Ambient music, or sometimes called ambient electronic, is a genre of music that focuses on the tone and texture of sounds and the atmosphere they can create. This is in opposition to more traditional musical structure, which emphasizes melody and rhythm. Though, this description pales in comparison to the actual music and really fails to capture what it is. What is ambient? Well, it’s hard to describe. One critic said, “I don’t know how to define it, but I know when I hear it.” It has also been described as “more of a state of mind than a genre of music.” All of this just means that modern ambient is a wonderfully varied field, with artists and bands producing a large range of music.
Ambient isn’t that popular and might not be for everybody, but even if you don’t want to listen to ambient for hours while letting your mind wander across the sonic landscapes, it is still great music to have on in the background when one is studying or working and really needs to focus. In this article I will be grouping musicians and bands by their country of origin because, while there is a lot of overlap, I feel each country has it’s own ambient niche it excels in. To get a better feel for what ambient is we’ll start with a bit of the history behind it, which means we start our journey in a white, sterile hospital room in England.
The Ambient of the Isles: The Music of England, Scotland, and Ireland
Early in 1975, composer, musician, and producer Brian Eno was in a car accident. The accident left him rather severely injured and required him to spend a long time recuperating in the hospital. Though Eno had attended art school he eventually became a musician, and was establishing himself in the field as forward thinking and unafraid to experiment. Eno, being the music lover he was, had a record player in his hospital room and several records a friend had brought in because he thought they might prove to be relaxing. In this player and small pile of records sat the kindling for a new genre of music, one that did things a bit different than most other styles, one that would remain largely elusive while having a fairly broad impact on more popular styles. The catalyst for this futuristic music was, paradoxically, quite old.
One rainy day Eno struggled up from his bed, battling against a battered body largely encased in casts, to limp over to the pile of records and put one on. He had picked a collection of 18th and 19th century harp music, turned it on, and struggled back to his bed to lie down and relax. Only once was he back in bed, on the other side of the room, did he realize the music was turned down to an almost inaudible volume. He didn’t have the strength to trek back over to turn it up and so he continued to lie in bed and listen, and that’s when he was struck by “a new way of hearing music-as part of the ambience of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of rain were parts of that ambience.” Thus the seed for ambient was planted, and Eno would go on to become the father of the modern genre.
After leaving the hospital Eno would begin working on an album in which he experimented with some of these ideas combined with previous ideas of his. Eno had been desirous to create an album that continued to explore the use of computers and synthesizers in music creation. He was interested in crafting songs that were digital, mathematical, algorithmic, and generative. Songs in which the creator had minimal input or planning, in which they program a computer to generate the sounds, thus the music skirt along the line of randomness and art. Eno combined these ideas with his notion of music as ambience to create Discreet Music. This album is generally considered a semi-ambient album, but it is the first and is worth a listen to.
Following this, in 1978, Brian Eno was rushing through the Cologne Airport trying to make a connecting flight. He was harried and stressed, both by traveling and by the harsh sounds of the airport. Announcements blaring, a cacophony of voices all around, conveyor belts, carts driving about, planes taking off and landing. It was a modern, mechanized environment that grated on his nerves and frayed his senses. He remembered the quiet, calming harp music in the hospital years before and was struck by an idea. What if ambient could be crafted to calm and soothe, created, not generated, to be a new style of music that focus on creating atmospheres?
He set to work in his studio, and the brilliant and beautiful Ambient 1: Music for Airports was created. This is the first album to use the word “ambient” and is considered the official birth of the genre. It is still hailed as one of the greatest examples of the style to this day. It is a calm, minimalistic composition in which pianos, wordless vocals, and synthesizers create calming and haunting sounds that will resonate with a listener long after the last note has faded. It was on the back of this LP that Eno laid out how he saw ambient music and explained that it should allow for many different levels of listening, that it should be “as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Now, to save on time I will be less wordy going forth. Listing a few more albums from Brian Eno before moving on to the rest of the British Isles ambient contingent. For the remainder of the article I will try to limit myself to one or two must listen albums for each musician.
