had just been released from the hospital and was bedridden). Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn't the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music-as part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to my pieces at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility."
The difference between focused (or structured) listening and distracted listening brings the focus of this essay to the previous century, and will be crucial to an understanding of how to distinguish ambient music from the previous forms of musical composition. Traditional classical music reception had primarily been active; to hear any music at all one had to either perform it one's self or go to hear it performed by others. The arrival of mass-replicated music and devices in the early part of this century with which to listen to music has entirely changed our forms of music reception. The spaces in which we listen to music have become quite different in this regard. In the past listening took place in social spaces that were set aside for that purpose; now we are able to listen to music almost anywhere we wish. With the advent of listening devices such as the Sony Walkman portable cassette player, one can conceivably listen to music anywhere or during almost any activity. This new potential for sound to be removed from its source and its traditional performance space is fundamental to ambient music, as one of the fundamental concepts of ambient compositional style is the intent for the music to be used in different spaces, as well as nearly unheard of live performances of ambient music. Without the advent of recording and replication technology, current ambient music composition and reception could not exist.
Brian Eno and his ambient music composition style did not develop in a vacuum. Two composers who had a particularly strong influence on Eno are John Cage and Erik Satie. Cage wanted to break composition free from the pursuit of total control that was characteristic of twentieth-century compositional practices such as twelve-tone technique. Eno acknowledged this influence of Cage's philosophical ideas on compositions when he stated in a 1981 interview:
"The history of music was seen as the breakdown of the old tonal system and the move into chromaticism and the tone row, and everything was being discussed in these terms...to be good composer, what you had to do was understand what had happened on a formal level and then break certain of those rules. Now clearly, this has never been what good music was about. In fact, the quality one seeks is the spiritual quality, which incidentally sometimes breaks the rules...So what Cage did that was so important was to say 'Look, when you make music you are acting as a philosopher. You can either do that consciously or you can do it unconsciously, but you're doing it.'"
With Satie in particular, Eno was influenced by his method of composition and his compositional intent, and the fact that Satie called into question the dominant practice of musical reception by composing music intended for non-focused listening. Satie also was a product of the reaction against the tonal excess of much Romantic music (such as Wagner), and sought to use a simpler and less effusive harmonic vocabulary than his predecessors. Eno has said about Satie directly:
"He was a systems composer, you know, planning chord changes by numerical techniques. In the midst of extraordinary chromatic experimentalism, with everyone doing bizarre things, he just wrote these lovely little pieces of music."
Each of these factors have been influential to the aesthetic of ambient music, and each of these forerunners of ambient music shall now be investigated a bit more thoroughly.
Erik Satie (1866-1925) can rightly be called one of the grandfathers of ambient music, as his stylistic choices and aesthetic values are still found in the ambient style as practiced today. His main creative works were composed before 1920, which is the year he debuted his "furniture music." This music, a significant departure from both traditional composition and reception, can be seen as a precursor to ambient music. Satie's Musique d'ameblement (furniture, or furnishing music) was debuted on March 8, 1920, and was performed during the intermission of a play written by Satie's friend Max Jacob. According to Rollo Myers biography on Satie, claimed "the music, which consisted of fragments of popular refrains from Mignon and the Danse Macabre and isolated phrases repeated over and over again, like the pattern of wallpaper, was meant to be nothing more than a background and was not intended to attract attention in any way." This was the only public performance of Satie's furniture music, but Satie did arrange a few private "installations." In Satie's own words:
"You know, there's a need to create furniture music, that is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself. It would fill up awkward silences that occasionally descend on guests. Moreover, it would neutralize the street noises that indiscreetly force themselves into the picture."
The stylistic choices and aesthetic judgement of this composer are still found in the style of ambient music practiced today. The new outlook that Satie fostered in music reception has been a big influence upon ambient music, as Satie was one of the first to use music in a more utilitarian way, composed not just for focused listening at approved spaces, but to be used however the listener saw fit.
