From Debussy to Brian Eno, The Orb to Burial, the foundations of ambient are rooted in esoteric, unconventional and often surprising forms and sounds

In 2023, “ambient” music is ubiquitous and generated in vast quantities, adding to the diffuseness of the contemporary soundscape. And there is a sense that it’s as old as music itself, taking ancient forms in horns and wind chimes. As a purposeful genre, however, it’s just over 100 years old. Ambient can denote the bland, the New Age – like aural Radox. However, at best, it can provide not just a profound feeling of balm but also deep consternation. It can soothe – it can also subvert.

Though it’s argued that ambient originally insinuated itself on the world when the French composer Claude Debussy first heard gamelan at the Paris Exposition of 1889, it was actually Erik Satie who initially spoke about creating “furniture music”, designed to take its place in the background rather than the foreground, an object of undivided attentiveness. 

Satie was a deeply eccentric figure, who for years dressed in identical sets of corduroy suits, and wrote an absurdist book titled ‘Memoirs Of An Amnesiac’. His most famous compositions, such as the ‘Gymnopédies’, are so limpidly familiar they can be found on modern-day compilations like ‘Chill With Satie’. Yet he was also involved with the Dadaists and composed pieces for the stage which incorporated the sounds of propellers. 

Satie created a series of pieces including the innocuous and looping ‘Carrelage Phonique’, meant to be played “during lunches”. He wrote of softening the noises of the knives and forks at dinner, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those awkward, heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends who are dining together, and would “spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks”. 

In that last comment is contained the fiendish irony of Satie, the barb beneath the studiously bourgeois exterior.

In 1934, however, one General George Squier took Satie at his word, creating the Muzak company, suppliers of background music to be played in elevators, offices, or latterly, on the phone to call centres. Muzak is designed to offer aural comfort but in its teeth-itching blandness, more often irritates. It is ambient’s dumb twin.

The late 1940s saw the arrival of both musique concrète and the possibility of field recordings on magnetic tape in which Pierre Schaeffer, and later Luc Ferrari, entirely reconfigured the relationship between music and the environment – now the natural world could become the very fabric of music itself. 

Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen used the methods of the new electronic music created in the sound labs of Cologne to create monumental, overarching pieces like ‘Kontakte’ which intimated the vastness of the cosmos – ambient on a universal scale. (In jazz, meanwhile, Sun Ra would use electronics in a similar way, in wild, ranging pieces like ‘The Cosmic Explorer’.) On a rather more minimal scale, John Cage composed ‘4’33”’, a piece not of “silence” but whose content consisted entirely of whatever ambient noise was occurring in or outside the concert hall – a statement about the impossibility of pure silence.

The 1960s and 70s would see a number of female pioneers using electronics in quietly radical new ways. The Radiophonic Workshop was ostensibly a functional sound effects unit, but from it arose Daphne Oram who created her Oramics system, and Delia Derbyshire, who in the early 1960s produced a series of “Hörspiel”-type pieces for radio with Barry Bermange, including ‘There Is A God!’. These incorporated spoken-word elements set against swirling, mesmeric, amorphous and radiophonically generated backdrops of Derbyshire’s own making. 

Some of both Oram and Derbyshire’s work would go uncredited in its time – notably Oram’s part in the soundtrack to the horror film ‘The Innocents’ and Derbyshire’s reworking of the theme to ‘Doctor Who’. Other female pioneers, including Éliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros and in the mid-70s, Suzanne Ciani, all created instrumental but meaningful electronic soundscapes. 

Yet it was Brian Eno, who, like Satie, spoke the most consciously and methodically about creating a systems-based ambient music. Eno had many precedents – such as the 1960s minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley, whose works, though based on repetition, were far busier and faster-moving than Eno’s ambient series. He would also release works on his own Obscure label by Michael Nyman (‘Decay Music’) and Gavin Bryars, whose ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’ and ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ used slow-moving, cumulative repetition to deeply moving effect. 

Eno was keenly aware of the West German experimental music set of the 1970s, who, in their search for a new, post-war cultural identity, created largely instrumental music that bypassed the over-familiar tropes of Anglo-American, blues-based rock in favour of sonic canvasses on which they could inscribe a new music that was West German in origin. Eno was also familiar with the work of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, aka Cluster, whose music was drifting in a similar direction to his own, and who he would go on to work with. 

Meanwhile, in his collaborations with Robert Fripp, including 1973’s ‘(No Pussyfooting)’, Eno had already explored and slowly expanded on the idea of “drone”, as established by the likes of Glenn Branca. 

