An ambient dilemma
Like all art, music relies on its context to be fully appreciated, whether it is the position of a track on an album or how a listener hears it. This is a challenge for musicians because it is all but impossible for them to control, on any grand scale, how an audience encounters or consumes their work. For many artists in the ambient genre, this is problematic. Ambient music is designed to blend into the acoustic environment1. It is often used in situations where the focus is not the music, but the absorbing, distracting or tedious activity it is meant to facilitate. There is a great number of ambient artists who do not intend their music to be experienced in this way, but in defining themselves as “ambient” (perhaps out of necessity or for want of a better alternative), they necessarily (though inadvertently) endorse a perception of their work in direct conflict with their artistic intentions.
When surveying playlists that include ambient music, descriptions like “Clear your head with these soothing soundscapes”2 are common—innocuous introductions to collections of typically soporific, repetitive and undemanding pieces conducive to a listener’s occupation. The definition of the genre by Brian Eno makes the inclusion of ambient music in such playlists perfectly logical. For Eno, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”3 Wikipedia states duly that ambient music is intended to relax through its atmospheric, visual and unobtrusive quality1. Whilst these definitions fit the early experiments of Eno, they are woefully inadequate when applied to the work of many among his artistic progeny whose music falls into the genre technically, but not essentially.
The artist’s intent
Classification matters because it is linked to definition. We cannot think meaningfully about what we cannot or do not define (in this instance, musicians about their music). In the realm of the experimental, this is challenging because the unorthodox nature of experimentation makes the categorisation of a musical work difficult. This leaves artists at a loss as to how to describe their work—“xperimental electronic / dark-ambient / dronez / soundscapez / weird low freq humming” (sic) is one such attempt by Krzyzis, an experimental musician from Canada4. Some delve no deeper than “ambient”5, others avoid doing so altogether6. They are blameless in my view. Artists like Krzyzis, Alaskan Tapes, Astoria Sound, Last Days, 36 and a multitude of others create experimental music7. “Calm”, “relaxing”, “peaceful”, “serene”, et cetera are often appropriate terms with which to describe their predominantly slow-moving work. However, their compositions do not take these forms for the purpose of background accompaniment; they employ these qualities for different reasons entirely.
What reasons are determined by the artist, but the underlying intent is the creation of music for active and sustained listening, for immersion and contemplation; the compositions are conceived to engage the mind in a subject and theme, not to make more pleasant or bearable some other task—be it working, socialising, studying or sleeping. Yet this is how the music is frequently used, added to playlists dedicated to these scenarios8 by curators who do not for a moment consider the artist’s objectives. (The classical genre suffers a similar fate when a Bruch adagio ends up in a Classical Chill playlist9.) This is, of course, inevitable—perhaps even excusable. Much of what the music of these artists expresses is suited to such use. But this is not their primary motivation in composing such music. In the words of Dennis Huddleston (36): “People see a lot of ambient music as something to help them sleep, but I’m trying my hardest to keep them awake!”10 Brian Eno may have intended to produce “sonic wallpaper”1 but these artists have a higher goal, namely art11.
Concept, context and clarity
Where does this leave artists who welcome an appreciation of their intent—especially those who have ventured into the unknown in search of the New, only to find their phenomenal efforts relegated to office backgrounds? (There is, of course, the view that artists need not concern themselves with categorisation, but I hold that some form of classification is necessary, 1.) to explain the nature of the work, 2.) to orient the audience and 3.) to help them interpret what they hear.) In a reality where musicians do not, cannot (and perhaps should not) control how their music is experienced, must they resign themselves to the unavoidable and be consoled that at the very least, the undiscerning playlist creator will introduce their music to people who would otherwise never have heard it (however unsatisfactorily)? Is this not, after all, an opportunity to grow a following?
Not considering the quality of such a following, the trade-off is that the music will not be appreciated as intended. When presented to a listener in this way, the compositions lose their context—and every artist understands that context is a vital component of a work because it preserves its conceptual substance. Concept and context are inextricably linked—a fact brilliantly demonstrated by Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII construction12. Unlike Andre’s neatly arranged firebricks, however, the best examples of experimental music have intrinsic value by virtue of the artistic labour they embody. This makes the music worthy of a listener’s full attention, something beyond the artist’s control. Though little can be done to guarantee a proper regard for art, especially in a form as ubiquitous as music, the least artists can do is themselves be explicit about their intent.
