INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Prog JANUARY 2014 - by Sid Smith
A CERTAIN AMBIENCE
Often confused with New Age noodling, ambient music's superior atmospherics take the listener into more experimental and exciting territory. Roger Eno, Laraaji, Darkroom and Peter Chilvers take Prog on an aural journey through 'furniture music', the need for dissonance, building your own Brian Eno album and the joy of spiritual music for a secular generation.
Imagine you're in an auditorium at a performance of 4'33" by American composer John Cage, with a couple of hundred other people. A pianist crosses the stage, sits down at the grand piano and, on cue, opens the lid and sits poised at the exposed but untouched keyboard. For the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds, audience and performer are confronted by silence. Except the venue is anything but silent. The whirr of the central heating, previously unnoticed, now becomes prominent; chairs scrape; there's a scattergun of coughing and an occasional sneeze; nervous whispers now become oddly amplified and sibilant; the distant traffic outside the building is noticed for the first time and becomes a woozy drone; people are looking around, noticing the often bemused and uncomfortable reactions of others. At the end of the allotted time, the pianist closes the piano lid and the piece comes to an end. The applause that follows suggest relief that such a deafeningly busy silence is finally over.
Written in 1952, Cage's infamous piece has often been dismissed as a prime example of avant-garde hocus-pocus, the audio equivalent of the notorious pile of bricks at the Tate Gallery. Yet Cage's conceptual devices served to make twentieth-century audiences confront an obvious but often forgotten truth: that we exist in a surround-sound world that is never truly silent; a place where foreground and background are interchangeable, subject to our mood, inclination or whim. Swimming through what musicologist David Toop described as "oceans of sounds", we are truly denizens of the ambient age.
You won't get very far in any consideration of ambient music without encountering Brian Eno. Though there are many other composers whose work predates the ex-Roxy Music synthesist turned multimedia creative guru, his 1975 album, Discreet Music, was intended as music which could blend into the background. Initially taking nineteenth-century French composer Erik Satie's idea of 'furniture music' - that is, music that's decorative without making undue demands upon the listener - Eno codified ambient music with the spatial beauty of 1978's Ambient 1: Music For Airports.
From these beginnings, ambient music has spread from a relatively secluded corner of the field, slowly yet surely colonising popular culture like some vast mycelium, and taking root in the most unlikely of places. Used as a soundtrack for maternity wards, weddings and funerals, Eno's ethereal An Ending (Ascent) from 1983's Apollo is testament to the cradle-to-the-grave nature of ambient music.
Selling millions since its release, Apollo also featured contributions from producer Daniel Lanois and Eno's younger brother, Roger. "We started working together because I'd sent him a cassette tape of sixty or ninety minutes of this track I'd done a long time before I started working with him," says Roger, whose work has just been anthologised on a two-disc retrospective, Little Things Left Behind 1988-1998, on Warp Records
The compilation collates some of Roger Eno's most emotive compositions. though not averse to electronic effects and filtering, he's at his best when using acoustic instruments such as piano, violin, voice and harmonium for his reflective but often uplifting tunes.
"It's all about finding a quiet zone and staying in there," he explains.
"That's what I'm interested in. When the government did the census a couple of years ago, they asked what my occupation was and I put down 'de-composer', because I reckon that's about the most accurate description of what I do. I write what you might call nearly normal music - harmonic changes, melodies and what have you - but often what happens is that after I've written them, or perhaps in the process of writing them, I leave out all the bits that aren't really important. I cut the fat off, and what you're left with is what I do: music that's pretty pared down. I never use the word 'ambient' for my own music, but for the terms that we're talking about that will do."
Musicians are often reticent to apply labels to what they do, but Edward Larry Gordon, better known as Laraaji, who first came to international attention with the Eno-produced Day Of Radiance in 1980, takes a more pragmatic view.
"If you go to a record store and feel like listening to zydeco then that's where you go, and you might discover an artist in that section that may be a little bit outside the box. Just as categories help people in record stores find an artist, they also help producers and festival organisers find what they're looking for."
Like Roger Eno, Laraaji has just released an anthology of his work entitled Celestial Music 1978-2011. In the early 1970s, Laraaji wanted to create music that might combat what he saw as the negative, pernicious factors of modern-day life.
"I remember focusing on a mental image, that I would like to have an effect on the planet to counter all the anxiety there was," he says. "I felt like I wanted to do something. I didn't know what it was at the time, and certainly didn't make the connection that my music would get to be heard around the world."
