A curated snapshot rather than a definitive list, welcome to our alphabetical deep dive into the atmospheric and immersive world of ambient music. From key artists to strange concepts and beyond, prepare to see ambient in a whole new light

A

A Strangely Isolated Place. Named after an Ulrich Schnauss album, this Los Angeles label and blog has built a distinctive community around it. As founder Ryan Griffin points out, “Everyone is inspired by their own strangely isolated place”. 

All Saints. Brian Eno founded his hugely respected label in 1992. Alongside work by Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Roedelius, Laraaji, Roger Eno and Marconi Union, All Saints have issued landmark albums like Eno’s ‘Neroli’ and Biosphere’s ‘Substrata’. The latest release is Chuck Johnson’s lovely ‘Shadows On The Green’.

‘The Ambient Century’. Via Stockhausen, Terry Riley, John Cage, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, minimalism and techno, Mark Prendergast’s comprehensive 2003 book looks at the foundations and “no rules” development of ambient sound, which he describes as the most important breakthrough in music in 100 years. 

Ambient Church. Ambient Church have hosted events in religious buildings in New York and Los Angeles since 2016, filling massive spaces with sounds and visuals for unique collective experiences. Their latest happenings featured Suzanne Ciani and Robert Rich. 

Ambient Dub. Dubby delights written by robots. The protagonists included Higher Intelligence Agency, A Positive Life, Banco De Gaia and Suns Of Arqa. Dive into the ‘Ambient Dub’ compilations released by Beyond Records between 1992 and 1995 for more. 

Ambient House. A biggie. You can ignore most of the rest of this list. The Orb and their Arizona weather forecasts. 808 State and their Pacific vibes. The KLF and their sheep. The irresistible force of, er, The Irresistible Force. House music without its handbags.

Ambient Kyoto. A festival of ambient music held in the city often described as Japan’s cultural capital. The line-ups have featured a host of heavyweights, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Terry Riley and Cornelius, alongside stunning multisensory installations.

Ambient Techno. Throw a rock at Warp’s ‘Artificial Intelligence’ series and you’ll strike an ambient technoist on the bonce. Richie Hawtin and Autechre. Ouch! B12 and Speedy J. Blam! And not forgetting non-Warpers like Carl Craig and Ultramarine, or newer producers like Skee Mask and Daniel Avery. Right on the noggin!

André 3000. The Outkast star has just released ‘New Blue Sun’, his first solo album, and it’s a surprisingly immersive work of innovative flute ambience. Rap fans will fume, but a ton of TikTok kids are about to discover experimental music for the first time.

Ann Annie. Eli Goldberg, the multi-instrumentalist from Portland, Oregon, records dreamlike keyboard compositions as Ann Annie. The two volumes of ‘Atmospheres’ (released on Modularfield in 2017 and 2018) are particularly recommended, both levitating with deep, organic and spiritual new age warmth. 

Aphex Twin. With typical oblivious confidence, Richard D James reshaped ambient music with ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ (Apollo, 1992), a collection of gorgeous lo-fi cassette recordings, throwing the genre wide open for synthesists, beatmongers and crackpots of the day. See James’ debut Polygon Window album, ‘Surfing On Sine Waves’ (Warp, 1993) too.

Apollo. Founded in 1992, Apollo is an offshoot of the Belgian techno imprint R&S. With key early releases including Aphex’s first volume of ‘Selected Ambient Works’ and Biosphere’s ‘Patashnik’, the label was a major contributor to the definition of ambient music in the 1990s.

Appendix.files. The amorphous music released by this cult Berlin label resides at the edge of ambient experimentation, voyaging at the fringes of “what is sonically understood as music, while metamorphosing the conceptions of the genre itself”.

Ashra. Ashra’s influential 1976 album ‘New Age Of Earth’ is a bona fide ambient classic. A star-bound, floating minimalist beauty, it was essentially a solo release from Ash Ra Tempel founder Manuel Göttsching following the dissolution of his renowned krautrock outfit. 

Virginia Astley. Once a member of the short-lived but ultra-hip Ravishing Beauties, Astley combined piano, woodwind and field recordings for her luxuriantly summery 1984 debut solo album ‘From Gardens Where We Feel Secure’. Collaborations with Sakamoto and David Sylvian followed, but she has long remained a charmingly elusive engima. 


B

Julianna Barwick. US electronic loop exponent. Barwick’s 2011 debut album, ‘The Magic Place’, fuses ambient experimentalism with a new age innocence that continues to set her apart. Her most recent long-player is ‘Healing Is A Miracle’ on Ninja Tune. 

Basic Channel. Both an artist and a label, Berlin techno stalwart Moritz Von Oswald founded Basic Channel with Mark Ernestus 30 years ago. Highly minimal in sound and presentation, the duo atomise the structures of techno into dubby, often serene rhythmic pulses.

William Basinski. The classically trained Basinski is perhaps best-known for ‘The Disintegration Loops I-IV’. The beautiful, mournful, suite of pieces for which he harnessed the gradual corruption of his elderly tape loops became a requiem for the attacks of 9/11, the day he completed the work in New York. It’s a masterpiece.

Janet Beat. It’s more than six decades since the Scottish avant- garde composer bought a Brenell tape machine, built her own oscilloscope and began creating experimental loops. Beat has added Moogs, DX-7s and gamelan rhythms to her arsenal over the years, but is only now enjoying the recognition she deserves.

David Behrman. Fusing pastoral woodwind with modular synth effects, American electroacoustic composer Behrman’s two-track album ‘On The Other Ocean’ stands as a minimalist cipher for how man and machine can harmonise. It was released on Lovely Music in 1978, when very few people were worried about the nefarious advance of technology.

The Big Chill. Initially an immersive audiovisual club night with an ambient music soundtrack, The Big Chill was established by Pete Lawrence and Katrina Larkin in 1994 at the Union Chapel in London. The concept expanded from its chill-out roots to become a major multi-genre festival. 

Biosphere. Norwegian musician Geir Jenssen has released in the region of 20 studio albums as Biosphere, including the fabulously icy ‘Substrata’ from 1997. He’s a serial collaborator too, partnering with everyone from Pete Namlook to Higher Intelligence Agency to Deathprod. 

Sofie Birch. Purveyor of “soft ambient”, Danish sound artist Birch’s work has lately moved into slightly more strident and attention-grabbing territory with the EP ‘Our Circadian’, a collaboration with Grand River. Her sustained ambient touch is unmistakable, especially on ‘3AM’.

Bird Song. Mother Nature’s ambient soundtrack and a lasting inspiration for poets, playwrights and musicians. For deep listening, seek out ‘A Tapestry Of British Bird Song’ by field recording pioneer Victor C Lewis (His Master’s Voice, 1964). 

The Black Dog. Where would we be without the influence of this legendary Sheffield outfit? From the Warp classics ‘Bytes’ (1993) and ‘Spanners’ (1995) to last year’s gorgeously bleak ‘Music For Moore Street Substation’ – bathed in said building’s “natural reverberation” – Ken Downie and co have always been ahead of the game.

Serge Blenner. Conservatoire de Mulhouse alumnus Blenner released his debut album in 1980 on Sky, the seminal Hamburg imprint. With its eerie blips and squeals, ‘La Vogue’ is a darkly apprehensive record, reflecting the fearful mood in Germany as Cold War tensions mounted. 

Bliss. A synonym for bliss is ecstasy – a very 90s ambient aspiration. But in the sense of a spiritual, serene and euphoric state, where atmospheric tones evoke tranquility, we’re in the realms of Laraaji.

Boards Of Canada. Scottish siblings and their sepia synths. BOC’s legendary debut, ‘Music Has The Right To Children’, doused the fire starters of 1990s rave with icy electronic meditations on cults, psychedelia and the pleasures of beautiful places in the country.

Peter Broderick. The American polymath’s influence reaches far and wide, including several years with the Danish ensemble Efterklang and session work with the US drone-folk community. His notable solo ambient and neoclassical works include ‘Float’ (Type Recordings, 2008) and ‘Music For Falling From Trees’ (Erased Tapes, 2009).

