INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The New Yorker NOVEMBER 15, 2012 - by Joshua Rothman
THE DISCREET CHARM OF AMBIENT MUSIC
I first discovered ambient music in college, when I was a late-night D.J. My show at the campus radio station started every Thursday at midnight and ran until five. From midnight through two-thirty, I played uptempo rock songs for a party that I knew happened almost every week, somewhere near Philly. (I had a phone relationship with the partiers, who would call me up to tell me how "awesome" my show was.) From two-thirty through four, I played shoe-gazey pop and ruminative electronic music - Envane, an Autechre E.P., was a particular favorite, as was Slowdive's Blue Skied An' Clear. Then, for the last hour, I'd play ambient music. I'd let Music On A Long Thin Wire, or Music For Airports, or Discreet Music unspool over New Jersey. Then I'd leave and walk home across campus. The music left my mind clear and thoughtful - the right feelings for just before dawn, when it's still dark, but you can sense the sunrise gathering itself.
I'd listened to a small amount of ambient music before my time at the radio station - almost everyone has, whether he knows it or not. In my case, there had been the Pink Floyd album Ummagumma, and the soundtracks to Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange. But those late nights were a conversion experience. Since then, ambient music has occupied a major place in my musical life. Being a "fan" of ambient music is strange, though. This week, Brian Eno, one of the early ambient pioneers, released a new album of ambient music, called Lux. A few weeks ago, when I first heard about it, I was so eager and excited that I actually pre-ordered it on iTunes. But why? When I finally did receive a copy - an early copy, courtesy of Eno's record label, Warp - I didn't blast it on my headphones during my commute, or at the gym, which is what I usually do with new music. Instead, I put it on repeat, very quietly, at home - so quietly that it was, at times, almost inaudible - and then ignored it, while I did the dishes and organized my desk drawers. Today, iTunes tells me that I've listened to Lux twenty-six times. But without iTunes, I'd have no idea how many times I've listened to it. I haven't been paying enough attention to notice when the album begins and ends.
In a way, I haven't been paying much attention to Lux, period. But that's not to say that Lux hasn't been a part of my life. The album has been making itself felt, like a new fitness regimen, or weather pattern. Ambient music isn't like pop music. It doesn't want the spotlight, or to conscript your body and mind. Instead, it aims to transform and divide your attention in more subtle ways. Lux is seventy-five minutes long, and it moves slowly. Clouds of strings rearrange themselves around isolated notes, played on piano or synthesizer, while, every few minutes, something semi-beautiful happens. In between, Lux teases you with gentle atonalities or moments of silence. Turning it up loud actually ruins the experience. At the ideal, low volume, you're aware of the music. But you're equally aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you're hearing and making: the traffic in the street, your own breathing, the keys on the keyboard, the creaks in the floorboards, the rustle of your clothes when you move. You're also more in touch with the small inflections in your own moods. Each key change, and each new instrument, with its new timbre, is an opportunity to measure the difference between the feeling of the music and your state of mind. Lux is fascinating as music. But it also makes the world more fascinating. It's a catalyst for consciousness and self-awareness.
If you were to write a history of ambient music, you'd probably want to start with Erik Satie's musique d'ameublement - the "furniture music" which he composed for parties, as a kind of half-serious, satiric experiment, in the years around 1920. Satie's music is like Eno's in that it was written deliberately as background music. Listen to it, though, and you'll find that it lacks the alienness and subliminality that are typical of ambient music today. Satie's furniture music, as odd as it is, sounds appropriate for a party: it's played on traditional instruments, and it has a party vibe. It was meant to be performed live, at normal volumes.
Today's ambient music often pays lip service to this idea of fitting in - Lux was designed as a sound art installation in Turin; Eno's early ambient album Music For Airports was actually installed, for a period, at LaGuardia; the K.L.F.'s Chill Out presents itself as a record designed for a "chill room" at a club - but, in fact, it aims to subtly transform and reimagine the space in which it's played. Chill Out uses samples taken from the American South (trains, slide guitar, radio preachers) to create a sonic environment that couldn't be more unlike a London dance club. Lux, with its drifting, modern, electronic textures, is actually a counterpoint to the space for which it was designed, the baroque Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria. (It's certainly a counterpoint to my office, where it's been gettling a lot of very quiet airtime.) The alienness of ambient music is part of what makes it so enjoyable. Often, the records make you feel as though you're in two places at once. That's one reason why ambient music is so widely used in video games: it gives you the sense that there might be an alternate way of inhabiting the place and time where you are located.
Looking through my own embarrasingly extensive ambient-music collection, I'm surprised to see just how many possibilities the music offers. There are lots of elegant, New Age-y records, like Lux which stretch out time and make everything seem ordered, patterned, and mathematical. Then there are others, like Keith Fullerton Whitman's Playthroughs, which aim to beautify, to bathe the room in a kind of sonic glow. (Playthroughs is composed almost entirely using sine waves, and the final track is a like a bubbling sine-wave brook.) Other albums are less genteel, and work better at higher volumes. The frightening, static-saturated album Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again, by Tim Hecker, can make you feel, even as you sit in your apartment, that you are blundering through an arctic snowstorm. Pop, by the German musician Wolfgang Voigt (recording under the name Gas), is an immersive masterpiece: its pulsing, thrumming soundscapes are like being stationed inside the heart of a giant animal.
Sometimes the ambient impulse can express itself in unusual ways. The record label Sublime Frequencies releases album-length montages of field recordings from around the world. I own I Remember Syria, which combines all sorts of sounds from Syrian life into one uninterrupted composition. There are pop songs, which you hear over a car radio; there are the sounds of people talking in the market; of what sounds like a wedding; of children at recess; of footfalls echoing inside what might be a mosque. It's hard to get a fix on exactly what's happening, but, if you open your windows and keep the album on repeat, you can trick yourself into thinking that the world outside has changed.
And one of the best ambient albums I've owned wasn't even an album at all; it was a little white box, called a Buddha Machine, designed and sold by FM3, a band based in China. The little machine was about the size of a deck of cards, and it played short loops of sound over and over, through a tinny little speaker. There were nine little sound loops to choose from. You could set the machine up in one room, leave it on, and then go about your business, or you could carry it in your backpack and listen to it through headphones, like a minimalist, ambient iPod. It was amazing to hear how a single loop could sound different in the various rooms of my apartment. One day, though, while I was shaving, it fell off the medicine cabinet into the sink; it hasn't worked since.
Eno himself has produced two ambient music "machines," in partnership with the musician and software designer Peter Chilvers. Bloom which shipped in 2007, felt a little like an ambient music toy; Scape, which was just released in September, for the iPad, is more complex and fascinating. It's easy to lose yourself in these apps, and to spend an hour or two creating your own ambient music. The music you create, though, is never as satisfying as the music you find. When ambient music really succeeds, it's because it comes from elsewhere. Lux can slip seamlessly into your own home and routine. But it will never seem familiar, or relinquish its otherness.