Satie had a compositional style that could be reductively described as simplistic and sparse. Compared to composers such as Wagner or Debussy, Satie's compositions had a more restricted melodic and harmonic vocabulary. A good example of this compositional style would be one of the more well-known Satie compositions such as the "Trois Gymnopedies", one of Satie's most enduring works which has retained a certain popularity even into the end of this century.
His piano works are quite unlike most Romantic piano music; this compositional style denies a sense of forward motion, both harmonically and rhythmically. This can be seen in Satie's "Gnossienne No. 3" (1890) As an early influence, to remove himself from the excesses of Romanticism, Satie worked with early monophonic Gregorian chant and plainsong. Some of his compositional instructions are quite unusual; such as "white and motionless" or "pale and hieratic." The biographer Alan Gillmor writes about Satie: "Tonality and rhythm as such didn't concern him. His aim was to create a vague, floating atmosphere, a non-goal- oriented music." This emphasis upon space and floating is a great early influence upon ambient music. It is also interesting and relevant to note about Satie that his music was one of the only futuristic things about him, he never sought to record his music, never owned a radio, and even refused to use the Metro. It was only Satie's composition that was looking forward and anticipating the future.
One composition by Satie in particular that has had a great impact on ambient composers is "Vexations," a work that consists of 840 repetitions of a fifty-two beat piece, with enough subdivisions to possibly be more than twenty-four hours long. As well as being an influence to Cage, this piece is also seen by Eric Tamm, author of Brian Eno-His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, as a precursor to Eno's piece "Discreet Music." As an influence on, or rather a forerunner of, ambient music, Satie influenced many composers, and both Cage and Eno have cited Satie's works to be of considerable importance to both of their musical influences. The dawning of the minimalist style even originated with Satie in many respects, with this emphasis upon using small musical phrases and building up a large structure from such small components.
Music as a rational art form may have reached its height during the High Classical and Romantic eras; however, with the emergence of composers such as Satie, there began to emerge a new aesthetic which denied functional tonality and development, and also began to question many of the former assumptions about music. Another composer who felt some of the same frustrations with compositional intent and the excesses of Romantic composition as Satie was American composer John Cage (1912-1985). Cage was quite influenced by Satie's ideas about both reception and composition, and some of these breakthroughs made by Satie influenced Cage's development as a composer and theorist. Cage often defended Satie's works in the press and to the public, stating once that "Among the truths that Satie expressed in words was: 'Show me a new idea--I'll give up everything I've ever done and start all over again.'" And Cage certainly did break with music composition and reception tradition much like Satie did. As a link between Satie and Brian Eno, Cage's compositional breakthroughs can be seen as seminal to the style known as "ambient music" in three ways: the questioning of the meaning of music and phenomenal existence, the predominance of duration over that of pitch, and the emphasis on process over product.
The first characteristic to be investigated in Cage's repertoire is the "poetic of ambiguity" that he employs for much of his compositional process. Cage wished to question the grounds of meaning and the metaphysical grounds of existence through music and composition, and sought to reflect his notions and ideas of these concepts through his musical works. There was a seeking in Cage's works to illustrate that the Western conceptions of reality and ego did not have to be an intrinsic part of musical composition, and he also sought to focus the attention of listeners away from the composer and compositional intent. Ambient music follows some of Cage's concepts in this regard. In ambient music, there is no teleological development, no goal to be attained or no destination that the composition must reach. Each composition is indeed a world within itself, where the discerning listener can find myriad things upon which to focus attention, or can choose not to focus upon anything at all. The following quote from Cage could almost stand as a description of the ambient "style":
"Notable qualities of this music, whether electronic or not, are monotony and the irritation that accompanies it. The monotony may lie in the simplicity or delicacy, strength or complexity. Complexity tends to reach a point of neutralization: continuous change results in a certain sameness. It goes in no particular direction. There is no necessary concern with time as a measure of distance from a point in the past to a point in the future, with linear continuity alone. It is not a question of getting anywhere, of making progress, or having come from anywhere in particular, of tradition or futurism. There is neither nostalgia or anticipation, and often the structure of a piece is circular."
