by Al Gromer Khan©
It is true that the term ´Ambient Music´ was coined by Brian Eno. It is also true that Eno is often not all that original. The idea of music representing an interior, for instance, goes back to the French composer Eric Satie. And John Cage – a strong influence on Eno´s work, and one who is often quoted by him – frequently worked with ideas concerning the environment as ´music´. However, Eno did more or less represent the Ambient-Underground in the mid-nineteen seventies. His purpose-designed record label Ambient-Records and the classic releases Music For Airports, On Land, Plateau Of Mirrors, etc.stem from the social core of painters, authors and musicians that surrounded him at that time. Home-made music cassettes with self-created sonic spaces were sent out to friends and colleagues, everyone trying to outdo one another in terms of eccentricity. And when Eno released his first Ambient album in 1978, the English music press were having a field day in ridiculing him: ´impressionist´ and ´bore´ were the more generous terms used here. On the other hand no one could deny Eno´s capability of creating sounds that had never been heard before – his ´musical instrument´ being the recording studio - his brain? The fact that his compositions corresponded with highly specific archetypal human states of mind was never mentioned by him. Either he did not look at it that way at all, or the discretion of the English gentleman and his good taste forbade using religious vocabulary - on this we can only guess. At the same time there is a religious feeling, a contemplative and sublime mood in many of his works. This new type of contemplation stands in contrast to conventional methods of worshipping a ´personal God´, and to a large degree appears to unmask the hypocrisy of the institutions. Could it be that modern art is about to replace religion in this new age we are, apparently, about to enter? In that case, a high standard of thinking and responsibility should be required from its participants.
I understand an ambience to be a defined space containing a specific atmosphere. In which kind of ambiences was I happiest? What were the important components? Perhaps when the apartment lingered in an improvised, unfinished state with a feeling of nonchalance about it? Let us include one or two beautiful objects, antique perhaps, and patinated. An old chair, a drinking glass for less than a dollar from the flea-market or a piece of Ming porcelain – no matter. They want space to breathe. And despite its hermetic condition, a high ambience also needs a view, even if it´s only a tree and a bit of open sky.
There are traps lurking in Ambient Music. One observes with bemusement musicians falling victim to them, while busy making commercial use of the genre, content with merely using the outer form. A disco style named ´Ambient´ came and went in the 1990s. At first sight, participation of the less gifted Ambient-artist might not be obvious since the industry enthusiastically supplies all the hardware and software. Obvious criteria of judgment are not available. Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol and their idea that in this new age we should all be artists, and everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes, come to mind. Like I said: this is at first sight. Upon careful examination, however, we find that Ambient contains hard to define elements of feng shui, of ´creating space´ - a gift not everyone has. Even though ´spiritual´ terms are pretty much tabooed in Ambient, it isa spiritual effect that is sought, one that is not very different from the old-fashioned silent prayer. This gift – wonderfully present in Eno´s work – can neither be obtained nor copied – it has to be inherent in the artist from birth. It is at the artist´s discretion whether he/she can raise not only interest in the listener, but also gratitude.
How do you create this magnetic pull with minimalist means? What is the secret involved? Could it be the balance between female and male components, as in electricity? In terms of attitude it seems important that a conscious choice is made about what kind of sonic tapestry one surrounds oneself with in a given situation – and that this makes a lot of difference in one´s wellbeing. While this may be said about any type of music, I would point out that Ambient is a lot more subtle and- like homeopathy – its influence, therefore, is more far-reaching. In many cases painful experiences stemming from environmental noise: cars, mechanical tools, blaring TV-sets, background music in shops and restaurants, the boom-boom sound of the adolescent car-owner are the origin of this kind of longing for a benign kind of sonic background.
