For many years ambient music existed on the fringes of contemporary music, an underground concern often maligned as background muzak. In this article I explore the origins and ideology of ambient music and its recent resurgence at the hands of new and established artists.

There are some conflicting ideas about who invented ambient music and why but its origins are traceable back to the Futurism and Dada art movements of the early 20th century. Though widely known for creating new ways of painting and sculpting and pushing the boundaries of what could be classified as art, artists of these movements also experimented in music, sometimes incorporating non musical elements into compositions. Erik Satie is the most important of these composers. As a creator of what he named ‘furniture music’, described as being suitable for generating a perfect background atmosphere that would not distract the diners at a dinner party, Satie links Dada and Futurism with the beginnings of contemporary ambient music. Satie’s ideas influenced Brian Eno who having studied at art school gained an understanding of art, artists, like the Futurists and Dadaists, and music and later coined the term ‘ambient music’ in the mid 1970s.

The ambient music standard-setter is Eno’s universally critically acclaimed ‘Ambient #1: Music for Airports’ from 1978. Eno believed ambient music could be “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener” and referred to “Ambient #4: On Land” (1982) as “environmental”. Both statements seem appropriate though there is a strong case for a strain of ambient music that doesn’t solely sit in the background with a recent development of artists such as Biosphere who put greater emphasis on the music’s emotional content. From the commencement of ambient music’s Eno era the divide between environmental and emotional ambient pieces has existed: Cluster’s ‘71’ and ‘II’ from 1971 and ’72 mixed synth washes and melodies with recordings of domestic appliances, kitchen utensils and industrial machinery and, conversely, the arpeggios and melodies of Tangerine Dream’s ‘Phaedra’ instil a dreamlike state of emotion and reflection.

Ambient releases were initially infrequent but when rave music was forced indoors due to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 a separate ‘chill-out’ room in clubs was created to allow attendees to come down while cushioned by ambient music and though there is now a distinct difference between what is called chill-out and ambient music the performers in these rooms became the ambient music leaders. This included The Orb with 1991’s ‘Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld and ‘U.F.Orb’ from 1992, The Irresistible Force’s ‘It’s Tomorrow Already’ (1998) and ‘Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92’ by rave pioneer Aphex Twin. Via these albums clubs, major record labels and corporations were shown the commercial potential of ambient music and the genre became overrun with sub standard cookie cutter releases and advert soundtracks, eventually leading ‘chill-out’ and its cash-in compilations to flood the late 90s-early 00s market. Commercial (over)exposure pushed many ambient artists underground and record labels like Touch specialised in finding the best new artists and revitalised the genre with releases from Biosphere, Chris Watson, Phillip Jeck and B.J. Nilsen and though these artists received acclaim the genre remained deep underground, until recently.

We are now experiencing a resurgence in ambient music, evident in recent releases from The Black Dog, Oneohtrix Point Never, Sunn O))), Sun Araw, Emeralds, and there are similarities to 80s new age music, and chillwave artists such as Washed Out. The Black Dog’s ‘Real Music for Airports’ challenges Eno’s original utopian vision and is in many ways more effective in realising and expressing the sounds and feeling of airports. Like The Black Dog, Sunn O))) create a heavier atmosphere and though these acts are not often categorised as creating ambient music they represent ‘dark ambient’, a rarely covered subgenre that is as engrossing as it is intimidating. ‘Monoliths and Dimensions’, the latest release from Sunn O))) evokes the sound of the earth’s crust splitting and reference Miles Davis on ‘Aghartha’, the brass and woodwind are utilised in an unconventional form to create texture and atmosphere. ‘Big Church’ employs droning guitars and bass with a colossal-sounding choir to create the feel that you are in fact in a cathedral but this is a simplification of what the group musically achieve, which is difficult to describe accurately. Sunn O))) are not for everyone but well worth listening to. ‘Returnal’ by Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN) and ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here’ by Emeralds share a similar affection for the sounds of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis but both artists stamp their own mark on these familiar instrumentations. OPN’s skill is being able to evoke places, emotions and memory. Glistening waves of synths effortlessly flow though the tracks due to his seamless manipulation of recordings and computer editing. ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here’ is a milestone for Emeralds as they have adapted a stronger song based approach and allowed guitarist Mark McGuire’s riffs and melodies more space in the mix. Here the songs flow easier than on the previous album ‘What Happened?’ and there is a greater sense of direction. Sun Araw’s albums all inhabit their own worlds and space: ‘Beach Head’ is like a super slow motion version of the Hawaiian scene depicted on the cover, ‘Heavy Deeds’ is urbane in vibe, revealed by the title, is indeed heavy as his wah-wah symphonies stretch out to infinity and latest album ‘On Patrol’ takes his techniques deeper and further out than ever before.

When writing and researching this piece I have discovered much about ambient music and its preconceptions. I’ve been guilty of paying too much heed to them and until last year I had not bothered to look beyond them. However, I’ve come to realise that ambient music is currently and historically rich and diverse despite lesser artists diluting its form and corporate misappropriation. The present selection of artists is further evidence of ambient music’s wealth and they promise an interesting, bold future.

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