Ambient music eschews most traditional senses of development and rationality, and is almost completely in line with Cage's aesthetic. It is both determinate in some aspects (such as recorded loops and patterns used repetitively) and yet indeterminate in others (such as the way sound loops interact to create new and unusual textures, and the way that delay loops can create new and perhaps unconceived textures).
Another one of Cage's concepts that was quite different from his predecessors was his radically new conception of the importance of silence. He felt as a composer and theorist that the traditional Western predominance of pitch over every other musical parameter was an error, and began to view duration as the prime ordering factor in his own compositions. Cage has said that "a structure based on duration is correct, whereas harmonic structure is incorrect....of the four characteristics of sound, only duration involves both sound and silence." The ambient music style makes much more use of silence than traditional popular music, almost to the point where the uninformed listener is liable to become bored. A good example of this can be found in Brian Eno's "2/1," a composition from his album Music For Airports. Silences within musical structures can open up to the listener sounds within his or her environment, and allow these sounds to become audible as a part of the music. The silences within much ambient composition permits the listener to create alternative sonic spaces, and also to pay more attention to the environment surrounding then as they receive the music. Where many composers are deathly afraid of the appearance of and use of silence, composers of ambient music embrace silence as part of the music they create.
Finally, Cage has significantly influenced the ambient musical style through his insistence upon the priority of process over product. Cage's landmark composition 4:33 is the most-used example of this new emphasis upon process. This composition in three movements is completely silent, with the audience forced to listen to the sounds of the environment surrounding them. The performer of this piece is directed to perform three movements, each of which consists of nothing but silence (along with whatever ambient sounds happen to be occurring in the performance space), and each of the movements is separated by the raising or closing of the piano's lid by the performer. This focusing of the listener's attention to the environment surrounding them is a dramatic break from past musical production and reception, where the listener had his or her attention directed towards the stage to focus upon the performer would play the music that the audience had come to hear. With Cage and his radically new approach to composition, everything within the environment was possibly music, and this new aesthetic appreciation has influenced ambient composition and reception significantly. Ambient composers rarely go as far as Cage in eliminating the distinction between music and the environment, yet all ambient composers allow the environment to permeate their work, either by filling in the silences or by remaining audible while the music is played at a low level of amplitude. Also, Cage wrote a book about his new concepts of composition and the role of art which has influenced many composers and artists during the last half of this century. the afore-cited Silence. One artist in particular who read Cage's text thoroughly was Brian Eno, who became exposed to this work during the sixties's. Eno has gone as far as to say that Cage was "the most influential theorist" he had ever encountered, and that Cage was, for Eno and his compositional style, a "completely liberating factor." In 1976, Eno even paid homage to Cage by producing an album that included a performance of five Cage pieces, and this can somewhat certainly reveal his connection to one of the greatest composers and music theorists of the twentieth century.
"Eno has become a symbol of the potential for "art rock": he has not only applied philosophy, experimentation, and self-conscious "artistry" to the creation of what might be called rock music for the thinking person or aesthete (as have musicians like Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp), but has worked within new, non-rock genres essentially of his own creation."
Eno's Music for Airports, was quite an unusual work due to both its place within music history as well as how the work utterly negated most production and song writing practice of his contemporaries. Eno wrote some sparse liner notes for this record to inform the listener of compositional intentions, and several points that he makes are quite important to an understanding of the ambient music genre. He begins by relating the beginnings of "background" music with the rise of the Muzak Corporation. Muzak was a company (originally called "Wired Radio") formed in 1934, that was concerned with recording familiar tunes in a lightweight and derivative matter, music that was intended for background placement and reception. Eno was all too familiar with Muzak, and felt that the presence of Muzak led people to dismiss entirely any sorts of music that were intended for environmental or background usage. In this short essay, he defines ambient music in this way:
"Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music of ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised. To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music."
It is significant that Eno first had to deal with Muzak during the formation of the ambient style, and the differentiation between the reception and composition of the two genres of music needs to be investigated at this point in the essay.