Ambient´s other distinction is on the structural level. Where ´classical music´, pop, jazz, folk etc. seek entertainment, more and obvious harmonic changes, drama and wit, Ambient uses minimalist continuity with few ambiguous and subtle highlights in order to avoid the former. This continuity, ideally, should not, in the course of repetition, wear off, but rather should it gain an energetic charge. How this is achieved is up to the artist´s discretion and his intuition. And I would like to take the opportunity to point out that 95 per cent of our brain are of the intuitive kind. Unlike other areas of life, education and practice play a lesser role in Ambient-music. Ambient looks for sublime and abstract forms.
While pop and rock have, over the decades and with the help of beer degenerated into a kind of acoustic pornography, Ambient prefers to remain in the realm of the subtle, the lyrical, the ambiguous. For me this corresponds with the painter Wassily Kandinsky´s step into abstract painting around 1910.
Since Ambient is about interiors – interiors of the soul -, one should be familiar with the feeling of relief at the removal of cluttering from rooms, and the tabula rasa-position where one is able to think about new arrangements and designs in places where one spends one´s life. Accordingly you don´t make Ambient-music, you merely remove the uncongenial components while organizing the rest in an inspiring way. A person enters a room and feels comfort in terms of feng shui, in terms of less is more - the Bauhaus principle. Virtues of neglect come to bear. The brain finds pleasure in completing intimations and fragments, small musical quotations open up rooms for the soul to dwell in. What is there is not blanketed but made conscious: the wind in the trees, the cooing of the pigeons under the roof, the big city hum in the distance. Where other types of music try to please, Ambient doesn´t, it merely is what it is – settled within itself, concerned only with making the small amount of its melodic components enjoyable in a specific environment.
A further distinction in Ambient is made in its relationship with New Age and Wellness Music. Why? Mc Donalds Muzak etc. often comes seductively close to Ambient, albeit only at the outside and in terms of category. Aspiration and emotional content in Ambient are diametrically opposed to Muzak. The latter tries to manipulate the listener with a sentimental postcard – confirms a fixed idea. Real Ambient is something in itself, however primitive or humble a composition may present itself, it removes something from the listener.
Purpose-bound types of music work with simple projections, produced for commercial goals by people who could as well be selling margarine. The customer usually accepts the described purpose – after all, it seems to be produced by an expert – and remains on an artificial level of feeling, a simple projection. No harm done, you may say. But I would come back with: without fasting no true pleasure - and above all no healing. There is no sentimental expectation in Ambient – it is a simple and simply a soundtrack for your life, a painting by Rothko, rather than Renoir. Eno´s apparently purpose-bound title Music For Airports represents an artistic ambiguity, instead of an actual purpose.
Then why listen to music at all, in this noise-weary time? Wouldn´t the enjoyment of silence be the adequate answer? Ambient-music does offer the possibilityof addressing and activating certain emotional frequencies - some of exquisite charm – just off your normal everyday ones, while creating a continuing, distant, futuristic, a ´cool´ atmosphere. Without Ambient-music such emotional frequencies, while being available in most people - might be easily undervalued or even outright overlooked.
In my own work there is often a sitar phrase that serves as a bait in order for the subconscious to open up and become active. Feelings are focused and subsequently lead into a neutral field. Usually I work with a structural fragment that lends itself to an ostinato or a cyclic movement. Very often this work process starts long before a new piece of music actually comes into existence; I observe the seed to find out whether or not something will sprout from it or not. In this phase I merely observe while at the same time it needs my exclusive attention. As I regularly and keenly observe – even worship - nature, it is possible that my work contains more feminine than masculine components. But this could also be a kind of protest against the overwhelming masculinity in most aspects of society in this day and age.
During the work process I am on a constant lookout for the miraculous, and that this new piece may want something from me, something new, something unusual. In that case I follow the inspiration, discarding any pre-meditated route and observe with interest what happens to me and the music. As Vilayat Khan says: after a little time of playing I myself become the listener. In a kind of music that makes sense while watching clouds, birds, trees in the wind. Sensible tasks for human beings.
Al Gromer Khan © 2015