What Is Ambient Music?
by Malcolm Humes

an essay in progress, feedback and comments welcomed
My perspective on ambient music in its historical context.
- malcolm humes

"Silence, more than sound, expressed the various parameters
(including those parameters which we have not yet noticed).
Thoureau said that sounds are bubbles on the surface of silence.
They burst. The question is to know how many bubbles silence has on it."
-John Cage, from 'SIXTY ANSWERS to thirty-three
questions from Daniel Charles', found in For the Birds by John Cage.

For me, ambient music has both a historical and contemporary meaning. In this context I address more the historical perspective, from my point of view, which lies somewhere between a music consumer and a contemporary ethnomusicologist. I was in high school or grade school when Brian Eno's ambient music ideas started working themsleves into recordings. I had a nearly simultaneous initiation to Eno, Fripp, free jazz, hard bop, progressive rock, (then just emerging) punk rock, electronic "space" music and 20th century contemporary music composers (ranging from John Cage to Edgar Varese). Since the punk and post-punk independent musics seemed the newest and most vital at the time much of the late 70's and early 80's were spent by me going to see live music, or as a dj or playing and recording music.

When Eno migrated from strange rock oriented songs to "ambient" music in the late 70's many of my friends had a hard time accepting it. We'd grown up hating muzak, which to its credit has probably come a long way over the years; now Muzak corporation runs multiple specially targeted channels. Back in the late 70's most of the folks I knew associated it with elevators and shopping malls; or with the fast food restaurants where muzak was targeted more as a productivity enhancing tool to perk up workers than it was for customer enjoyment. The idea of Eno suddenly shifting his career to do "background" music was perpelxing to many.

Eno's shift into quiet, slowly changing and drifting soundscapes was at least intially accessible to those of us that had spent years *listening* deeply to music with headphones, but it wasn't really headphone oriented music. For me, at a time where I was very actively listening into music and hearing mostly active, fast and instrumentally dense rock derived music it was hard to find a focus into Eno's early ambient releases. The first few ambient lps were too passive for my hyperactive state of mind at the time.

Gradually I came to realize I'd missed the point. As the liner notes to some of Eno's ambient works suggest, he'd tried to create music that could be actively or passively listened to. Something that could shift inperceptibly between a background texture to something triggering a sudden zoom into the music to reflect on a repetition, a subtle variation, perhaps a slight shift in color or mood.

To me, ambient music has generally meant something that is quiet, sparse and perhaps gentle; using silence and textures more to achieve a mood more than via melody, meters or arrangements of instruments. Historically I think this was a valid definition, but it seems to not hold as well to today's myriad of "ambient" music offshoots.

From what I gather ambient now is almost as coopted a term as "new age" or "progressive", "electronic" or "fusion" has come to be - a catch-all that is so generally sweeping and yet personally sujective that it's now almost as meaningless as "alternative". But it still seems to serve as a beacon and useful handle by which folks can branch out from the familiar into the unfamiliar. Today's ambient music may have more of a beat, a pulse or melody than my 70's definition of the term. It might also refer to atmospheric sound textures of a more indutrial nature. The "Environments" series of lps in the late 70's could also be considered early ambient releases. Processed feedback, found sounds, synthesizers and drum machines might be elements considered ambient this week or next. It's not important to me to categorize.

My intent here is to clarify that ambient, in the context that I understand the term, defines not only music that can be a part of the background, as unobtrustive as wallpaper, but also can and should be something with the potential to "listen in"; to actively unfold itself to you should you focus on it enough if you wish to give it the chance. As perhaps an oriental rug might play a role in the background in your everyday life but when examined closely shows itself to be full of rich and intricate detail worth of deep and more focused attention, ambient music should have the potential to be a part of the experience, or to be the experience itself.

- malcolm, April 1995

"You do not have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen; simply wait. Do not even wait. Be still and solitary.
Theworld will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice. It will rollin ecstasy at your feet."
- Franz Kafka