Muzak is one of the most insidious parts of our modern-day culture. The quintessential Heavy Metal guitarist Ted Nugent (without much doubt the antithesis of the sedate style of Muzak composition) once made a bid in 1989 of ten million dollars to buy the company simply so he could erase the tapes. The company responded by making a very light version of one of Nugent's biggest hits, "Cat Scratch Fever," just to infuriate him. Why is it that musicians as well as music listeners often dislike Muzak so vehemently? While many people may think that Muzak is a harmless way of helping people to pass time and avoid silence as well as boredom, This form of music is also a powerful tool for manipulating human emotions and behavior. In 1979 alone, according to the essay "Facing the Muzak"by Bruce MacLeod, more than 100 million people were exposed to Muzak daily in over 25 countries throughout the world. Also, only seven out of 150 of the largest corporations in America during that time were not customers of the Muzak background music system (italics mine). By 1992, the Muzak Corporation had branched out and started its own satellite music transmission system, as well as its own video channel called "ZTV." This "muzak music" has permeated modern culture quite thoroughly in many public spaces as well as within the consciousness of music listeners, and it behooves the attentive music listener to understand Muzak more fully, and to be aware of the effects that it has upon listeners. Also, it is quite important to understand this modern phenomenon to distinguish the differences between Muzak and the style of ambient music.
Almost all of the music that originates from the Muzak corporation is recorded especially by the company for use in working environments. This music is usually recorded with some of the best studio musicians in New York. This may seem contradictory to the blandness and banality of the arrangements, but this is entirely the intended effect of the music. Over and over again programmed music sales literature stresses that their music is to be heard, not listened to. This music is supposed to affect listeners in a subconscious fashion, attempting to evade the usual listening practices of evaluation and attention. There is no intended entertainment value; in fact, if a customer actually writes to Muzak with the intention of informing them how much they may have enjoyed a particular arrangement, that specific recording will rapidly be re-recorded in an even less attention-grabbing manner, so that most of the potential for interest in the music performance and composition is removed. Ambient music, in contrast to Muzak's reception and compositional strategies, is not meant to merely regularize or make safe (silence-free) an environment, nor is the intent to just provide an aural soundtrack by which consumers can shop without anxiety. Eno has stated his position concerning this distinction:
"I like it (ambient music) as an ambiguous term. It gives me a certain latitude. It has two major meanings. One is the idea of music that allows you any listening position in relation to it. This has been widely misinterpreted by the press (in their infinite unsubtlety) as background music. I mean music that can be backg- round or foreground or anywhere, which is a rather different idea. Most music chooses its own position in terms of your listening to it. Muzak wants to be back there. Punk wants to be up front. Classical wants to be another place. I wanted to make something you could slip in and out of. Ambient music allows many different types of attention."
Also, ambient music is not recorded by studio musicians in a derivative, banal manner like most Muzak. Ambient music is usually recorded and composed by the composers with a completely different intent both compositionally and in receptional intent than Muzak, and furthermore, ambient music doesn't have to conform to the rigid musical rules and structures that the Muzak corporation forces upon their recording staff and musicians. Muzak is recorded in a very formulaic and unoriginal fashion, where ambient composers have a much greater range of choice available.