The inspiration for Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’ arose, according to his own account, from a visit by his friend Judy Nylon while he was in hospital recovering from a car accident. She brought him an album of harp music which he played with the volume turned down low, so that its plucking blended with the sound of the rain pattering against the ward windows. He became excited by the notion of music which didn’t impose, but rather constituted “a landscape you could belong to”.

Eno’s subsequent ambient albums, including ‘Music For Films’, ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ and ‘Ambient 4: On Land’, are pivotal, deathless masterpieces which, thanks to the kudos of his Roxy Music days and already bedazzling solo career, were greeted with great attentiveness by the music press rather than as bewildering conceits. They work not just because of their system and method but also because of Eno’s own unerring ear for beauty. 

‘Music For Films’ is a wonderful series of incidental pieces – unassuming, materialising and evaporating like watercolours dissolving on the page, yet leaving a deep impression at once vivid and oblique. They served a functional purpose too, featuring in Robert Hughes’ 1980 TV arts series ‘The Shock Of The New’ and in many other programmes besides. ‘Music For Airports’ was also intended to be functional. However, when it was played as background music at an actual airport, travellers complained that its beatless, choral strains and looped phrases made them feel anxious, so it was shelved and replaced with conventional muzak. 

There were some notable players in the post-punk era who also took up Eno’s ideas to some degree – Gilbert & Lewis, formerly of Wire, Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter and Cabaret Voltaire among them. Eno also had proteges of his own, such as the zither player Laraaji, whose 1980 album ‘Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance’ – a work of overwhelming, cascading brilliance – Eno produced. The previous year, Holger Czukay, formerly of Can, had released ‘Movies’, an ingenious weave of short wave radio extracts and film clips that prefigured sound assemblages decades down the line. 

However, the progress of ambient stalled somewhat in the 1980s, as if in that politically and culturally fractious, tribal decade, in which the ravages of Thatcherism were met with a similarly aggressive response, there was no obvious place for it in the cultural mood music. Conversely, pop – in all its hues – seemed to blaze with a glossy, go-for-it energy that was in keeping with the new, dominant political spirit of the age.

At the turn of the 1990s, ambient revived hugely with the coming of acid house and rave, and the huge societal mood-shift the scene engendered. Ambient sounds were conducive to the post-rave “comedown”, chiming in with a new, hazy vibe of mellowness and blissful chill-out as the impending “end of history” loomed large with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a less combative, more peacable era beckoned.

Two ambient milestones from this period involved the hand of Jimmy Cauty. The KLF’s ‘Chill Out’ (1990) was a lush, backward drift up the deep, dark river of pop’s increasingly distant past, featuring samples of Elvis Presley, Fleetwood Mac, Can and Acker Bilk, bobbing semi-submerged in the lapping water – a veritable postmodern cruise, pure memory bliss, albeit shot through with a sort of unspoken, pensive melancholy. 

There was also Alex Paterson’s ‘The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld’, which featured ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. Co-written by Cauty, it featured numerous samples and soundalikes, including Minnie Riperton’s ‘Lovin’ You’ and a chord progression, floating onward and upward beatlessly into the cosmos, extracted from Grace Jones’ ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, as well as an array of effects and film excerpts. 

With the ambient house of The Orb, you sensed a rehabilitation – at long last – of the epic, inflated spirit of later Pink Floyd, pariahs in the punk/post-punk era (although minus their sense of self-importance). Dub too, the Jamaican-born offshoot of ambient featuring the studio as musical instrument, was placed front and centre in pop culture, creating a feeling that much of the music of the future would be a ghostly, celestial awning, a patchwork made up of pop’s past. 

Ambient grew and evolved in the 1990s, a relatively untroubled and prosperous political period (for many in the West, at least). Its textural lushness sat nicely in those more hedonistic but less urgent times. Artists such as Aphex Twin and The Future Sound Of London dipped in and out of the genre, juxtaposing their ambient works with other pieces of sheer techno ferocity. As his ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ collection suggested, Richard James had been, to quote one of the characters sampled by The Orb, “waiting for music like this all my life”. 

The genre would proliferate and splinter. Ambient dub (in particular from Berlin duo Basic Channel). Ambient sound design. Ambient techno. As electronic music continued to develop and establish its ubiquity, groups like Autechre would come to treat music making as an exercise in mobile sound sculpture – not writing songs, but creating pieces. Key labels (Apollo, Warp), networks and festivals sprang up. “Chill” became a watchword. There was a general blending and melding with world music, as Debussy had anticipated a century earlier and evidenced in Loop Guru’s ‘The Third Chamber’ (1994).