Eno continued experimenting with ambient into the 80s. He created Ambient 2: The Plateuax of Mirror in 1980 in collaboration with pianist Harold Budd. If you find yourself falling in love with ambient then this is certainly worth listening to someday. However, if you are just exploring the genre and giving things a precursory listen, then I would say I, and many others, consider this somewhat weaker link in Eno’s Ambient series.
Ambient 2 was quickly followed by Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, which was also released in 1980. This album, it must be said, was only produced by Brian Eno, but was composed and created by American musician Laraaji. It is unique in that it largely uses acoustic instruments and has very minimal electronically generated sounds. Again, if one is short on time or interest this album isn’t a must hear for the casual ambient listener, but it is unique and isn’t bad.
If Ambient 2 & 3 didn’t quite live up to Ambient 1, Eno made up for everything with the masterpiece that is Ambient 4: On Land. Though he has released many ambient albums since Ambient 4’s release in 1982, this is considered by him to be the culmination of his original ambient series. Ambient 4 is, almost unquestionably, one of the greatest ambient albums ever. It introduced a new style of ambient, known as dark ambient, which is supposed to invoke feelings and images of fear, unease, and discomfort while still having a hauntingly cathartic and soothing effect reminiscent of classic ambient. If dark ambient is a cathartic experience, then Ambient 4 excels at it. In this album, Eno wanted to capture the feeling of nighttime in his childhood home of southern England. By using synthesizers, acoustic instruments, recordings of nature and animals, along with many other sounds, the music easily conjures images of foggy moors, thick forests, and old bogs and what may lurk in them under the cover of darkness. I find this album hard to consider ignorable, as it almost demands to be heard and focused on. Throughout this (article/series) it may become apparent that I really enjoy dark ambient, because of that this is one of my favorite albums. If you were only going to listen to one album from this article in full, this is one of the strongest contenders for that honor.
That is probably quite enough about Brian Eno. Though it is worth mentioning that he has been massively influential outside of ambient music as well. Introducing many concepts, ideas, and techniques that are still in heavy use today.
Our next guy, Richard D. James is much the same. Who is Richard James? Well, he’s a musician from Limerick who releases music under the moniker of Aphex Twin and has heavily shaped modern electronic music. James has had his hand in almost every electronic genre: Electronic Dance Music (EDM), Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), glitch, house, techno, and ambient to name a few. This broad experience in multiple styles led him to infuse ambient with influences from these other genres. Notice that Eno never used drums or any other type of heavy defined beats in his ambient, but James did. He introduced synths, beats, and sounds from the EDM and IDM scene and thus elevated ambient to new levels. A great example of this can be seen is his first full-length album, 1992’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92. Though many consider his Selected Ambient Works Vol. II to be one of the best ambient albums ever created, so I’ll also add it to the list.
Rounding out our tour and brief overview of the Isles is a duo from Scotland called Boards of Canada. BoC is composed of brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eion, and they produce ambient that has a naturalistic, organic sound. This derives from their heavy use of analogue synths and other tools of the 70s. They combine these analogue sounds with digitally generated, traditional instrumentation, and recorded sounds and lyrics to produce an ambient style that is uniquely their own. Their name derives from nature documentaries they used to watch as children, which were produced by the National Film Board of Canada. They say they often want their music to capture those lost feelings of childhood and wonderment with which they viewed nature. Their first album is a great place to start, 1998s Music Has the Right to Children.
Before we hop across the channel to continental Europe I should mention that the history presented above is somewhat shortened and romanticized. Eno is frequently recognized as coining the term ‘ambient music’ and is often recognized as the father of the genre in its modern form. But he was not the first to explore these ideas. Fellow Brit Mike Oldfield was hitting around the edges of it, as was the Greek composer Vangelis. German artists, and friends of Eno, Conrad Schnitzler and Hans-Joachim Roedelius had also explored the idea in some ways. These men were all predated by the late 19th and early 20th century French avant-garde composer Erik Satie, whose musique d’ameublement (furniture music) explored many of these ideas and concepts. But Eno went beyond all of those before him and gave the style a name, defining parameters, and introduced it to the wider world.