A main selling point for background Muzak in the retail world is the use of this music as a sales tool. 3M markets its background music by asserting "Music helps make people happy and more contented, while it helps you make more money." MacLeod makes the cogent point in his essay that any music not consciously listened to becomes background music. This raises one of the most interesting points yet to be considered about the distracted, or background use of music. If we as listeners use music as a background to other activities, surely this reveals deeper assumptions about the place of music and its value in our lives. "It does not seem to be the programmed music which is at the heart of the matter. It is, rather, our society's values, which allow that music of any kind need only be heard, not listened to. " Even the Muzak Corporation understands this fear of silence that we seem to have as human beings, as it is revealed by their old slogan "Music fills the deadly silences." MacLeod even goes as far to compare this fear of silence with our twentieth century drug-oriented culture. Background music is seen as a mask for undesirable stimuli by providing one continuous, reliable stimulus to our environment. Many people use the television in much the same way, by turning shows on while simultaneously not paying conscious, focused attention to the show. The mere sound of the television calms many people during times when their domestic space is silent. It does seem that we have a need to "mask reality" in many ways, and this honestly does not seem that far away from the alcoholic who must mask reality in his or her own way, or the heroin addict who must do the same. It is society's own passivity which is found at the end of this chain of reasoning. Ambient music may indeed fall prey to this fault that MacLeod has indicated with the use of Muzak, or indeed any music used as background music. It is true that many music listeners use music as aural wallpaper, sound that keeps the silence in the environment from becoming too predominant. However, the intent of ambient music composers, such as Eno, is quite different than that of the Muzak Corporation. And, as Eno has stated earlier, he wanted his compositions to allow listeners to find their own methods for listening, their own modes of reception for his ambient music. Muzak, in contrast, basically imposes itself upon the listener in the way that it has been manufactured to do.
Eno intends his listener to approach listening to his compositions as he or she would to common popular music. Instead, the listener is invited not to focus closely upon the music, but to play it at soft volume levels so that it gives the room or art installation a subtle feel that the space wouldn't otherwise have. To quote Eno again from his liner notes from Music for Airports:
"Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. It must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is listenable. Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, ambient music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produ- ced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, ambient music retains these qualities".
There are several main compositional and perceptual differences between Muzak and the ambient music style. The compositional intent, the recording style, and the intended effect are three important distinctions to be made between the two. Perhaps one of the most important distinctions to be investigated about the ambient music style would be the difference between focused and distracted listening, and this subject was brought up many years ago by a philosopher associated with the Frankfurt School of philosophy--Theodor W. Adorno. It is a testament to Adorno's scholarship and insight that his essay, "On The Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening," written in 1938, raises issues that are still quite relevant to music production and reception in 1996. Ambient music violates many of Adorno's precepts, but the style of ambient composition does have its own concepts and reasons to exist as a viable, respected art form, despite Adorno's criticisms.
There are several main points made by Adorno that concern this essay on the ambient style; one of the most important would be that we, as individuals and music listeners in our capitalist, commodity-driven economic system, are discouraged from listening to music in a structural fashion, and furthermore that we have lost the freedom of real choice when it comes to what we listen to. While some music scholars might attack this essay due to Adorno's Marxist orientation, the essay on its own stands apart from a merely Marxist critique, and any critical orientation such as that is likely to completely overlook the points that Adorno wishes to make. The essay is powerful both in its remarkable delineation of the growth of the culture industry, as well as the decline in aesthetic response of the individual within a capitalistic society.
An important concept raised by Adorno in this essay is the trend he terms "the regression of listening." He claims that we as listeners and consumers have lost our freedom of choice and responsibility, as well as the capacity for conscious perception of music. Adorno states:
"The delight in the moment and the gay facade becomes an excuse for absolving the listener from the thought of the whole (piece of music), whose claim is compromised in proper listening. The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser."
Adorno also claims that "Regressive listeners behave like children. Again and again and with stubborn malice they demand the one dish they have once been served." Adorno goes even further and asserts that we have become "forcibly retarded". This retardation is connected to the machinery of the music business, distribution and advertising in Adorno's essay, and he states "Regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly by advertising." In this way all music is passed through a narrow channel, and a great deal of it ends up as nothing more than a corporate trademark. The reliance upon the "hook" in a song is tied directly to advertising; (imagine if Adorno could see what is happening now with endorsements, and songwriters writing songs directly for commercials, or an even worse case, where older songs are appropriated and used for advertising. Many children know little about "classical" music except what they have been exposed to through the Saturday morning cartoons). This regression of listening is a serious issue, and Adorno was critiquing both composition as well as reception with this concept. He saw distracted listening as being largely a passive activity, and that passivity could have, in his view, led to even greater passivity in the masses, and to a possible fascist society as a whole. And, as a Jew who survived World War II, Adorno was no stranger to the dangers of wide-scale passivity of the masses, and vehemently attempted to avoid the recreation of this state by his works on the sociology of music. Passive acceptance of art would lead to the passive acceptance of politics as well in Adorno's view, and this was to be avoided at all costs. Music for Adorno should foster active, structural listening practice with a critical ear.
