Perfect Sound Forever

It's Ambient Music---Shhhh!


by Gary Gomes


First of all, I have nothing against relaxing music. I have listened to many new age tapes for meditation assistance and actually admire the works of John Cage ("4'33"," for example) and some other experimental composers like Max Neuhaus who have invented sonic environments. But ambient music galls me, if for no other reason that there is nothing really happening. It is a relation of minimal music, which I criticized recently for really stopping musical experimentation and ambient music takes that approach and turns it up to 11, if you'll forgive the Spinal Tap reference.

The true history of ambient music is really an outgrowth of static music experimentation, like Satie, Cage, and in the 1950's people like Earle Brown. It really started as an outgrowth of environmental music, which can be traced back to some very unsoothing composers like Varese and Xenakis at Brussels in 1963 and Pauline Oliveiros in the United States. Even Roger Waters' ""Several Species of Small Furry Animals..." (from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and probably influenced by Ron Geesin) shows early signs of it, as did Lothar and the Hand. And of course, La Monte Young thought of drone music in the late '50's early '60's. Soft Machine also did environmental music which was released as "Spaced"--but it isn't easy listening. And I do recall enjoying Tibetan chanting, Fripp and Eno, and Sitar music while in college. The environmental piece, "the Wind Harp," was also wonderful for the random sounds it generated.

The really damning moment for this musical idiom comes when Brian Eno releases Discrete Music. Like so many of Eno's ideas (although I consider him a talented producer), his compositional ideas came from others, but he is deemed a genius for recirculating artistic concepts to the generally musically illiterate rock community. This idea occurred as he was recovering from a collapsed lung and one of his speakers died out. He was forced to listen to an album of soft harp music-convalescent music, really- which dropped in and out of audibility. 'Brilliant,’ he thinks, 'I have discovered a new form of music. I will market it.’ The album should have been called Lazy Music, as it was essentially found music, which Cage pioneered years earlier.

What was worse though, was what happened in its wake. After the late 60's to mid-1970's, much music after 1976 tried to reduce (punk) or to minimize (minimal) or to mellow out. The drug of choice was Valium and self-absorption. Now, self-absorption can be good if it leads to self-discovery, but so much of this music was not a pathway to this. It was a pathway to trance.

So, we have an idiom of music that was generally appropriated without acknowledgment from earlier forms; was generally supposed to be calming, and was supposed to allow the person to "chill out". In some ways, one can understand its relative popularity. Life in the modern world is very stressful; people are anxious; and I can relate to the need to calm down. But if something is really stressing you out constantly, there is definitely something wrong.

However, the concept of ambient music, like minimal music, really upsets my sense of innovation. It is a line in a world made of three dimensional objects, lacking intensity or purpose. Although some new age work falls under this category, new age is much more wide ranging and creative in that it is not a single concept. You can actually hear development.

Ambient music, in its musical isolation, is really a musical idiom which is dead on arrival. Its limitations indicate limited adaptability, and its hermetic nature is unchanging. Also, with all the new technological capability of musical instruments, can’t we develop new forms?

The Daevid Allen line from Gong's You is very apt here--if things don't change for better or worse, well, man, you must be dead.

The 21st century gives us all a chance to innovate rather than retreat. Creativity, new tonality, expansion of possibility, is the real gift of music. That is the future. Ambient music is static, even less dynamic than elevator music or muzak. It is lazy music.

Nicolas Slonimsky's admonition, "Let's try something new!" is appropriate for this age and time.


ADDENDUM: I was already cussed out by one of the members of Cluster (can’t recall if it was Roedelius or Moebius) for calling Cluster boring on Facebook. I insisted that I still did. I do find them boring. A single line with occasional bumps doesn’t even reach Cage "Atlas Eciipticalus" or certain Stockhausen pieces’ levels of interest.

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