Ambience entered post-rock music too, as it sought other places to free-range following the white wall that was My Bloody Valentine’s ‘To Here Knows When’ (1991) – the final word perhaps in rock’s evolution. Talk Talk continued their inexorable drift from would-be Duran popsters to the far left with 1988’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’ then ‘Laughing Stock’ in 1991, demonstrating the revived, pervasive, oceanic influence of Miles Davis’ electric jazz masterpieces ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’. And then there was Bark Psychosis, whose 21-minute, 1992 single ‘Scum’ (“It’s all around you”) posited ambient as an inescapable pollutant, the toxicity of modern life. 

Bark Psychosis featured on the soundtrack to ‘Jam’, Chris Morris’ turn of the millennium TV series in which he set comedy in unprecedented, warped realms, touching on horror against the spirit of dark ambient. This version of the genre, born out of post-industrial emissions from the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Zoviet France, billowed in relevance as the end of the century beckoned, reflecting what Tricky had termed “Pre-Millennium Tension” – the feeling that the frolicsome, hedonistic blue skies of the Britpop-dominated 90s were due somehow to blacken. 

Bolstered by further developments in laptop technology, ambient took on greater – at times monumental – significance in the 21st century. William Basinski put together a body of ambient work in which decay is a critical factor. He is wont to take old tapes of sounds recorded decades earlier and rework them, highlighting rather than attempting to correct the stresses of age. This is most movingly illustrated on his ‘The Disintegration Loops’ series, four albums released across 2002 and 2003. The pieces result from his efforts to convert from magnetic tape to digital, only for the tapes to deteriorate in the process. 

Basinski decided to make this deterioration the subject of the music, and these haunting, looped pieces represent a sort of defiance of the human spirit in the face of eventual destruction. He dedicated the albums to the victims of 9/11, which he witnessed. ‘The Disintegration Loops’ is in the spirit of fellow contemporaries like turntablist Philip Jeck, whose hypnotic music was assembled from discarded, unconsidered pieces of vinyl, or Gavin Bryars’ ‘The Sinking Of The Titanic’, a piece of music that refuses to “die”.

Boards Of Canada, two Scottish brothers – Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin – who had grown up in Canada before relocating to the UK, created a body of work including ‘Geogaddi’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ that felt “hauntological”, to borrow a phrase coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida, reworked by theorist Mark Fisher. The pieces harked back to the defining public information films of their childhood, their music deliberately distressed, hazy, analogue and wavering, suggesting lost futures still emitting a sort of radioactive half-life. 

Think of Fennesz, who on 2004’s ‘Venice’ sculpted huge, twisted sound designs from processed guitars, as if to signal that we were truly in a time where rock music was dead, fossilised matter – so much carbon. Or Deathprod (Helge Sten), whose self-titled 2004 album, a collection of his works since 1991 – grainy, remote, huge in scale – felt like a form of ambient unearthed in the year 3000 that had weathered over 1,000 years.

And then there’s Burial (aka Will Bevan – or so we’re led to believe), among the most self-effacing artists of all time, rarely photographed, never playing live, his very identity the source of much speculation. His textural, laptop-generated music, as presented on the self-titled 2006 debut album ‘Burial’ and its 2007 follow-up ‘Untrue’ is, in effect, a wordless lamentation for a rave era he had only experienced vicariously through his elder brother. Vividly geographical, as reflected in titles like ‘South London Boroughs’, his atmospheric pieces evoke the sodium-lit, dusky, melancholic toxicity of cities that had once burned bright with joy, but were now reduced to charcoal. 

Having appeared to be caught in a rut, Burial has managed to cleverly develop his sound. His most recent EPs are like the aural equivalent of avant-garde visual art in their formalism and placement of elements, while the track ‘Beachfires’, looming like a storm, represents a harbinger of climate crisis. 

Today, ambient music is of a piece with the sheer proliferation, the de-centredness of modern music, ranging from the distress of The Caretaker (Leyland Kirby), who has used ambient methods to convey the extreme mental anguish of dementia, to the profoundly blissful terrain mapped out by New Yorker David Tagg. 

It can stimulate and assist in the condition of sleep (Max Richter, Paul Schütze, DJ Olive), or evoke higher states of consciousness. Bérangère Maximin, Stars Of The Lid, Tim Hecker, Susumu Yokota, Arve Henriksen, Pascal Savy, Hannah Peel, Mark Van Hoen, Colleen, Gail Priest – just a handful of the very many practitioners who have explored the infinite permutations allowed for in our technological but overcrowded, retromania-obsessed times in which it feels like space is the only place left to go.

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