Adorno raises another important concept within his essay which is relevant to ambient music composition and reception, and that is what he termed "deconcentration". Adorno asserts that deconcentration is "the perceptual activity which prepares the way for the forgetting and sudden recognition of mass music." His point is that we, as passive music receivers, are no longer able to listen in a concentrated manner, partly due to the limited structural range of most all popular music. Distracted listening is seen by Adorno as "retarded listening" because the listener takes in so much less information than with classical music, such as with a Beethoven symphony. He relates this: "They (the listeners) cannot stand the strain of concentrated listening and surrender themselves resignedly to what befalls them, with which they can come to terms only if they do not listen to it too closely." Careful active listening of popular music leads to almost instant boredom in Adorno's view for the average music listener, since there is little, if any, structural sophistication within the popular music that Adorno was familiar with. This decline in concentrated listening is a big issue for Adorno, and directly relates to his concept of the "regression of listening", and it will also be important to an understanding of how the style of ambient music negates some of these concepts later within this essay.
Also within his essay, Adorno asserts that much of popular music and art has fallen prey to fetishism, which he first defines in the context of repetition. This fetishism is a result of several factors: many years of the "star" system, the manipulation of taste by the media, and the commercial distribution networks used by almost all of the major music recording companies. The most popular works become those that are most repeated over and over again. It is a cumulative process that becomes, in Adorno's words, "a fatal circle." Ownership of song rights is also challenged by Adorno, in which he characterizes the use of modern copyright law as "the composer's idea, which one thinks he can put in his pocket and take it home." "Great" music in Adorno's perspective would be compositions that require close, attentive, active listening by the receiver, such as works by Schoenberg or Beethoven. However, this places Adorno in an insulated, very elitist position. These types of music that Adorno heartily endorses as "great" require a high degree of education, as well as an active understanding of what is going on with the composers' technique to be fully appreciated and understood by the receiver. Music, in Adorno's conception, needs to be part of an "active" listening experience, and he felt that popular music was regressive at best, and was just easy listening, allowing itself to be understood easily with little attention, and that popular music contained very little structural interest that would sustain the interest of an active listener.
In today's music market the actual commodity that becomes fetishized in Adorno's view would be for him the compact disc (usually abbreviated as the CD), the shining digital disc of music (and increasingly the new multi-media presentations of CD-ROM technology) that has been recorded in the music studio with the express intent to be replicated, mass-distributed, advertised heavily, and sold however possible within the capitalistic system. LVX NOVA is itself replicated in the CD format, as this is perhaps the only way that this music may ever have the smallest chance of getting airplay on the radio or significant sales and distribution within the current system. Most, if not all, popular music is currently distributed and received in this CD format, and this is partly due to the music industry's reliance upon new technology to sell music over and over again in new formats. Popular music seems to be the focus of much of this essay, with Adorno railing against many of the popular music forms with which he was familiar.
"The power of the street ballad, the catchy tune and all the forms of the banal has made itself felt since the beginning of the bourgeois era. Formerly, it attacked the cultural privilege of the ruling class. But today, when the power of the banal extends over the entire society, its function has changed."
Adorno sees here a very clear and unmistakable conflict between high and low music, such as the popular forms versus the forms of classical or Art music as practiced in the nineteenth century and beforehand, and this is one of his uninformed prejudices that was illustrated beforehand within the previous paragraph.
With ambient music, Adorno would surely find some faults. It is obvious that he would decry the lack of harmonic progression inherent in many ambient pieces (if indeed it can actually be said the some of these pieces indeed do have any sort of harmonic progression). The music would not generate the kind of structural active listening interest for Adorno the way a Beethoven symphony certainly would have. This is due to Adorno's reliance upon the concept of teleological music, music that works rationally toward stipulated goals. But, there were composers who were headed in a new direction during Adorno's lifetime who were direct precursors to ambient music, and their music had little to do with the complex harmonic structures of Romantic music. Satie even went as far as to state "I am not a musician", and felt that his music would perform a far different function than that of his predecessors.