It is this I wish to do briefly here. I have previously described my work as “ambient idylls”, by which I meant to convey a Romantic perspective13. The word “idyll”14 was ideal because it embraced my theme (the admiration of Nature), my subject (scenes of rural beauty) and my means of expression (compositions in music and poetry). Having long wrestled with the “ambient” descriptor, I have at last decided to distance myself from the genre proper. I compose music to consciously engage the listener. If my work encourages contemplation, I intend this to be on the images and emotions I endeavour to evoke. Although some of my compositions have an “ambient” aesthetic15, I no longer consider my music Ambient; and so I adopt a new caption to summarise my vision, which is to create: Idylls in music and poetry.
All websites and playlists accessed 22 July 2018.
- “Ambient music”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
- Pure Ambient playlist, Apple Music
- Brian Eno, Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) liner notes
- @krzyzis Twitter profile description
- “Alaskan Tapes is an Ambient music project based in Toronto, Canada.” – Brady Kendall (Alaskan Tapes), Alaskan Tapes, official website
- “[L]iving ghosts.” – Astoria Sound, Bandcamp profile description
- “Experimental music”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
- Sleep Sounds playlist, Apple Music
- Classical Chill playlist, Apple Music
- Dennis Huddleston, Sounds of a Tired City interview, 2014
- Briefly, the sole purpose of art is to make an abstraction concrete. In the case of music, this involves expressing the emotions evoked by a theme (the abstraction) into a musical composition (the concrete): musical artists embody in a melodious composition (in its instrumentation and ultimately its performance and recording) a fundamental emotion or group of emotions (e.g. “anger”, “excitement”, “joy”, “awe”, “serenity”, “surprise”, “distress” or “fear”) inspired by a theme (e.g. “injustice”, “celebration”, “love”, “nature”, “introspection”, “conflict”, “loss” or “dystopia”) consistent with their worldview. I elaborate upon my definition of art in “On the Nature and Purpose of Art”.
- “The essential difference between any sculpture from the past and Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII [a rectangular arrangement of 120 firebricks] . . . is that Andre’s work depends entirely on the museum. A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin; Equivalent VIII in the same lot is just bricks.” – Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: Art and the century of change, McGraw-Hill Education, 1990, p. 369. See also Equivalent VIII at the Tate
- “The nature of Romanticism may be approached from the primary importance of the free expression of the feelings of the artist. The importance the Romantics placed on emotion is summed up in the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, ‘the artist’s feeling is his law’. To William Wordsworth, poetry should begin as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, which the poet then ‘recollect[s] in tranquility (sic)’, evoking a new but corresponding emotion the poet can then mould into art.” – “Romanticism”, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia
- “An extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque period or situation… A short description in verse or prose of a picturesque scene or incident, especially in rustic life… [From] Greek eidullion [“little picture”]…” – Idyll, Oxford University Press: English: Oxford Living Dictionaries
- To express my theme, I must compose in a genre that lends itself to the expression of the ideas contained within that theme. The genres best suited for this are Classical and Electronic Music. I chose the latter for reasons of pragmatism and the genre’s near limitless capacity for expression. That some of my music will be “ambient” is unavoidable.
Mentioned in this post
Alaskan Tapes (Official Website)
Astoria Sound (Bandcamp)
Last Days (Official Website)
3 thoughts on “Context Matters”
I’ve had the same trouble–whether to call my stuff field recording, soundscapes, or musique concrete or whatever, especially when it’s a mixture of those things. But when we combine terms I wonder if it comes off as unconvincing. Defying genre is fun but I guess we have to be extra patient in finding our audiences. Thanks for this thoughtful post.
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I agree. One needs time to find one’s artistic vision, voice and virtue. I have only now stumbled upon these after some years. I have made the determinations expressed in this post because I have at last a coherent view of what I wish to accomplish artistically. My ideas will undoubtedly change over time, but they are invaluable even in their current form.