Earlier this year the ambient musician Lawrence English wrote an article on FACT that commemorated the 40th birthday of ambient music. This joyous occasion and its specific date traces its beginnings back to the release of Brian Eno’s seminal album “Ambient 1: Music for Airports,” which for English marks the day when ambient music truly began. But it wasn’t only the music that informed ambient’s genesis in the music world. It was also defined through that album by a manifesto written by Eno, one that explained what ambient music was, and what role it could play for music listeners.
For someone as invested in ambient music as me, it’s hard to imagine a world without a plethora of ambient music. Even as a clueless child I was exposed to spa chill-out music and ambient 80s movie soundtracks that touched on the genre, even if they were a far cry from the pure ideas of it. When I became a true disciple of the genre I understood the ambient as being a culmination of something I’d always valued, but had remained undefined in my life–the sound of a place, of a feeling, of a continuity that ebbed and flowed somewhere in my subconscious.
Now, concerning English’s manifesto, I’ve become a little more thoughtful about this beloved genre of mine. What is ambient? Since it is such a discrete and vaporous music, how can it have solid genre boundaries? To be quite honest, I’d never thought it over too much. Ambient was just ambient – I knew it when I heard it. For English, though, ambient should be kept as pure as possible, especially given the list of ambient “notes” that he lists at the end of his article.
These are essentially a rundown of the guidelines that he believes ambient should live by. As a whole, these 12 “notes” are thoughtful and insightful views into the sort of thinking that inspires and informs the ambient music scene. Why do we love ambient music? It can be hard to sum up. These rules go far in explaining that. Here’s one:
“Ambient is never only music. It is a confluence of sound, situation and listenership; moreover it’s an unspoken contract between the creator, listener and place, seeking to achieve a specific type of musical experience.”
This all strikes true to me. Ambient sound is all about subjecting itself to the listener, almost as blank slate of sound that can then be created upon. Depending on your listening experience, it can either add a layer to your surroundings or just become part of it. The crucial factor is that it doesn’t employ powerful mixtures of melody and chord structures to elicit emotions and sway the listener in toward any emotion or overarching theme or story.
Throughout his FACT editorial, English acts essentially as both librarian and historian of ambient music, showing how the early years of Eno’s recordings led way to ambient’s conflation with new age and other chill-out genres in the 80s and 90s. Looking toward the future, though, English’s aim is to define the ambient genre in its purest form, so it can serve its noble purpose for us. To this end he quotes Felicia Atkinson: “Ambient Music is derived from impressionism, it emphasizes the singularity of perception, and it seeks to create an imaginative environment.”
Although I would disagree somewhat with that statement (I believe that ambient invites the possibility of an imaginative environment, it also allows for a more meditative, mindless state that avoids imagination), English has a good point when he talks about the music being a conversation between lived experience and composed sound that exists on a much more equal plane than with other musical genres, which mostly want to bend reality toward themselves.
“Ambient is transcendent but does not seek some higher plane. It is not new age music. Rather ambient music’s transcendence is within, and invites us deeper into the lived experience of the everyday.”
In the wake of his FACT manifesto, English also released a collaborative ambient album along with William Basinski, the famed experimental composer. The name, “Selva Oscura,” is a reference to the dark forest in which Dante find himself in at the beginning of The Inferno. Mirroring the disorientation that Dante experiences in the wood, the album seems to find meaning in the forest’s interpretation as a chaotic experience of the world, a sort of formless world of unnamed and unclassified matter that exists before a clear path is found.
As an ambient musician himself, English is understandably very invested in the rhetoric that he employs in his ambient manifesto. The music that he creates is very much in line with his words, especially when it comes to his specific views about the purity of the ambient genre. He believes that in the 80s and 90s ambient became tainted by a flood of genre-mixing styles that birthed such things as compositional ambient and trance music. Not bad music, as he puts it, but outside of ambient’s intentions.
In direct opposition to that, his and Basinski’s album is a great example of pure ambient. It pulses and courses as they intended, rejecting melody and chords for a more vaporous compositional structure. Making any connections with Dante’s work would be to give it a direct message that it doesn’t have. Instead, it invites you into the mental and environmental discussion and exploration that ambient, at its core, is. Then, you are free to paint upon its canvas to your heart’s content.