This brings up some significant questions about ambient music, as the focus of ambient music is to be heard and not "listened to", in a simplistic and reductionist explanation. However, a distinction that must be made is that ambient, as opposed to classical or "high art" music, does not demand anything from the listener. In fact, ambient music allows the listener to find his or her own method and space, both figuratively and metaphorically for listening. Ambient music allows one to pay as little or as much attention as one desires to the music. There is much to pay attention to in LVX NOVA, or one can choose to let the music just drone on in the background, as a kind of sonic wallpaper. However, attentive listening will bring out all sorts of "hidden" treats for the listener, but it is not a required part of the ambient genre that one must pay excruciatingly close attention to every musical detail. Adorno did not accept or realize the fact that there are possibilities for resistant or subversive listening practices. However, in the age of mass media, it has become increasingly hard to actively listen to music, just as it has become rarer and rarer to find readers of literature when one can simply tune in to the television to absorb almost pre-digested story lines that require little if any thought at all. Concentrated listening does occur within the field of pop music, however; it may just be that Adorno had never heard anything popular that held his interest for any length of time, and this is understandable since most of his exposure to popular music was limited at best, mostly "Tin Pan Alley" types of pop music and jazz of the pre-Bebop era. Meaningful harmonic progressions are not the be-all and end-all of music, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a three chord song, or a one-chord song. This reveals to us Adorno's elitist stance toward popular music, or any music that did not conform to his "high art" status such as Beethoven or Schoenberg.
Today, as contrasted to 1938, there is a far more pluralistic state within music reception and compositional practice, and also far more musical genres available for our consumption than ever before within music history. Adorno felt that there were deep differences between so- called "high" art and "low" art, with high art being thought of as a personal and artistic endeavor, which is valuable precisely because it is value-less and serves no concrete purpose. This split between high and low culture has been a forum for discussion with popular culture for quite some time. High art was, in Adorno's conception, a reflection of the rational ideal and served as a social critique. In contrast, lower or popular art is seen by Adorno in this essay as inherently flawed because popular art does not offer the possibility of an idealized or utopian vision of the world, nor does it involve the listener in the afore-mentioned active reception process of listening to and understanding the structural foundation of, for example, one of Beethoven's symphonic works. Instead, Adorno views popular music as presenting a picture of our world that is firmly entrenched in the present social systems, and this popular music requires little, if any, active interpretation on the part of the receiver. Adorno claims that this form of popular music keeps us almost anesthetized, mainly by the sheer repetition that it experiences through the broadcast mediums. Adorno seems to recognize popular music ultimately as the complete opposite of "high" art music, and indeed that popular music is the enemy of what he considers great art music.
Ambient music still has a value of its own, even considering the relevance of Adorno's essay. There is not any intrinsic reason for music composed and intended for background listening to be flawed or "bad" music. Ambient music does indeed fall prey to many of the precepts presented by Adorno's essay, but one major distinction that must be recognized by the modern music listener and scholar is the difference between music that is composed for active listening versus music that is composed with a much different intent and set of assumptions. Ambient music compositions do not require the listener's perception to be foreground or background, either in compositional intent or method of reception. There are many things that the listener can focus upon within an ambient piece; much like an aural representation of a mobile, one can listen to or perceive ambient music from a variety of perspectives that reveal fresh information with every subsequent listen. While from a surface perspective ambient music may seem utterly simple at times, this is an uninformed and premature opinion, and repeated attentive listening, along with a different listening strategy, may illustrate this concept to the uninitiated listener. Ambient music has a completely different way of expressing information than classical music, and this can be heard in the emphasis ambient compositions place upon the vertical aspects of sound composition, instead of the traditional reliance upon the horizontal and developmental forms of most western musical forms.
