Ambient Music – Defined

Ambient Music – Defined – Short

Ambient music, to paraphrase one of its founding fathers, Brian Eno, is a music that can be listened to, as easily as it can be ignored, a sort of sonic wallpaper.

The seed of an ambient music was planted in 1975 when two things happened to Brian Eno. First, he was struck by a car one night after leaving a studio session, and subsequently spent much of the year immobilized. Second, while laying in bed recuperating from his injuries, he received a recording of 17th Century harp music from a friend. Finally, having gotten the strength to move across the room and put the record on, he realized that he didn’t turn the volume up all the way. Unable to make the move again, he surrendered to the low-volume listen.

It was from these experiences that Brian Eno got the idea to record Music for Airports in 1978. Eno composed pieces that would play on a physical space. Airports, for Eno, symbolized the modern point of departure, the places where reunions occurred, separations began, and people move back and forth. Airports are also represented places of duty-free commerce, blaring announcements, boredom and tension. Eno took all of this into consideration when he composed these pieces. (Buck, Joseph. – http://www.musthear.com/reviews/musicforairports.html).

With Music for Airports, ambient music was born.

 

Ambient Music – Defined – Long

Ambient music, to paraphrase one of its founding fathers, Brian Eno, is a music that can be listened to, as easily as it can be ignored, a sort of sonic wallpaper.

The term ambient has been used to describe a variety of things, particularly as it pertains to environment, or more pointedly, space, whether that be a state-of-mind, i.e. metaphysical space, or your living room, and that of physical space. Ambient music is a music that’s used to complement or alter one’s space, not unlike most music, with one exception. It falls very easily into the background, and this is truly a place where it’s at it’s best.

Background, or ambient music has a long history. A history that Joseph Lanza in his excellent book Elevator Music traced back to the time of the ancient Greeks; but we generally recognize it’s birth sometime around the 17th century when Georg Philipp Telemann created his Tafelmusik, particularly his Musique de Table, or “Table Music,” which was intended solely for background music.

Admitting to being to no great lover of virtuoso concertos, Telemann ignored rigid schemes and favored an uncomplicated melodic line that could turn stuffy court music into “light music” (Lanza 1994, p. 55).

Johann Sebastian Bach also had his own form of utility music, around the same time, which he called the Goldberg Variations:

His famous “Goldberg Variations” were commissioned by Count Kaiserling, a former Russian ambassador residing in Dresden. The count sent his protégé, Johann Theophilus Goldberg to Bach to learn some clavier pieces with enough of “a soft and lively character” and a “constant sameness of the fundamental harmony” to cure his insomnia. A probably fatigued Goldberg played his mixture of canon, fugue, and etude in an adjoining room while the count counted sheep. (Lanza 1994, p. 55)

Bach composed many other pieces, though, that had a use beyond music for music’s sake, particularly his works for a lifetime of church services. These influences are often overlooked though, and most people generally credit Erik Satie’s Furniture Music with being the first sort of ambient background music. Erik Satie offered a musical complement to urban life with pieces that retained melody yet were emotionally neutral (Lanza 1994, p. 56).

He took his place in ambient music’s history, though, with a 1920 manifesto advocating musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”).

There are several stories about how Satie coined “Furniture Music” as a term and concept. According to one, Satie had overheard Henri Matisse express a desire for some kind of art form without any nagging subject matter – something he likened to an easy chair. Another more conclusive version has Satie at a luncheon with the painter Fernand Leger. The restaurant’s resident orchestra was so loud that the diners had to leave. According to Leger, Satie reacted to the situation with an impassioned discourse:
You know, there’s a need to create furniture music, that is to say, music that would be 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 and the awkward silences that occasionally descend on guests. It would spare them the usual banalities. Moreover, it would neutralize the street noises that indiscreetly force themselves into the picture (Gilmore 1988, p. 32).

Musique d’ameublement had its public debut on March 8, 1920, performed during intermissions of a play written by his friend Max Jacob. Rollo H. Myers, Satie’s biographer, claims:

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 strictly to be nothing more than background and was not intended to attract attention in any way (Myers 1948, p. 60).

Later, John Cage came along with an expert knowledge of the musical avant-garde, a vast wealth of conceptual ideas, and an extremely loose definitions of music. All of these things combined developed a platform for an ambient life music to exist and grow.

It was probably John Cage who most influenced the concept of an ambient music with his Fluxus period performances, and earlier with 4’33” which debuted on August 29, 1952 at the Woodstock Artists Association in Woodstock, New York, performed by David Tudor on piano. Much has been written about 4’33” and about Cage’s ideas behind it’s silence. Two of these ideas, which are important to the birth, and formation of a ambient music are:

1. Silence does not exist. One simply should listen and open one’s ears.
2. Silence is a means to separate tones and chords, in order to avoid melodic interpretations to chronology of sounds.

The generation that followed yielded the gifted musical thinker Brian Eno, who took all of the ideas of Erik Satie, and John Cage and rolled them into his own conceptual work, which he called ambient music. His starting point for this exploration into an ambient music began in the mid-1970s, but he didn’t start to develop the term ambient until his 1978 recording, Ambient 1, Music for Airports.

The seed of an ambient music was planted in 1975 when two things happened to Brian Eno. First, he was struck by a car one night after leaving a studio session, and subsequently spent much of the year immobilized. Second, while laying in bed recuperating from his injuries, he received a recording of 17th Century harp music from a friend. Finally, having gotten the strength to move across the room and put the record on, he realized that he didn’t turn the volume up all the way. Unable to make the move again, he surrendered to the low-volume listen.

It was from these experiences that Brian Eno got the idea to record Music for Airports in 1978. Eno composed pieces that would play on a physical space. Airports, for Eno, symbolized the modern point of departure, the places where reunions occurred, separations began, and people move back and forth. Airports are also represented places of duty-free commerce, blaring announcements, boredom and tension. Eno took all of this into consideration when he composed these pieces. (Buck, Joseph. – http://www.musthear.com/reviews/musicforairports.html).

With Music for Airports, ambient music was born.

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