Gavin Bryars. Looping a 1971 recording of an old homeless man singing its touchingly optimistic titular refrain, Bryars’ ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ added an ever-evolving orchestral accompaniment to create an ambient experience of overwhelming emotional power. 

Harold Budd. The renowned minimalist’s output includes two superb collaborations with Brian Eno. ‘Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror’ and ‘The Pearl’ (Editions EG, 1980 and 1984 respectively). The two records have a similar feel, with Budd’s contemplative piano subjected to Eno’s subtle electronic treatments, the atmospheric productions emphasising the plangent motifs. 

Buddha Machines. Created by Beijing electronic duo FM3 and first released in 2005, Buddha Machines are small coloured boxes with switches that alternate between ambient loops. Hide one in your cistern to make people think the plumbing is possessed.


C

Cafe Del Mar. Before it became a global brand for the chill-out scene, the Cafe Del Mar was just one of Ibiza’s many beachside bars. That all changed in the early 1990s, when resident DJ José Padilla and guests like Phil Mison and Chris Coco began playing pre-club sundowner sets featuring everything from Cluster and Eno to Alice Coltrane and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. 

John Cage. The “silent” composition that’s never quiet, Cage’s 1952 signature work ‘4’33”’ forces listeners to become hyper-aware of the sound world around them for the duration of the piece. Way more than an artsy prank, ‘4’33”’ underlined Cage’s keen interest in Zen Buddhism.

The Caretaker. Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker peaked with ‘An Empty Bliss Beyond This World’ (2011) and his ‘Everywhere At The End Of Time’ series (2016-19). Poignant and haunting studies of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s alluringly strange and deeply beautiful stuff. Peerless. 

Wendy Carlos. Carlos is best-known for turning Bach electronic and soundtracking ‘Clockwork Orange’ droogs. But don’t discount ‘Sonic Seasonings’, her 1972 ambient collage. Its bucolic bird song and whimsical drones signalled the rise of new age music. Truly transformational.

Chill-Out Rooms. With the rise of superstar DJs came a more sedate phenomenon. Quiet corners in clubs. Playlists full of Brian Eno and Bent. Visuals on walls no better than a screensaver. Mr Scruff’s ‘Keep It Unreal’ rooms even served tea. Make us a brew!

The Chill Out Tent. A buzzing online hub of releases, streams, podcasts and writing operating under the motto “Turn On, Stay In, Chill Out”. Launched during lockdown and run by DJ Matt Nearest-Faraway, The Chill Out Tent has so far collaborated with Mixmaster Morris, Mr Scruff, Rob Da Bank and countless others.

Chillstep. When dubstep fans stop swinging their pants, they pull up a pouffe and relax to chillstep. Rameses B’s ‘I Need You’ and Zeds Dead’s Aretha-sampling ‘Coffee Break’, for instance. Teeth-rattling bass is never far off, but you get to have a nice sit down.

Chillwave. Lo-fi producer Washed Out helped birth 2009’s “summer of chillwave”. In the hyper-focused age of the pixel, this micro-genre blurred our vision. Listen to the scratchy pop of Neon Indian and you too will gently tune out.

Suzanne Ciani. A pioneer in the truest sense, the legendary American ambient synthesist first made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of 1970s sound design. Nominated for no less than five New Age Grammys, her work is forever synonymous with the Buchla modular synthesiser.

Cluster. OG ambient duo comprising Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. A run of blissful albums in the 1970s includes two with Eno – ‘Cluster & Eno’ and ‘After The Heat’ (as Eno, Roedelius, Moebius) – and is nothing short of a foundational discography of electronic music and ambient beauty.

Coil. Rooted in nihilistic intensity, Coil’s John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson fused crepuscular drones, musique concrète and paganism in their own gloriously magick way. You’d expect nothing less from a duo who once made a video featuring hallucinogenic putrefaction and Marc Almond as the Angel Of Death. 

Contemplative. Ambient music provides us with a vehicle for stepping outside of our busy lives and makes space for us to ask questions of ourselves. Few other genres encourage you to stop, take stock and think as you listen.


D

Dark Ambient. Much like Erik Satie’s idea of “furniture music”, only with one table leg sawn off, dark ambient is brooding, noisy and unsettling. Coil and Lustmord are generally viewed as the founding fathers, leaving indelible marks on everybody from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Hecker.

Darkroom. Where Michael Bearpark (guitars, pedals and loops) and Andrew Ostler (synths, woodwind and reeds) improvise at great length and to great effect, frequently live but also on albums such as ‘Gravity’s Dirty Work’ (2013) and ’The Last Sense To Fade’ (2021).

Dead Can Dance. Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry have made lots of powerfully evocative records in their time. ‘The Serpent’s Egg’ (4AD, 1988) – somehow simultaneously sparse and lush, magical yet almost primeval – is a terrific example. 

Deathprod. The Norwegian artist Helge Sten has been producing no-compromise doomscapes as Deathprod since the early 1990s. Last year’s ‘Compositions’ album is typically atmospheric and grainy, a gloriously troubling dystopian vision that seems to slow the very fabric of time.

Claude Debussy. Consider Debussy’s strikingly beautiful works as the soundtrack to French Impressionism – the equivalent of a Monet, Renoir or Pissarro masterpiece. Listen to ‘Prélude À L’Après-Midi D’Un Faune’ and hear the birth of a gently radiant, quietly radical musical revolution. 

Dedekind Cut. This is Fred Welton Warmsley III from Sacramento, California. After several releases as Lee Bannon, Warmsley adopted the name Dedekind Cut for ‘$uccessor’, a 2016 album which offers a refreshingly contemporary take on ambience, combining cowboy iconography with pounding industrial noise. 

Deep Listening. A term coined by the avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros, “deep listening” involves focused attention and a heightened awareness of surroundings, encouraging meditative engagement with sound. As Oliveros herself put it, “Listening as many ways as possible to everything that can possibly be heard all of the time”.

‘Deep Mind Music’. A long-running and much-loved mix series curated by London’s DJ Sybil. Boasting “imaginal realms for psychonautic exploration”, it’s a treasure trove of chilled-out and mind-expanding playlists. You’ll find 28 mixes on Soundcloud.

Deep Space Network. The inspired – and inspiring – pairing of German artists Jonas Grossmann and David Moufang (aka Move D). Their 1993 ‘Big Rooms’ album on Source Records is an underrated gem, spanning downtempo, techno and acid vibes.

Delia Derbyshire. By the mid-1960s, Derbyshire was creating tape manipulations unparalleled in their otherworldliness. ‘The Delian Mode’ and ‘Blue Veils And Golden Sands’ are both journeys to alien worlds so steeped in darkness that even Doctor Who might wince and think twice.

Demdike Stare. With a name taken from the Pendle Witch Trials, this Manchester duo oozes darkness. Explore their ‘Elemental’ series on Modern Love if you dare. Track titles like ‘Mephisto’s Lament’ and ‘We Have Already Died’ signal the terrors within. Burn them!

Downtempo. Mood music gets a groove on. In the 1990s, when the term was first used, it was the likes of Fila Brazillia and Kruder & Dorfmeister. These days, Bonobo seems to be leading the way. 

Drone. Meditative music using sustained tones and microtonal interactions. Synonymous with Eastern spiritualism. Key figures in the genre are La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, whose drone studies yielded several versions of their immersive ‘Dream House’ installation, as well as their celebrated 1982 album, ‘The Tamburas Of Pandit Pran Nath’.

Drone Metal. Not to be confused with metal drones shooting Instagrammable videos of lovely landscapes. This subgenre is a trapdoor into a hellscape of apocalyptic audio. Oh joy! Listen to the withering annihilation of Sunn O)))’s ‘Black One’ (Southern Lord, 2005) and you’ll soon see what we mean.

Drone Not Drones. This annual event in Minneapolis employs drone music as a radical act. Artists rotate on and off the stage, creating a single uninterrupted 28-hour drone and raising funds for Doctors Without Borders in the process.