A composer named Morgan Fisher penned an elegant statement about the apparent simplicity of ambient music when he made reference to Japanese visual art:
"There is a tradition in Japanese art called "ma," in which the goal of the drawing or painting is to lead the viewer into a state of relaxation and emptiness. I have tried to incorporate those ideas into my music. The notes lead to pauses. If the notes weren't there, the listener couldn't appreciate the pauses. Just as, if I hadn't played so much hard rock, I wouldn't be able to play such tranquil music, which perhaps can create more space and relaxation than music made by people who haven't traveled to the extremes."
This use of space within ambient music is indeed an important point to remember when critiquing the style, and the analogy with visual art is a very cogent way of illustrating the differences in reception that ambient compositions can offer to the receiver.
Ambient music can certainly be considered, from Adorno's somewhat dated perspective, as a regressive music practice, but this would be a very damaging and inelegant way of approaching this style of composition. The potential within ambient music for the listener to perceive new strategies of listening, as opposed to being led into one distinct form of receptive practice as with Adorno's beloved classical music, is one of the most original and important aspects within the ambient music style, and one of the innovations that can be traced fairly accurately back to the compositional practices and breakthroughs made by Satie and Cage. Ambient music, as well as popular music in 1996, can not be negated as simply as Adorno's essay did in 1938, because that would do serious injustice to the new forms of reception practice and composition that have evolved since his essay appeared. It is quite limiting to think of ambient music only within Adorno's terms, as the style has new forms of both composition and reception that Adorno was not familiar with and may not have understood even if he could, due to his own background and prejudices. Eno himself has spoken on the apparent simplicity of his ambient music by stating:
"Critics (of my music) have stated that nothing much happens in my music. But if a painting is hanging on the wall where we live, we don't feel that we're missing something by not paying attention to it...Yet with music and video, we still have the expectation of some kind of drama. My music and videos do change, but they change slowly. And they change in such a way that it doesn't matter if you miss a bit...The conventional commercial notion that people want a lot of stimulus and constant change simply isn't true."
There are many questions to consider when evaluating ambient music, but one of the most pressing would be the question of simplicity. Is ambient music divinely simple or merely simplistic? It's not an easy question to answer, but for ambient music, much of the appeal of the style comes from the multi-level dimension of many ambient compositions. There is indeed an apparent surface simplicity to many of these works, a great deal of harmonic consonance, and some degree of static repetition. But with careful listening, active attentive reception, one can find worlds of musical information in many ambient works, enough to sustain many repeated listenings. Timbre is one of the most important parts of ambient music composition and reception, and this is one area that is often overlooked in critiques of ambient works. Ambient music has traditionally relied upon a more focused intent upon the characteristics of timbre, and due to our inherited listening practices of the past several centuries, it may be difficult for many to get beyond the horizontal, structured listening that they are used to. Ambient music is much more about a non-linear, spatial approach to music composition and reception, music that allows the listener to move around within the structure, and to pay attention to many of the details that have traditionally been considered secondary in music. Ambient music reveals to the attentive listener a world of balance between tone and noise, and a constant perceptual play of timbre and tone color. In one way these compositions can be looked at as a "holographic" approach to music composition and reception, where one is invited to look at a still frame image that changes all the while the perceiver moves his or her relationship to it aurally. While the surface of ambient music may be an easy target for the uninitiated to dismiss, there is far more than meets the inactive ear.
Theodor W. Adorno, "Fetish Character in Music and The Regression of Listening," translated and reprinted in the Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1982).
Francis Dyson, "The Ear That Would Hear Sounds In Themselves: John Cage 1935-1965." Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992).
Bruce MacLeod, "Facing the Muzak", Popular Music and Society, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1979, pages 19-31.
John Cage, Silence (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1976).
Alan M. Gillmor, Erik Satie (Boston: Twayne, 1988).
Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (New York: Praeger Press, 1970).
Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music-A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and other Moodsong (New York: Picador, 1995).
Rollo H. Myers, Erik Satie (New York: Dover, 1968).
Eric Tamm, Brian Eno-His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989).