When I first started getting into ambient music I didn’t know many American artists and mistakenly assumed that maybe we just didn’t participate in it that much. After more digging I discovered how wrong I was. America is a hotbed of modern and classic ambient talent. I’m going to discuss some of my favorite artists and the range of styles they cross. We’ll hear some sounds previously discussed done in slightly different ways along with some more unique styles. By the end of this section you’ll realize how foolish I was, the American ambient scene is as good as any other, and may be one of the best.
We’ll start with more of the slow, expansive sounds of space ambient. Though when Jonn Serrie started composing songs in this style it was called “space music” as ambient was still in its infancy. Serrie, a highly trained pilot with a fascination for flight, had toyed with the ideas of trying to capture space in a musical form. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster he was galvanized and released And the Stars Go With You a year later in memory of the astronauts. He continued making this type of music and eventually began adding electronic elements into it as well. He has even made music for NASA before. Serrie hasn’t confined himself to the sounds of space though; he has continued to innovate and has created ambient music inspired from a variety of unique sources including an ancient Tibetan village at the foot of Everest and an album based on the music of Native Americans that weaves their instruments and chanting into the electronic mix. Serrie’s first album is sometimes a bit dated by modern standards, but And the Stars Go With You can be considered the birth of space ambient, still has an ethereal quality, and is worth a listen.
Many Americans active in the genre have, perhaps unsurprisingly, gotten their start or made their breakthrough in that weirdest of cities: Austin, Texas. A city that has a vibrant arts culture, an amazing music scene, and prides itself on being different would logically serve as a hotbed for experimental music, and it certainly has done so for ambient. One of the most prominent acts to emerge from the city is the duo of Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, known as Stars of the Lid. Stars definitely produced a sound that’s closest to classic ambient: slow, droning, lacking drums and loud beats, and possessing an airy beauty. What makes their sound unique, and one of my favorites, is that it is largely made with the use of guitars, pianos, and classical strings that have been electronically modified. This gives them a calm and soothing sound that has been called divine ambient. This sound can be heard on the groups 2007 release, And Refinement of the Decline.
American music is famous for, amongst lots of other things, it’s pop. The next musician, Tycho, brings a bit of a pop feel to his ambient compositions. This isn’t a bad thing or an insult, Tycho’s music uses a lot of sounds and soft beats generated both electronically and acoustically to create a fun, easy listening, and very relaxing ambient. Don’t let this fool you though, Tycho can still compose some amazing ambient that has great organic tones, and frequently weaves recordings of random things to give it a ‘human element.’ Tycho is the stage name for Sacramento born and San Francisco based Scott Hansen. His music was my first exposure to American ambient, and has a special place in my heart. Hansen also focuses on touring and doing a lot of live performances. He combines physical instrumentation with synthesizers to blend the fluidity of live performances with the computational precisions of electronic music in his goal to find the perfect balance between the two. If he is touring near you definitely check him out, tickets run cheap and are well worth it. In the meantime relax to the beats and sounds of his first album, Dive.
For American ambient I was definitely saving best for last, or at least my favorite for last. Matthew Cooper, the man behind Eluvium, was born in Tennessee, grew up in Kentucky, and then moved to Portland to pursue his career in music. Eluvium’s music is somewhat in the category of dark ambient, but an amazingly deep, layered, and complex form of it. Eluvium’s music uses a huge range of instruments and sounds including the traditional synths and electronic sounds, along with strings, pianos, human voices, guitars, and the occasional soft percussion. He also uses even more unique instruments for his music across all of his albums including harpsichords, brass and woodwinds, white noise, choral music, and even church organs. Cooper’s brand of ambient is minimal and complex, haunting and beautiful, experimental and traditional. It is brilliant and beautiful. He’s one of my favorites and one of the best ever in the scene, give a listen to his double album Nightmare Ending and lose yourself in its masterful sonic soundscapes.