Dub. Minimal. Atmospheric. Transportive. Brimming with weird stuff. From King Tubby to Lee “Scratch” Perry, Prince Jammy, Joe Gibbs, Scientist and beyond, we’re talking ambient music for warming up rather than chilling out.

The Durutti Column. The back catalogue of Vini Reilly and his post-punk situationists bulges with ingenuity. Take the pastoral vibes of Reilly’s 1980 Factory debut, ‘The Return Of The Durutti Column’. Factory would crumble, but the Column marched on. Check the gorgeous ‘Grace’ on ‘Fidelity’ (Les Disques Du Crépuscule, 1996).


E

Earth. Droning, feedbacking, distorted guitars – that’s the hallmark of Earth’s pioneering brand of “ambient metal”. The American band’s 1993 debut album, misleadingly titled ‘Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version’, set a high bar for the drone music that subsequently followed.  ECM. The ECM label dominates the Venn diagram intersection between cutting-edge ambience and improvisational jazz, providing an outlet for the likes of Jon Hassell, Steve Reich and Keith Jarrett. Founded in Munich in 1968, it’s still thriving in 2024. 

EG. Originally a progressive rock label set up by King Crimson’s managers in 1969. EG released Brian Eno’s earliest post-Roxy Music work, as well as the first solo albums by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, another ambient godfather. Alex Paterson was working as an A&R man for EG when he started The Orb. 

Mark St John Ellis. The man responsible for ‘The Empty Vessel’, a spellbinding 14-part work crafted with singing bowls in 2020, when Ellis was on leave from his neoclassical project Elijah’s Mantle. Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and Irish folk songstress Caitríona O’Leary are guest vocalists.

Em:t. Superlative ambient offshoot of Nottingham’s T:me Records and the coolest label around for a brief while in the mid-1990s. Straddling dub, techno, neoclassical and more, each Em:t release incorporated field recordings and was mixed in immersive 3D. They had some very striking images on their covers too – from penguins to frogs to toucans.

Lawrence English. The Australian ambient maestro and Room40 label founder is a busy man. Last year alone saw him partnering with veteran sound artist David Toop, New York musician Lea Bertucci and Austrian composer Werner Dafeldecker. On ‘Colours Of Air’, this time with Loscil, English surpasses even himself, with lofty electroacoustic devotionals almost sacred in feel.

Enigma. The singing monks of Enigma’s ‘Sadeness Part 1’ almost made Christmas Number One in 1990. The parent album, ‘MCMXC AD’, was also an international smash, despite Michael Cretu’s decidedly offbeat fusion of sultry Latinate whispers and druggy soundscapes. In nomine Christi, indeed.

Brian Eno. It was Eno’s ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ that gave the genre its name. The title of the 1978 album was prompted by the long hours Eno spent waiting at the airport serving Cologne, a city he visited many times that year in order to work at Conny Plank’s studio. Incidentally, the architect of Cologne airport was Paul Schneider-Esleben, who was Florian Schneider’s dad.

Environmental Music. The name of this increasingly significant subgenre is a direct translation of the Japanese term “kankyo¯ ongaku”. Originating in Tokyo in the late 1970s, it describes music that has been made to reflect and complement the surroundings in which it’s played, whether those are natural or man-made. 

Ethereal. Early devotional music. Chanting monks. Latin titles. The abstract choral works of Philip Glass. The gothic miasmas of seminal 4AD acts such as This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance. Mark St John Ellis’ De Nova Da Capo label. All have that translucent and celestial quality that lends itself to the ethereal. 

Etiolation. Etiolation refers to how a lack of natural sunlight causes plants to grow in unusual ways. Ambient music, filled with stasis and muted, obscured moments, can shift your sense of perception and impact your state of mind in similarly unpredictable ways. 


F

Morton Feldman. One of the earliest proponents of indeterminate music, Feldman’s work ’The Rothko Chapel’ is a slowly evolving chamber orchestra composition named after a modernist chapel in Houston, Texas. The building is home to 14 of Mark Rothko’s black paintings. 

Field Recordings. When gear got smaller, musicians went hiking. They recorded chirruping birds, chuffing trains and the patter of drizzle. Chris Watson’s ‘El Tren Fantasma’ is a dramatic example of this alfresco approach. Best listened to on a rope bridge in a subtropical forest. 

Fireplace Sounds. An infinite video of a fire in a grate, the flames crackling and the logs popping. Yes, this is a thing now. Many of these have millions of views on YouTube, matching clips of cats falling off sofas. Hogwash to some, ASMR gold to others.

Floating. Forget The Floaters and that “Aquarius… and my name is Ralph” stuff. Floating was invented by The Grid in 1990 and shunted into another dimension the following year by Alex Paterson, who hosted the press launch for The Orb’s debut album in a floatation tank. Also known as horizontal keepy-uppy. 

John Foxx. By the late 1980s, John Foxx had grown tired of the contemporary pop world. He craved tranquility. Enter ambient music, a genre he’s dipped in and out of ever since, notably with 1997’s ‘Cathedral Oceans’, which took over a decade to record. 

Nils Frahm. With music that’s inexorably intimate and exquisitely spaced, the revered German musician is a master of elegiac minimalism. Bask in 2022’s mesmeric ‘Music For Animals’, which ditches Frahm’s trademark piano for extended ambient pieces that glisten with opulent lustre.

‘Freezone’. The ‘Freezone’ compilations, released on SSR between 1994 and 2001, reflected the eclecticism of chill-out electronica, with the first album including David Byrne, Moby, Porcupine Tree, Air, LTJ Bukem, David Cunningham and Deep Forest. The series was put together by DJ Morpheus (Samy Birnbach), the Minimal Compact frontman and host of the long-running Lysergic Factory radio show. 

Robert Fripp. Fripp’s experiments with live looping enabled him to harness endless sustain and recast the guitar as an expressive instrument of subtle textures. ‘Evening Star’, his 1975 work with Eno, is 48 minutes of gently swaying tunes at one with the image on the cover, a Peter Schmidt painting of an island poking up through the sea under a darkening sky.

Edgar Froese. Tangerine Dream’s main man was fond of the occasional solo ambient excursion, most notably the lengthy title cut of his 1975 album, ‘Epsilon In Malaysian Pale’. Inspired by Froese’s journeys through the jungles of South-East Asia, it was a major influence on David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. 

The Future Sound Of London. Emerging from the acid house scene of the late 1980s, The Future Sound Of London duo Brian Dougans and Garry Cobain pointed hardcore ravers in another direction entirely with the hypnotic ambient abstractions of their ‘Lifeforms’ and ‘Dead Cities’ albums. There was the superb ‘Tales Of Ephidrina’ too, which the pair issued under the name Amorphous Androgynous.


G

Gaming Audio. Eerie thunderstorms throughout ‘The Last Of Us’. Rumbling wagon wheels in ‘Red Dead Redemption’. Aggressive street taunts in ‘Grand Theft Auto’. We’ve played console games way past our bedtime again, the in-world atmospherics of these massive digital worlds constantly looping in our minds. Just don’t hijack a car in Grove Street gang territory.

GAS. As GAS, Wolfgang Voigt is one of ambient music’s most revered and influential names. You can hear the dissemination of his “intoxicatingly sinister” sound art – lying somewhere between Arnold Schönberg and Kraftwerk – across a gamut of contemporary artists and labels. Voigt is also the co-founder of Cologne’s Kompakt Records. 

Generative Music. A term conceived by Brian Eno to describe systems-based music that continually changes. It started with the Eno-approved Koan program, which launched in 1994, but generative music continues to evolve, with Eno releasing his own app, Bloom, in 2008.

Glacial. The leaden movement of Arctic ice sheets colliding with gargantuan force and the slow-motion slide of Antarctic mountain glaciers. How to capture those sounds? Many brave artists have tried, including Netherworld, Loscil, SleepResearchFacility and Aarktica (obviously). 

Glitch. A genre of minimalism for people too frightened to go full ambient. It’s like trip hop, but really tiny. Digital clicks, crackling static, the sound of a CD skipping, which you thought was part of your music but, no, your CD player’s broken. 