Initially influenced by the cyclical aspects of Terry Riley's music, which he describes as "liberating", having studied piano and composition, Laraaji found his true calling in the shape of a zither brought from a secondhand store. The zither's strings were played with wooden or metal hammers, then amplified and processed through FX units. The resulting music has captivated listeners around the globe with its rippling sonorities and rich, harmonic overtones.
Laraaji's collaboration with Eno came about after a strange coincidence: "One evening, sometime around 1978, I was busking music in Washington Square Park in New York. Usually, after I play, people engage me in conversation because they're so curious about my lifestyle and the nature of the music. One evening a couple invited me to their home for dinner because they wanted to continue a conversation in which they told me I should listen to what sounded like 'Frippandeno', because I would find it relevant to what I was doing. I didn't know if it was an orchestra or a sound machine of some kind they were talking about.
"Later on, they started mentioning Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. It was only then that I gathered they were two gentlemen, musicians who collaborated. Maybe a month later, Brian Eno showed up at that very same spot in Washington Square Park. I play with my eyes closed so I didn't see him, but he left me a note saying he was interested in working with me on his Ambient series. I contacted him the next day and that's what led to Day Of Radiance. I thought it was so synchronistic that he turned up a month later at the very same place where that couple approached me and first mentioned Fripp and Eno!"
Laraaji went on to work with Roger Eno, Kate St. John and Bill Nelson as members of Channel Light Vessel in the 1990s. Dubbed an 'ambient supergroup', the existence of the group was an indication of the genre's commercial appeal.
The list of artists who might be said to embody or incorporate an ambient ethic is both long and far-reaching: Pink Floyd, Aphex Twin, The Blue Nile, Sigur Ros, Bonobo, Mogwai, Robert Fripp, Talk Talk... From prog to post-punk to post-rock and just about everything in between, all might be said to employ ambient music's ethos either explicitly or indirectly.
However, with ambient music becoming so popular and being used as a mainstream marketing device, some of the sensibilities and ethics that once informed it have been forgotten. The rough edges that existed in some of the genre's early pioneering work have been rounded and smoothed off, becoming indistinguishable from muzak. New Age music (caustically described by Brian Eno as "spineless"), given its association with crystals and mysticism, could be blamed for further reducing the integrity of the original ambient ethos and turning it into a kind of panpipe panacea.
However, with recording technology increasingly cheap and portable, by the turn of the twenty-first century it seemed as if anyone capable of pressing a synthesizer preset aspired to classifying themselves as an 'ambient musician'. In a relatively short period, ambient music had travelled from being a quirky and often experimental curiosity to a genre capable of producing so many albums a year that only extensive landfill sites could accomodate the surplus.
Has ambient music been devalued as a result of such popularity?
"Have you ever listened to Mozart's contemporaries?" asks Roger Eno. "You'll notice that they all sound pretty similar to Mozart. Once a form has been established, it's extremely easy to copy. I'm not putting me or my brother on a pedestal but because ostensibly it appears so easy to duplicate, everybody thinks they can do it. For me it's really a question of philosophy. I do this because it's an extension of my way of looking at and thinking about the world."
A joke you'll hear in some quarters is that ambient music is a bit like pornography: it's something that's generally a solitary pastime, and there's so much of it that there's very little justification for making any more. Yet outfits such as UK-based Darkroom appear to buck that trend. Formed in 1996, their albums, including 2008's Some Of These Numbers Mean Something and 2013's Gravity's Dirty Work deploy prog rock guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, frequently to widescreen epic effect.
Guitarist Mike Bearpark, who also moonlights with the live version of the Steve Wilson and Tim Bowness project No-Man, feels it's not what you've got but the way that you use it that makes something ambient.
"In some parts of our albums there are big landscapes with quite complex arrangements going on in the background," he explains. "But if you wanted to listen to it at 3AM as you go to sleep, I don't think it'll get in the way of that. One of the things that defines ambient music for me is that you've got choices with what you do with it. I guess that was partly because of the way we were treating some of the sound sources."
Although Bearpark accepts the criticism that ambient music can be somewhat homogenous, if there's a rulebook he's yet to find it: "Perhaps it's like the British Constitution - it's defined by usage rather than having anything written down."
Roger Eno argues that what's missing from a lot of wannabe ambient music these days is dissonance: "If you think of it in gastronomic terms, you see dissonance as vinegar or a very piquant spice. For most people copying ambient music, that's one of the first things they'd proscribe. They abandon any sense of difficulty or strife, whereas people that deal with it as their currency realise that element is very powerful. I use dissonance as a flavour, though not necessarily as the main bill of fare."
