2/40 Ambient music

I saw this posting via Reddit on a forum today, and I thought I would like to write about it:


Regardless of the authenticity of the forum (it’s been suggested it is a fake), it does raise some worthwhile questions.

I’d like to start with a note about ambient music. I believe there is a misconception in the public as to what ambient music actually is. These days, nearly anything “soft and light” is ambient. Even many musical artists use this word for styles of music that are not actually ambient. I personally subscribe to Brian Eno’s early treatise on ambient music as found in Ambient 1: Music for Airports and his subsequent musings on the topic in interviews and writings. I think the best analogy for this is to think of it in terms of light e.g. “ambient light”. You don’t notice that you are noticing it, but give it some attention and suddenly the world becomes a very different place.

Now, in reading some of the commentary on Reddit about the forum post, I was interested to see that quite a few people focused on the rejection of the notion that ambient music is an extension of Schoenberg’s atonal work. The first mistake here is to refer to Schoenberg’s music as atonal – while that is academically correct, it is not technically correct: it is, in fact, “anti-tonal”. That is, it was produced as a reaction to tonality, as a “ying” to the “yang” of classical harmonic concepts. Being a binary reaction to classicism (not only musically, but culturally), it is not able to exist without it’s counterpart. Like much contemporary art, it is a rejection of previous constructs. And, like all art (if you discount the notion of so-called “objective art” a la Gurdjieff), it cannot be understood outside of the context of it’s historical setting.

Can it be argued that ambient music is any different? Perhaps not. Ambient music certainly owes it’s roots to early 20th century rejections of classicism. However, with many examples of ambient music, it is at least more correct to call it “atonal”. Eno characterizes ambient music as being “on the cusp between melody and texture”. Right from the start, it turns traditional notions of importance upside down. Suddenly the accompaniment has become more important than the soloist, the negative space more important than the positive. Much of Eno’s work also includes ideas of “musique concrete”, i.e. “found sounds”, which are most accurately atonal. These found sounds are devoid of tonality in the conventional sense. The interesting thing here is that these sounds create quite a new re-contextualization of the harmonic “musical” material. This extra dimension of a newly acceptable palette of sounds expands the concept of tonality into a previously rarely explored realm. Try it: play a few notes on your instrument, then try it again with a recording of birds or heavy industry – they are all 3 very different experiences.

Now, to address the point made in the Catholic forum regarding 20th century music’s motive of undermining hope and faith. From the point of view of “psychostatic” thinking, yes, this is true. However, from the point of a psychokinetic creative individual, this undermining is absolutely critical, evolutionarily inevitable, and ecologically more deeply participatory than has been possible for 500+ years.

It has been said that every generation gets the art it deserves. This seems to me to be true today, where the majority of contemporary music, ambient and electronic included, is made as entertainment, and, unintentionally or not, crafted to maintain a status quo.

Within the genre of electronic music, ambient holds a special place as a tool for … well … undermining hope and faith. Why? Because in musical terms it comes closest to presenting what might be thought of as a blank canvas, or perhaps something closer to a canvas with only a background. This allows a listener to enter into nearly a co-creative relationship with the music. A listener is able to project his or her psycho-emotional state onto this canvas and virtually embed themselves within it. The listener’s self is re-contextualized not as a yang-like determined reflection of the music, but by a yin-like immersion within it. This is antithetical to the classical notion of instructing the listener on what to see or hear. Perhaps another way to say it is that where the classical tradition engages the conscious mind, ambient music seeks to engage and involve the unconscious – not the 19th century mythic unconscious of Wagner, but something more akin to a pan-cultural humanist unconscious of deep ecology described by a Ken Wilber or a Terrence Mckenna.

By accident of the time into which ambient music was born, it provides a very significant psychological function: to allow a listener to enter into a highly intuitive inward state that is devoid of the religious and cultural trappings of classical music, which is, again by historical accident, a product and servant of its age. Not to say that some classical music does not transcend those bonds – but it does so using the cultural and philosophical tools of its era. It’s important to see these things in terms of a continuum, and not final statements.

I think it bears saying that ambient music is not the only genre where this is possible – I’m thinking of something like Japanese gagaku music which accomplishes a very similar function: music as furniture. But in terms of a contemporary “popular” music, ambient is one of the very few genres where this is even approachable as a possibility. I’m suddenly made to think the entire concept of genre needs to be abandoned, but I’ll leave that for another blog post.

As a final note, I want to emphasize that while it is interesting and entertaining to talk about or read about these debates, it is the greatest of traps. At the end of the day, and hopefully at the beginning and middle of it too, the important thing is to listen. Hence, the tagline of my musical work: “Music for the Inner Listener”.

Best wishes,

Tim Gerwing

March 15th, 2012

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