Global Communication. As an example of the mid-90s fondness for almost beatless electronic music designed to envelop the listener, they don’t come much better than Tom Middleton and Mark Pritchard’s ’76:14’. Melancholic melodies, ticking clocks and shifting atmospherics make it an all-time great.

Manuel Göttsching. ‘E2-E4’, the former Ash Ra Tempel guitarist’s 1984 solo foray into electronic music, still sounds like he must have had a time machine. More minimalist than ambient, it’s a hypnotising outing with a long-tail influence over the ambient techno scene of the late 1980s and 1990s.


H

Laurel Halo. Last year’s acclaimed ‘Atlas’ album saw the American producer truly find her ambient calling. Veering wholeheartedly into rarified orchestral and piano atmospherics, it’s a gorgeously woozy and majestic piece of electroacoustic sound design. 

Bo Hansson. “By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair, you shall have…”, well, actually, a rather wonderful 1969 album called ‘Music Inspired By Lord Of The Rings’, the result of Hansson and producer Anders Lind holing themselves up on a remote Scandinavian island with just Tolkien’s books and the first 8-track recorder in Sweden for company.

Harmonia & Eno ‘76. Krautrock supergroup Harmonia – Cluster plus Michael Rother from Neu! – had been experimenting with Korg synths and Revox tapes for three years when Eno turned up at their woodland commune in Lower Saxony in 1976. The result was the pellucid ambient / kosmische album ‘Tracks And Traces’. It remained unreleased until 1997, but it still sounds astonishing.

Jon Hassell. Hassell’s roots in the avant-garde and his processed and airy trumpet playing made his work a haunting blend of global influences and electronic textures. ‘Fourth World, Vol 1 – Possible Musics’, his 1980 collaboration with Eno, is timeless.

‘Hearts Of Space’. This American radio show has segued together a seamless hour of contemplative ambience each and every week for an astonishing 50 years. It was founded in 1973 by the honey-voiced Stephen Hill, who remains the man in charge. “Safe journeys, space fans, wherever you are…” 

Tim Hecker. The scope of Hecker’s talents is quite extraordinary. Which is why it’s tricky to single out a particular work by the Canadian experimental producer. Well, it would be if ‘Harmony In Ultraviolet’ (Kranky, 2006), a masterpiece of drone and texture, wasn’t regarded as one of the finest ambient records of all time by pretty much everybody.

Higher Intelligence Agency. Formed by Birmingham musician and DJ Bobby Bird, who also hosted the Oscillate club night, HIA have a string of top-notch ambient dub albums to their name, particularly ‘Colourform’ and ‘Freefloater’ (Beyond, 1993 and 1995 respectively). HIA and Oscillate are both still going strong. 

Home Normal. Ian Hawgood founded his influential label, Home Normal, in 2008 when he was living in Tokyo. Records from the likes of David Toop, Nicolas Benier, David Cordero and Hawgood himself have established the imprint as a leading player in a particularly relaxing field. 

Ernest Hood. Already 52 in 1975 when he recorded his only studio album, ‘Neighbourhoods’, Hood attempted to recreate the sounds and atmosphere of his Oregon childhood with woozy analogue synths and decades’ worth of field recordings. He succeeded with evocative aplomb. 

Haruomi Hosono. The Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder’s 1984 cassette ‘Watering A Flower’ features two tracks originally commissioned by Japanese retailer MUJI as in-store background music. Sparse, eerie and super-rare, it’s become a collectable holy grail.

Hypnosis. Global Communication might have been attempting this with the pendulum swing of ’14:31’ from ’76:14’. Ambient music’s ability to empty the mind of distractions and put the listener in a trance is one of its many understated superpowers.


I

Iasos. One of the earliest new age musicians – Iasos made his recording debut with ‘Inter-Dimensional Music’ on Unity Records in 1975. The spiritual and blissful warmth that resonates through tracks such as ‘Cloud Prayer’ and ’The Bubble Massage’ seems fitting for a man once described as “giving the impression of having come from another sphere”.

I Ching. The ancient Chinese ‘Book Of Changes’ suggests interpretations and explanations of the patterns created when yarrow stalks or coins are thrown. John Cage used the outputs in his “chance” compositions and Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ are a direct descendant.

Illbient. Hip hop and trip hop roll up a blunt under the Brooklyn Bridge. The snoozy sounds of DJ Olive are a fine introduction to the subgenre’s bassy treats, as is his blissed-out trio We™.

Immersion. Put on your headphones. Close your eyes. Press play. Breathe deeply while you listen. Fully absorb yourself in the music as it unfolds. Let it wrap itself around you, your senses and your consciousness. Immerse yourself completely. Don’t put those sausages under the grill before you do any of this, though. 

Impressionism. Not only the domain of French “plein air” painters, Impressionism might take the form of the sound of the wind, the patter of rain, or the trill of bird song to evoke a mood, an atmosphere or a particular scene.


J

Philip Jeck & Chris Watson. It’s fitting that the much-missed composer and turntablist Philip Jeck recorded his final album with his old friend Chris Watson. Based on Watson’s recordings of a level crossing near Hull, with Jeck’s wonderfully wonky treatments, textures and effects adding grainy lustre and drama, ‘Oxmardyke’ (Touch, 2023) is a stunning epitaph.

Jóhann Jóhannsson. The Icelandic composer received Oscar nominations for two immersive film scores, ‘The Theory Of Everything’ and ‘Sicario’, in the couple of years before his untimely death in 2018. Comprising piano-led elegance and sinister soundscapes respectively, they perfectly showcase Jóhannsson’s huge talent. 


K

Kaleidoscopic. The meta-text of ambient music transports us through a cinema of the imagination, often by means of subtle kaleidoscopic tones and textures. Whether it’s Eno’s studied vapours, Coil’s crepuscular atmospherics or Seahawks’ sunlit future exotica, there’s always more to the genre than meets the eye.

‘Kankyo¯ Ongaku’. Released by Light In The Attic in 2019, this collection of Japanese environmental music spans the period 1980 to 1990. Featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto, Joe Hisaishi and Haruomi Hosono, the pieces were often commissioned by corporations for cultural cachet and used commercially, some in stores and others on advertisements.

Kettel & Secede. Dutch producers Reimer Eising and Lennard Van Der Last joined forces in 2012 for ‘When Can’, a jaw- dropping one-off collection. Cloistered monks, sumptuous strings and military beats combine to create a lavishly florid form of ambience. 

Klein. British-Nigerian musician Klein fuses R&B-inspired vocals with oddball noises and metallic drones, forming truly unique soundscapes. Her ‘Harmattan’ album (Pentatone, 2021), a grainy, gritty collage of patched-together samples, is mostly ambient but also something altogether more challenging. 

The KLF. Baaaaa. Thus goes the reinvention of The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu as ambient pioneers The KLF. Nomadic throat singing and Hawaiian guitars on their 1990 ‘Chill Out’ album indicated the eccentricities to come, namely horned tribalism and ice cream vans. And the bleat goes on. 

KMRU. Kenyan artist Joseph Kamaru incorporates drones, field recordings and improvisation into his reflective ambient pieces. His thoughtful use of environmental sounds makes him one of the scene’s most intriguing new talents.

Thomas Köner. On first listen, the records of German multimedia artist Thomas Köner seem empty and almost silent. Turn up the volume and early works like ‘Permafrost’ (Barooni, 1993) become noise-filled sound worlds of constant, dramatic movement. Loud music presented very, very quietly. 


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Andrew Lagowski. Lagowski has created a host of wonderfully evocative and epic dreamscapes and spacescapes over the last 35 years, the best of them under the names SETI (the hour-long ‘Final Trajectory’) and Legion (‘Colossus’ and ‘The Somnambulist’). His latest release is SETI’s ‘Beyond East Gate’, which is inspired by a spate of UFO sightings in Suffolk in 1980. 