In collaboration with Brian Eno, Peter Chilvers has created the generative music apps Bloom and Scape. Eno's move into this area was, he said, about showing users of the Scape app that you don't have to do that much to create a good piece of music.
Scape is, essentially, a DIY Brian Eno album that you can interact with, altering or even creating your own tracks. "The way I saw Scape was a bit like training up a group of musicians," explains Peter Chilvers, "giving them a set of instructions and handing that over to the audience, saying, 'We've got this team of trained-up musicians, so now you do what you like with them.' It's geared in such a way that no matter what selection you put in the room, they're going to make interesting music together."
Perhaps there's another reason for the irresistible rise of ambient music. In addressing existential questions, has it become the go-to spiritual music for an increasingly secular generation?
"Everything has got so much more manic, the sheer amount of television, the constant saturation of music," says Chilvers. "It's very rare that you get moments of peace these days. Ambient music tends to answer that call. There's a phrase that Brian Eno uses which has always stuck with me from Discreet Music, which is that ambient music should be as ignorable as it is interesting. That's why it works so well. It can be part of the background but not an inane part of the background. Brian did an installation in a converted church in Brighton: having his [2006 DVD/software combination] 77 Million Paintings at one end did capture what's so nice about being in a church. I'm an atheist but I like to sit in churches and enjoy the peace, particularly the effect of light through a stained-glass window, which is what you get out of 77 Million Paintings, so spiritual music for a secular generation fits very well."
In the hands of amateurs, then, ambient music often defaults to the base, the bland and the obvious. But at its very best, it stands up to repeated scrutiny, instilling a sense of calm and, importantly, of wonder.
Ambient music should be, to borrow a line from American poet E E Cummings, "as small as a world and as large as alone."
NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL AMBIENT
IAN BODDY & MARKUS REUTER: Distant Rituals - Dating from 1999, their first collaboration contains a gentle unfurling of harmonic ideas and exploration of space, with shades of melody shimmering in a heat haze. reuter uses shards of sustained notes to etch away at the backdrop of Boddy's granular sounds. Chilling but totally thrilling.
HAROLD BUDD: Wind In Lonely Fences - A chilly, melancholic air pervades much of the American pianist's work on this two-disc retrospective. revealing a debt to terry Riley's early solo work, it also covers collaborations with Brian Eno, John Foxx, Andy Partridge, the Cocteau Twins and others.
CAN: Future Days - The side-long Bel Air seems to hover on the edge of some cathartic resolution that never quite materialises. Sprayed with Irmin Schmidt's atmospheric keyboards, mirage-like guitars and muted rhythms, Damo Suzuki's muttered vocals suggest eavesdropping on a distant conversation.
PINK FLOYD: Ummagumma - Floyd's early experimentation often put them ahead of the curve. Proto-ambient atmospherics can be heard in Careful With That Axe, Eugene via David Gilmour's glissando guitar and Rick Wright's reedy organ blown by a stellar wind.
FRIPP & ENO: No Pussyfooting - Recorded while moonlighting from their day jobs in King Crimson and Roxy Music, and unconsciously borrowing from Terry Riley's tape-loop experiments, this 1973 album became massively influential whether speeded-up, slowed down or even played backwards (as it famously was by John Peel).
TERRY RILEY: A Rainbow In Curved Air - It's impossible to overstate the influence this 1969 album has had upon pop and rock culture. The vocabulary of much contemporary ambient music was forged in this haunting electro-acoustic landscape. The title track and Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band are both one side long and essential listening.
KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN: Stimmung - Written in 1968 for several voices and lasting over an hour, the blend of sung polyphonic tones interspersed with repeated, rhythmic, sacred words produces a hypnotic, undulating reverie. About as easy-on-the-ear as the famously acerbic German avant-garde legend gets.
STEVE HILLAGE: Rainbow Dome Music - Created for 1970's Mind, body And Spirit festival and originally designed, as the title implies, to ne heard within an immersive environment, the ex-Gong guitarist uses bubbling synths, plangent electric piano and a sprinkling of fretboard magic to soothing effect.
CHARLES IVES: The Unanswered Question - Composed in 1908, the slow, shifting strings create a luminous, smoke-like backdrop against which melodic fragments, sometimes terse and dissonant, drift past. Central Park In The Dark, from 1906, is also a remarkable evocation of the tensions between built and natural environments.
ARVO PÄRT: Alina - Travelling well beyond the classical music circuit thanks to its inclusion in countless movie and documentary soundtracks, this Estonian composer's 1976 title piece for solo piano and his later, restive Spiegel Im Spiegel have become hard-wired into Western popular culture.