The Land Of Oz. When Paul Oakenfold started his post-Spectrum acid club at Heaven in London in 1989, he invited Alex Paterson, Jimmy Cauty and Youth to play music in the VIP room. Faffing around on decks, cassette players and a trusty Akai sampler, together they invented live ambient house. Not a bad way to spend a Monday night. 

Laraaji. Brian Eno witnessed the revelation of zither-playing new age mystic Laraaji busking in New York in the late 1970s and began rehearsing with him soon afterwards. The sessions resulted in ‘Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance’ (Editions EG, 1980), on which Eno adds subtle touches of stardust to Laraaji’s hypnotic musicality to stunning effect. 

Bill Laswell. Label boss, producer, bassist, unique musical alchemist (who else could work with Whitney Houston and Napalm Death’s Mick Harris?) and serious practitioner of the ambient arts. He’s appeared on Eno’s ‘Ambient 4: On Land’ as well as many of his own ambient excursions.

Legowelt. Dutch producer Danny Wolfers is experimental lo-fi house artist Legowelt. His latest project is a 100-minute film titled ‘Ambient Trip Commander’, the inspired storyline of which is elevated further by the highly immersive and ominous score. 

K Leimer. Seattle-based veteran K Leimer (Kerry to his chums) has been quietly honing his cosmic, piano-led compositions since the late 1970s, much of it on his own Palace Of Lights imprint. Newbies should check out ‘A Period Of Review (Original Recordings 1975-1983)’, recently released via RVNG Intl.

Loop Guru. Ethereal vocals and hypnotic gamelan sounds are the main components of Loop Guru’s 1994 classic ‘The Third Chamber’. It lasts a lifetime and is joyous from start to finish. There are some exquisite soul-ticklers on the band’s ‘Catalogue Of Desires’ tapes too.

Loscil. Loscil is Vancouver musician Scott Morgan. The highlights of his extensive back catalogue include ‘Submers’ (Kranky, 2002), every track of which is named after a submarine. The final track, ‘Kursk’, is particularly moving, and as suffocatingly transportive as one might expect of a paean to the victims of the 2000 Russian submarine disaster.

Lull. Once the drummer of Napalm Death and later the driving force behind Scorn, Mick Harris has forged new sonic extremes with his Lull project. ‘Moments’, an isolationist drone epic from 1998 made up of 99 short pieces, is a key release.

Lustmord. Brian Williams has long been a leading light of dark ambient. So to speak. His first Lustmord release was back in 1981, and he’s worked with everyone from Chris & Cosey and Clock DVA to sludge metal outfit The Melvins. Start with ’The Place Where The Black Stars Hang’ (Soleilmoon, 1994) and you’ll never come back.


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Kali Malone. Stockholm organist Kali Malone’s innovative drones evoke a raw elemental power. She is among the most promising of the new generation of ambient-leaning minimalists, evidenced by the exquisite evolving harmonies of her current album, ‘Does Spring Hide Its Joy’.

Gigi Masin. The Italian composer and producer is best-known for ‘Wind’, the 1986 album he initially pressed on vinyl to sell at his concerts. Most of the copies were later destroyed in a flood at his Venice home but, thankfully, the master tapes survived, and this jazz-tinged opus has become an ambient cornerstone.

Matthewdavid. LA producer Matthew David McQueen has put out four fine albums, including two featherlight and positively new age recordings as Matthewdavid’s Mindflight. He’s about to be thrust further into the limelight by his key role on André 3000’s ‘New Blue Sun’. Take a look at his Leaving imprint for lots more radiance.

Meditation Apps. Immersive meditation apps have become daily rituals for many of us, helping with stress, sleep and focus. Calm’s guided meditations are backed by lulling ambient soundscapes, while the generative music app Endel creates personalised sound environments to heal and free your mind. Switch off and float downstream… 

Minimal. What would music sound like with most of the music removed? Pretty good, it turns out. Let’s face it, there are plenty of times when the noise and clatter of everyday life could do with being filtered out. Is minimalism ambient? Discuss.

Mixmaster Morris. Acid house pioneer Morris Gould laid off the heart-pounding bpms at the turn of the 1990s, with his ‘Flying High’ album – recorded as The Irresistible Force – becoming a template for the decade’s chill-out vibe. He’s also responsible for “I Think Therefore I Ambient”, one of the best T-shirt slogans ever.

Modular. From 1960s pioneers like Doug McKechnie to current knob-twiddlers such as Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer, a modular rack the size of a wardrobe has always occupied a substantial corner of the ambient world. And, to be honest, most of the other corners as well.

Moebius. Usually known simply by his surname, Dieter Moebius is an electronic music luminary, and not just for his work with Hans-Joachim Roedelius in Cluster and Harmonia. His solo sonic explorations – dating back to the 1970s and often marked by modular synth wizardry – resonate with avant-garde innovation and atmospheric allure. 

‘Monolithic Undertow’. Published in 2022, Harry Sword’s excellent book traces the inordinate “power of the drone”, encompassing Ash Ra Tempel, archaeoacoustics, Faust, Sufi mystics, Sunn O))) and a surfeit of other esoteric references.

Motion Ward. Jesse Sappell launched his Los Angeles label in 2015, and things have been in, ahem, constant motion since then. Check out the recent releases by The Humble Bee and Hysterical Love Project for a gently modern take on the ambient experience. 

‘Music Beyond Airports’. A collection of essays developed from presentations given at Ambient@40, an international conference on the genre held at Huddersfield University in 2018. Papers such as Is Ambient Music Socially Relevant? and Channelling The Ecstasy Of Hildegard Von Bingen make up a compelling tome. 

Music From Memory. Founded a decade ago in Amsterdam by Jamie Tiller, Abel Nagengast and Tako Reyenga, this essential contemporary ambient label boasts a wide-ranging roster of international artists that includes Philipp Otterbach, Dream Dolphin and the much-lauded ISOR29.

My Ambient Machines. A printed love letter to the machines behind ambient music, this lovingly assembled fanzine and cassette label is curated by Sweden’s Oskar Karlström. The zine features contributions from artists discussing their music-making processes and their gear of choice.


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Pete Namlook. Peter Kuhlmann emerged in the early 1980s from the Frankfurt electronic scene, flipping his surname to create his artist name. His back catalogue includes a host of collaborations with the likes of Klaus Schulze, Bill Laswell, Dr Atmo, Mixmaster Morris and Move D, many of who appeared on his hugely influential Fax imprint. 

Neoclassical. Atmospheric, brooding and frequently found in the domain of film soundtracks, the genre draws on a palette of traditional instrumentation and contemporary electronics. Popularised by the likes of Hannah Peel, Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm.

Netherworld. Much of Alessandro Tedeschi’s work as Netherworld is based around field recordings of glaciers or waterfalls, but he’s also manipulated sounds generated by the aurora borealis. The gloriously icy ‘Over The Summit’ from 2011 is a great starting point. Tedeschi is also the founder and boss of the superb Glacial Movements label. 

New Age. Rooted in the Mind, Body & Spirit movement that started in 1970s California and developed through meditation retreats, a growing number of the current generation of ambient artists seem to be taking their cues from the healing intent at the heart of the new age scene. 

New Age Grammys. Presented to the “Best New Age, Ambient Or Chant Album”, this Grammy category was launched in 1987 and has previously been won by Peter Gabriel, Mark Isham, Shadowfax and Kitaro¯. The 2024 winner will be announced at next month’s awards ceremony.

Phill Niblock. Using layered tones in dense and often atonal tunings, Niblock’s music is characterised by long passages and restless harmonic movements. For a good overview of his work, seek out ‘A Young Person’s Guide’ (Blast First, 1995). The photographer-turned composer has been the head of the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York for almost 40 years. 

Nico. There will never be another Nico. Take her 1974 version of The Doors’ ‘The End’, which eschews the psychedelic tropes of the original and is full of episodic sound interventions – from the droning harmonium that was a regular feature of her work to John Cale’s domineering piano and Phil Manzanera’s textural guitar.

Richard Norris. One of the UK’s most prolific electronicists – The Grid (with Dave Ball), Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve (with Erol Alkan) – Norris’ recent ambient works carry a deep spiritual resonance. Last year, he released a quite remarkable 12-part series called ‘Music For Healing’, with a new volume available on the first day of every month, each of them consisting of two 20-minute pieces. 


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‘Obscure Sound’. Compiled by esteemed Tokyo DJ and record store owner Chee Shimizu, ‘Obscure Sound’ is an expansive catalogue of 600 albums, categorised into genres including “organic”, “spiritual”, “cosmic” and “floating”. The book is 10 years old now, but it’s still an ambient crate digger’s dream.

‘Ocean Of Sound’. David Toop’s 2001 book is an astonishing work. A hugely respected experimental musician, curator and writer, Toop interviewed everyone from Brian Eno and Sun Ra to Kate Bush and Lee “Scratch” Perry, drawing the historical strands of immersive electronic music into a narrative that feels almost ambient in its own right. 

Pauline Oliveros. A visionary genius, Oliveros co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s. She worked at the avant-garde music lab with Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley and Steve Reich before coming up with the concept of deep listening, as explored with fellow members of the beautifully meditative Deep Listening Band. 

Oneohtrix Point Never. American producer Daniel Lopatin signed to Warp in 2013, but his work as OPN first came to the attention of the wider public with ‘Rifts’ (No Fun, 2009), a compilation of his early synth recordings. ‘Replica’ (Mexican Summer, 2012), which wove fragmented TV jingles into dark drones, consolidated this success. 

The Orb. Where to begin? So many astounding sounds, so little space. Especially once we’ve mentioned ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’ – Minnie Riperton and all – a track that’s every bit as thrilling now as it was 35 years ago. Arise, Sir Alex Paterson.

Otherworldly. Unknown planets. The mysteries of the galaxy. The final frontier. Many artists have tried to tap into that innate “otherworldliness” – Pole’s ‘3’, Cold Womb Descent’s ‘Ldaovh Trilogy’, Robert Scott Thompson’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, NGC 3019’s ‘Exoplanet Atmospheres’ and Sound Of Space Project’s ‘Celestial Incantations’ – to name a few. 


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Pablo’s Eye. As nebulous as ambient music itself, this abstract collective from Belgium formed in 1989. Led by Axel Libeert, their influential output veers from placid to psychotropic, and thanks to reissues by the Stroom imprint, they’ve amassed new fans in recent times.

Charlemagne Palestine. One of the American minimalist’s most significant works is ‘Four Manifestations On Six Elements’, a sublime sonic journey over six tracks and part of Palestine’s quest to find what he called “the golden sound” – a pure essence – via electronics and piano. It was first issued as a private pressing in 1974, but can now be found on Bandcamp. 

Marta De Pascalis. Five albums into her stride, Berlin-based Italian sound artist Marta De Pascalis uses tape loops and synths to make what you might call intense ambient. An oxymoron, perhaps, but rule-breaking thrills ahoy!

Phew. Disorienting electronics and manipulated vocals define one-time punk singer Phew’s solo output over the last 10 years, but the Japanese experimentalist’s forays into ambient areas are equally arresting, especially on tracks such as ‘The Very Ears Of Morning’ and ‘In The Waiting Room’. 

Richard Pike. One third of former Warp outfit PVT, founder of the Salmon Universe label and an award-winning TV soundtrack composer, Australian multi-instrumentalist Pike records elegant ambient music as a member of Forgiveness and as a solo artist under the name Deep Learning. 

Pink Floyd. The Mogadon warmth of some of Pink Floyd’s work places them in the ambient vector – the dreamy and oddball passages of ‘Echoes’, the ominous synth drone of ‘Obscured By Clouds’ or the opening glide of ’Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. Or ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ in its entirety in the company of a Camberwell Carrot.

Pioneering. Pushing the envelope, albeit often in a quiet fashion. Innovative techniques, new technologies and different ways of thinking have been applied across the many iterations of ambient, enabling its creators to ultimately redefine what music can be.

Plastikman. Abandoning his early acid workouts, Richie Hawtin took minimal techno to new heights with his third Plastikman album, the cavernous and all-enveloping ‘Consumed’ (Novamute, 1998). He revisited the record with the help of celebrated pianist Chilly Gonzales a couple of years ago. 

The Polyphonic Spree. ‘A Long Day’, the final 36-minute track on ‘The Beginning Stages Of…’, the Spree’s 2002 debut album, is an audacious marathon of processed voices. It’s probably the first time a lot of indie kids experienced anything that sounded remotely ambient. 

‘Pop Ambient’. Kompakt’s acclaimed compilation series dates back to 2001, with a fresh volume appearing every year. Tracks for each release are selected by Kompakt co-founder and GAS man Wolfgang Voigt, with The Orb, Tim Hecker, Alva Noto and The Field among the long list of contributors. 

Popol Vuh. Florian Fricke’s shapeshifting German collective swung between krautrock, kosmische and prog, but their quasi-mystical and ambient-leaning releases such as ‘Affenstunde’ (1970) and ‘Hosianna Mantra’ (1972) are extraordinary. 


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Quiet. Quiet is an endangered state, almost impossible to experience in our hyper-normalised society. The illusion of quietness is one of the great attractions of ambient music.

Quiet Details. Curated by Al Gold, aka Fields We Found, Quiet Details began operations early last year, with artists invited to offer a response to the name of the label. The Humble Bee, Field Lines Cartographer, Cat Tyson Hughes and Luke Sanger are among the contributors so far.


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Lou Reed. It’s probably not a name you’d expect to see here.Reed’s final solo album, however, the recently reissed ‘Hudson River Wind Meditations’ from 2007, is rooted in ornate and compelling ambient soundscapes, reflecting his love of drone music and his passion for tai chi, yoga and meditation. ‘Metal Machine Music’ it ain’t.

Repetition. Repeat after Eno, “Repetition is a form of change”. In musical terms, it proves that getting caught in a (tape) loop can be not so much a dead end, but rather a catalyst for change.

The Residents. The American art-rock collective enjoyed the odd concept album – and some of them were extremely odd. ‘Eskimo’, released in 1979 on their own Ralph imprint, is The Residents’ avant-ambient masterpiece, an imaginary world of found sounds and sonic collages created on home-made instruments. 

Ottorino Respighi. One of the leading Italian composers of the 20th century, Respighi wrote three orchestral tone poems about Rome between 1916 and 1928. The most notable of these, ‘Pines Of Rome’ (1924), evokes the pine trees of the Villa Borghese gardens. The third movement includes field recordings of birds played alongside the orchestra on a Brunswick phonograph. 

Reversing Lorries. We’ve all heard dark ambient tracks that are reminiscent of this, right? Years ago, you knew where you were with trucks and their “Warning, vehicle reversing” message. But what’s the new rasping sound? It’s horrible. There’s no greater sleight to Eno’s legacy than an HGV backing into an alley. Make it stop.

Robert Rich. His career began in the 1980s with all-night, live performances in San Francisco that attempted to influence the dreams of sleeping audience members. Rich went on to pioneer his own organic ambience, however, and these “glurp” techniques are showcased most eloquently on his splendidly squelchy ‘Bestiary’ album (Relapse, 2001). 

Charles Richard. Richard’s ‘Sonic Earth’ was a definitive Glacial Movements release from 2021. Through vibrational, state-of-the-art surface speakers, the Royal College of Art alumnus essentially synthesises the sounds of rocks, exposing the revelatory hum of the planet’s resonating geology. 

Terry Riley. The line between ambience and minimalism is thin, and a brace of albums from Californian maverick Riley straddle it effortlessly. ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ (CBS, 1969) is a hypnotic studio production, while ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ (Shandar, 1972) comprises thrilling live workouts on the electric organ.

Roedelius. Hans-Joachim Roedelius, often known simply as Roedelius, co-founded Berlin’s Zodiak Free Arts Lab with Conrad Schnitzler as well as partnering Dieter Moebius in Cluster and Harmonia. As a solo artist, he’s also produced some of the most sublime ambient instrumentals of the 20th century and his influence is everywhere – from Eno and Bowie through to Stereolab, Max Richter and Tim Hecker. 

Run-Off Grooves. Listening to your favourite record? Dozed off on the sofa? What you wake up to is the sound of the needle dragging along the run-off groove, a never-ending loop of scrapes and crackles. It can be quite therapeutic, but you’ll have to pop to Richer Sounds for a new needle.

Dasha Rush. A Russian-born French citizen, Dasha Rush creates delicate swirls of atmospheres and textures for her exquisite and avant-garde ambient work. Her recent album ‘Contemplating’ nudges at the border of sound art.


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The Sabres Of Paradise. For the purposes of this list, it’s all about ‘Smokebelch II’. The closing track of ‘Sabresonic’, The Sabres Of Paradise’s 1993 debut album, it’s arguably Andrew Weatherall’s finest composition. As one YouTube commenter put it – “quite possibly the greatest sunrise track ever made”.

Ryuichi Sakamoto. The ardent sonic adventurer’s late-career albums, particularly 2017’s ‘Async’ and last year’s ‘12’ (both on his Commmons label) are exquisitely wrought and reflective gems, with Sakamoto at his most spartan and an all-pervading sense of memento mori hanging heavy.

Marta Salogni & Tom Relleen. The Italian producer’s ‘Music For Open Spaces’ album was one of 2023’s best. Composed with her late partner, Tom Relleen, the tracks are inspired by physical and metaphysical spaces. Spontaneously improvised, dreamlike and emotive, they pull at your heartstrings. Do as Salogni says and “just let yourself drift and wander, as you wish”.

Erik Satie. The French composer’s delicate, mesmerising piano works echo loudly through ambient music. Crucially, Satie’s concept of what he called “furniture music” – something that could exist in the background, important but unobtrusive – was a key influence on Eno’s proto-ambient album ‘Discreet Music’ (Obscure, 1975). 

Scanner. From his early releases via Touch Music, featuring intercepted phone conversations, to his numerous site-specific installations, Robin Rimbaud has challenged the foundational principles of ambient music many times over. ‘Sound Surface’, the live improvisation he created with the American sound and visual artist Stephen Vitiello in 2004, was Tate Modern’s first sonic art commission.

Ulrich Schnauss. With their ethereal evocations and uplifting chord progressions, Schnauss’ defining albums ‘Far Away Trains Passing By’ and ‘A Strangely Isolated Place’ (City Centre Offices, 2001 and 2003 respectively) swirl with lush textures. Plug in and – in the words of the man himself – “leave reality behind for a while”. 

Klaus Schulze. Swathed in minimal soundscapes and hypnotic drones, Schulze’s transcendental ‘Irrlicht’ album (Ohr, 1972) was a huge statement of intent. The krautrock legend’s ‘The Dark Side Of The Moog’ collaborations with Pete Namlook in the 1990s – trippy, atonal ambient and kosmische jams – also deserve a mention.

Paul Schütze. The Australian sound designer made his debut with ‘Deus Ex Machina’ (Extreme, 1989), a dramatic piece that slowly unfolds over the course of an hour. Between installations, scores, operas and live performances, Schütze is a relentless quiet music innovator.

The ‘Seagram’ Murals. Commissioned in 1958 for New York’s Four Seasons restaurant, Mark Rothko’s ‘Seagram’ murals were a series of paintings intended to upset the diners, but he withdrew them before they were installed. Rothko later gave some of them to the Tate. Ominous, sinister and impenetrable, they are the physical embodiment of dark ambient. 

Seefeel. Emerging into the grunge-obsessed indie scene of the early 1990s, this UK four-piece eschewed plaid shirts to create shiny shoegaze anthems with an electronic shimmer. Sarah Peacock’s floating vocals lend additional ethereal class to their breakthrough album, ‘Quique’ (Too Pure, 1993).

Shakkei. A Japanese word crudely translating as “borrowed scenery”. It refers to the concept of creating spaces that blend seamlessly with landscapes existing beyond a particular boundary, an illusion of depth often paralleled in ambient music composition. 

Sky. Günter Körber wasted no time in recruiting some big hitters when he launched Sky Records in Hamburg in the mid-1970s. The superlative ‘Cluster & Eno’ collaboration set the tone and the addition of a post-Neu! Michael Rother ensured further prestige for the German label. 

‘Sleep’. One of Andy Warhol’s earliest silent film experiments, ‘Sleep’ (1964) lasted over five hours and featured close-up shots of the poet John Giorno sleeping. Any sections where Giorno became restless were edited out, filling the film with small and subtle moments.

The Slow Music Movement. “Lazy days, hazy moments and dancing to a slower groove…” The Slow Music Movement began life as a discerning blog curating laid-back sounds from the furthest imaginable corners and has now launched its own label. TSMM’s next offering is ‘Null Point’ by London musician Wil Bolton, who specialises in warm and emotive melodies. 

The Slow Music Project. Focusing on textural and environmental music, this acclaimed improv outfit was active for just a couple of years in the mid-2000s. Led by multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin, who worked with everyone from Ministry to King Crimson, it featured Robert Fripp and Hector Zazou. 

Space. A chunk of the material on Space’s self-titled 1990 album was meant for The Orb’s debut, but Jimmy Cauty, Alex Paterson’s original partner, retooled a weekend’s worth of Oberheim synth jams into a solo mission. Cauty released the result, a trip to the edge of the solar system, via KLF Communications. 

Space Music. We may not be able to physically travel to distant galaxies, but space music aims to take us there via atmospheric and ethereal soundscapes, with synthesised textures, unfurling drones and minimalistic rhythms evoking the vastness and the mystery of the universe. 

Spacemen 3. Peak highs don’t come much higher than the segued ‘Ecstasy Symphony’ and ‘Transparent Radiation’ on Spacemen 3’s ‘The Perfect Prescription’ (Fire, 1987). A heady, psychedelic, mind-melting reflection of coming up.

‘Spaciousness’. Two key Lo Recordings compilations showcasing the new wave of ambient, new age and deep listening artists – Vanishing Twin, India Jordan and Abul Mogard, for instance – as well as reintroducing classic works from figures such as Laraaji and Iasos. 

Laurie Spiegel. ‘The Expanding Universe’ (Philo, 1980), Spiegel’s landmark electronic album, is an early exploration of the vast possibilities of computer-generated music. Using algorithmic composition, it’s an expansive and hugely atmospheric journey, capturing the essence of the cosmos as she saw it.

Spotted Peccary Music. “Deep, vast, introspective soundscapes” have been the focus of this American label for more than three decades, with artists such as David Helpling, Deborah Martin, AeTopus and Bart Hawkins producing music that has a strong connection to nature. 

Stars Of The Lid. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride, who sadly passed away just a few months ago. Stars Of The Lid’s broad ambient/drone driftscapes ooze with widescreen melancholy, like the resigned sigh of a weary world. Wiltzie’s other projects – A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Aix Em Klemm and The Dead Texan – are well worth your time too.

Pauline Anna Strom. West Coast synthesist, medium and healer, Strom’s visionary music – astral, futuristic, radiant and spiritual, somewhere between kosmische and new age – is all the more remarkable considering she was born blind. A selection of her material can be found on ‘Trans-Millenia Music’, a compilation released by RVNG Intl in 2017.

Subliminal. Despite the ominous connotations, there’s no manipulative hidden agenda here. Ambient’s low-volume whispers and barely perceptible melodies can transport us out of a state of analytical thinking, directly influencing our mood and our emotions. Just to double-check, you didn’t put those sausages under the grill, did you? 

David Sylvian. Sylvian’s post-Japan work has often strayed into ambient territory. His explorations of the beauty of emptiness with chums such as Fripp, Sakamoto and Czukay can be found on the ‘Camphor’ compilation (Venture, 2002), while ‘When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima’ (Samadhisound, 2007) is a 70-minute piece of sound art that will alter your environment.


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Midori Takada. Japanese percussionist and composer inspired by the minimalism of Steve Reich. Takada’s 1983 debut album, ‘Through The Looking Glass’, is a fragile, powerfully transcendent collection of four multi-instrumental pieces that has been latterly heralded as a pioneering ambient work.

Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream have bossed many areas of electronic music over the last 50-plus years, but their classic pieces are minimalist compositions and dreamlike sequences, immersive sonic landscapes that transcend conventional forms of music. ‘Phaedra’, their milestone 1974 album, is in a league of its own.

Irv Teibel. New age pioneer Irv Teibel released 11 volumes of his ‘Environments’ albums of field recording between 1969 and 1979, using early IBM computers to create lengthy soundscapes. “Fantastic for making love!” announced the sleeve of the first LP. The series is now available as an app.

Teleplasmiste. Mark O Pilkington and The Utopia Strong’s Michael J York are an unorthodox and esoteric duo. See ‘To Kiss Earth Goodbye’ (Strange Attractor, 2020). They’re a dangerous live prospect too, performing in a disused aeronautical wind tunnel through a 42-piece PA, making the audience’s eyeballs vibrate in their sockets.

Therapy. Ambient music as a therapeutic tool for mindfulness came into its own during the global pandemic. The number of releases in 2020 is a strong indication of how much both artists and listeners were drawn to comforting, enveloping sounds. 

This Is Darkness. An encyclopaedic blog for fans of dark ambient. Edited by Marylander Michael Barnett, the site features news, interviews, reviews of records, films and books, exclusive mixes and loads more.

This Mortal Coil. Was there ever a pop record – and as crushingly melancholic as it frequently gets, it is most assuredly a pop record – more atmospheric than ‘It’ll End In Tears’, This Mortal Coil’s first album? Not on your nelly. 

‘Times Square’. The most overlooked ambient sounds ever. Created in 1977 by percussionist and artist Max Neuhaus, the ‘Times Square’ installation transmits soothing tones from a subway grate between 45th and 46th Streets, right in the chaotic, noisy, tourist-thronged heart of Manhattan. 

Tone Poems. A piece of music inspired by a non-musical source, whether a poem, a book, a play or something else entirely. The term was first coined in the 19th century and it’s essentially about giving context to sound. Think Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo And Juliet’. Or better yet, Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’.

Penelope Trappes. Considering it comprises nothing more than her vocals, a piano and a reel-to-reel tape deck, Trappes’ 2023 album ‘Heavenly Spheres’ is a work of profoundly intricate proportions, at times resembling an orchestra of the undead.

Michal Turtle. Turtle crafted his 1983 album ‘Music From The Living Room’, a lo-fi homage to Eno’s wonkiest pop, after turning his parents’ Croydon home into a makeshift studio. He remains ultra-underground, but the 2016 compilation ‘Phantoms Of Dreamland’ is a further delightful dive into his curious lagoon. 

Jon Tye. Tye has certainly made his mark over the last 30-odd years – from post-rave bliss-outs with Pete Smith as MLO, to his future-ambient Seahawks and Ocean Moon projects. See Seahawks’ exceptional ‘Eternal Beams’ album with Laraaji (Ocean Moon, 2018). He also runs Lo Recordings, who released the outstanding ‘Spaciousness’ series.


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The Universe. The cosmos apparently emits a super-low hum that radiates throughout space. It’s to do with gravitational waves or pulsars or something. Or maybe it’s just Professor Brian Cox reviving his old band D:Ream as an ambient project. 

Unsound. An annual music festival that takes place in Kraków, Poland, Unsound celebrates all sorts of “emerging, experimental and left-field music”. Previous ambient-skewed acts have included The Caretaker, Ben Frost, Claire Rousay and Heinali.

Uplifting. So much ambient music glimmers and resonates with feel-good escapism. Try Boards Of Canada’s ‘Olson’, Ashra’s ‘Deep Distance’, Floating Points’ ‘Requiem For CS70 And Strings’ or Arooj Aftab’s ‘Island No 1’ for an instant hit. Tingles guaranteed.


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Vangelis. Is Vangelis’ ‘Blade Runner’ the greatest film soundtrack ever? Well, er, yes. With its slowly swaying electronic textures shifting ominously in the main theme, Vangelis crafted what will always be the perfect music for gradually taking in the vastness of a mega-city of the future. Saxophone, though?

Vast. In scope, that is – panoramic vistas, expansive hues, deep listening. Think GAS, Alva Noto, Sarah Davachi, Vladislav Delay and Whatever The Weather.

Veryan. Released only a couple of months ago, ‘Reflections In A Wilderness’ (Werra Foxma, 2023) is Veryan’s most obviously ambient work to date. Inspired by her isolated forest home in Scotland, the enigmatic musician describes the gently twinkling and effortlessly beautiful album as “a love letter to winter”.

Stephen Vitiello. NYC sound and visual artist Vitiello recorded at the World Trade Center in 1999, including using contact mics on the windows of the Twin Towers to capture the noises of the streets below. The results, released as ‘Sounds Building In The Fading Light’ (Creamgardens, 2001), presents the hubbub of Lower Manhattan as muted, ephemeral whispers. 

Adelbert Von Deyen. German composer and painter Von Deyen released three albums of ambient music in as many years, beginning with the metallic ‘Sternzeit’ in 1978. But it’s the last of these albums – the vast, Berlin School-esque ‘Atmosphere’ – that feels the most outward-looking and complete. 


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Whale Sounds. It began when ‘Songs Of The Humpback Whale’, a 1970 selection of aquatic warbling compiled by bioacoustician Roger Payne, unexpectedly went multi-platinum. Sampled by Pink Floyd and Kate Bush, it established whale song as a crucial component of new age ambience.

Keith Fullerton Whitman. A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, Whitman is perhaps best-known for his pounding drill ’n’ bass tracks under the name Hrvatski, but check out ‘Playthroughs’ (Kranky, 2002) for a soothing example of feedback-based ambience. 

Wind Chimes. The primitive ancestors of generative music. In a gentle breeze, the suspended parts of a wind chime bump against each other, giving outdoor spaces a calming sonic signature. 

Patricia Wolf. Organic instrumentation, electronics, voice and field recordings – including of Mount St Helens, where life returned just a few months after the famous volcanic eruption of 1980 – are all hallmarks of Patricia Wolf’s take on ambient.

Woob. His bank manager knows him as Paul Frankland, but he’s been Woob since the early 1990s. Newcomers should start with ‘Woob 1194’ (Em:t, 1994), on which frogs, ‘Star Trek’ samples and hypnotic beats are fused into a heady ambient brew. His two Journeyman albums with Colin Waterton are worth investigating too, especially ‘Mama 6’ (Ntone, 1994).


X

Iannis Xenakis. As well as his considerable electroacoustic work, the radical Greek-French composer’s avant-garde oeuvre was manifested in the spectacular sound and light shows he called “polytopes”. Xenakis also project-managed the multimedia Philips Pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels, with audiences hearing his musique concrète composition, ‘Concret PH’, as they exited.


Y

Hiroshi Yoshimura. A key figure in environmental music, his 1986 album ‘Surround’, which was originally commissioned by a Japanese housing company and has just been reissued by Temporal Drift, is a wash of blissful sounds designed to merge with the world around us. 


Z

Hector Zazou. Inspired by Satie’s minimalism and Peter Gabriel’s worldly aesthetic, Zazou’s ‘Géologies’ album (Crammed Discs, 1989) was a groundbreaking hybrid of electronics, orchestra and African timbres, laying the foundations for the French composer’s endlessly eclectic work. 

Zen. Ditching the beats is certainly one way of inspiring a feeling of calm in listeners. The concept of Zen – that often elusive holy grail of the mind – is one of ambient music’s most definitive goals. And if you can’t achieve the state of Zen, there’s always… 

Zzzzz. Soporific ambient music will soon have you nodding off. Max Richter’s eight-hour ‘Sleep’ and Robert Rich’s seven-hour ‘Somnium’ were pretty much designed for that purpose. Eternal favourites like Marconi Union’s lulling ‘Weightless’ and Bibio’s lovely ‘Phantom Brickworks’ will likely do it too. Sweet dreams. 

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