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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Before and After Ambient, Part 1

My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

In 1985, John Cage said to me, “I hear ambient sound as music.” Looking back on that comment now, I more fully understand the context in which he meant that. At that time, the idea of music being called ambient was new. Brian Eno more or less invented the modern usage of the term to characterize a fascinating stream of music, and albums that he produced, around blended quiet tonality with a low-volume energy that sank into the background of wherever you were. The music was like a cloud and was somewhat formless although harmonic, never based on an overarching musical structure that was primarily driven by rhythm and melody, but instead was an amorphous blend of agreeable sounds that really didn’t compete for one’s attention over whatever was going on. Eno produced a series of six seminal albums that captured his idea. Discreet Music on 1975, Before and After Science in 1977 and then an avalanche of ambient themed albums from 1979 and 1980 that were all part of what he called his ambient series, numbered 1 to 4. The first was the Eno-only production of Ambient 1: Music for Airports and the other three were productions of other artists including Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, and Laraaji. What each of these “ambient” recordings had in common is they were constructed primarily by mixing and remixing tape loops. The recorded loops were the building blocks—or grammars—of this music. Building a composition on blocks of sound and textures remains a part of what we think of as ambient.

Another aspect of ambient music is its often generative nature. Once a process is defined, as the tape delay system used for Discreet Music, the music is self-generating. As Eno has said, the composer “specifies a set of rules and then lets them make the thing.” Generative music typically has a different outcome each time it is executed. The composer’s role is to define the rules that create the music. Being self-generating, this style of algorithmic composition is frequently used for unattended music installations and we’ll hear some recent examples in the second part of Before and After Ambient.

What you are hearing in the background happens to be some generative ambient music created by a program developed by Eno and Peter Chilvers. In 2008, the two collaborated on Bloom, a generative music application for the Apple iPhone and, later, the iPad and MacBook Pro. The program can self-generate ambient-style soundscapes and the user may interact with it by touching the screen or fiddling with the cursor.

Over the years, the term ambient music has been conflated to mean many things. It is often used synonymously with minimal music, music incorporating natural sounds from the environment, drone music, new age, electronic music composed of ambient sounds, as in musique concrete, music made with tape delay, and any number of other elements. For my book, I defined it as “A musical style, often consisting of electronic textures, dominated by sustained harmonies rather than beats, played quietly with a continuity of energy that conveys a suspension of tension.” Rhythm and beats can be present, but they are generally part of the overall structure that holds a work together—such as continuous lines of syncopated computer tones, repeated in patterns, or a latent drum beat without fills and accents that would otherwise break the peace. What I often find of ambient music is that is lacks a focus on melody, instead moving without moving on the energy of chords and a sense of underlying structure that does not require direction so much as an ecosytem of sound. This is a music where the arc of tension is mostly sustained throughout and sharp, dissonant sounds or sudden changes in dynamics are disallowed. It is also music that blends into the environment in such a way that it can blend with human activity, sometimes without being noticed. Brian Eno explained his approach in a somewhat similar way. In 2017, he stated that, “For me, the central idea was about music as a place you go to. Not a narrative, not a sequence that has some sort of teleological direction to it—verse, chorus, this, that, and the other. … In my case, because of my musical tastes, it also meant quiet and mellow. But it doesn’t have to be that; [1982’s] On Land is an example of ambient music that isn’t quiet and mellow, it’s sinister and quite dark. But mostly people took the quiet and mellow bit, which for me was just a stylistic aspect of it, not the philosophical aspect—they took that as being what ambient music is. So, for me, a lot of the stuff that gets called ambient is a kind of an accidental offshoot of my taste.”

So, if we consider Eno’s work ground zero for ambient music, the years 1975 to 1980, what music came before that may have led his to this idea, and what music has come since that carries on his original ideas? I will attempt to present recordings representing both of those points of view and in this and the next podcast. I am calling this episode Before and After Ambient, to capture that idea. We will hear only four works of Eno himself, beginning about midway through this episode. In the next episode we will listen to more recent examples of what could be called ambient music by Eno’s definition.

The first part of this episode features forerunners of ambient music. The music is spare, often with repeated phrasings that are disassociated from melody and rhythm. These works sustain an energy level and evade the idea of having a beginning, middle, and end. We will hear one of the early works credited as ambient music, a couple of phrases from the piano version of Erik Satie’s Vexations from 1894 followed by an electronic rendition by the Argentinean artist Bhutan. John Cage and Morton Feldman were each early practitioners of ambient like music. Cage wrote In a Landscape in 1948 and we’ll hear a modern version for electric harp, played Victoria Jordanova. Then we’ll hear a piano and cello rendition of Projection I by Morton Feldman from 1950. I think you’ll be struck by the similarities between his work and that of Harold Budd some thirty years later. Harold Budd, also a pianist was a long-standing fan of Feldman. From 1964 we’ll hear the peculiar electronic music of Raymond Scott from an album called Soothing Sounds for Baby, Volume 1. This legendary work is from a set of electronic works that Scott produced as background music to help babies go to sleep. The electronic music was produced with his own creation, the Electronium, a from-scratch built custom synthesizer that combines electronic sequencing with tone generation and various filters. Next is an early work of Eliane Radigue from 1970, created using filtered feedback for an art exhibition in Paris. That is followed by another female composer of electronic music, Tereza Rampazzi and a tape piece called Environ where she used electronics to create an ambient environment that might be considered to be sounds from nature. We will hear a work from Harmonia in 1974, a group that included musicians Roedelius and Moebius

We move into the Brian Eno era beginning in 1975 with an excerpt from Discreet Music. Eno worked with a synthesizer and tape delay. Eno expressed a somewhat indifferent attitude toward the outcome, saying, “Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated toward situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part. That is to say, I tend toward the roles of planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.” His approach was identical to that of Pauline Oliveros years earlier except that the sound material was specifically harmonic and he did not modify or interact with the sound once the process was set in motion. Then, from Before and After Science, we’ll hear Eno’s “Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd).” Going in chronological orders, we’ll hear a couple other works by Robert Ashley, and excerpt from Automatic Writing, and a work to accompany meditation by Sri Dinesh. Returning to Eno, we’ll hear a track from Ambient 1: Music for Airports, then another work by Teresa Rampazzi composed using a computer, and finally a track from Conrad Schnitzler who developed his own take on ambient music.

Episode 110

Before and After Ambient, Part 1


1. Erik Satie, “Vexations” (1893-94), First, we will hear two piano versions (1 and 4) of this short work that was intended to be played repeatedly in one sitting 840 times in succession. The piano version was performed by Jeroen van Veen on the album Satie, Complete Piano Music (2016 Brilliant Classics). Then, we will hear an electronic version by Bhutan from Vexations (2016 Venado). Argentinean group Bhutan realized this electronic version of the Erik Satie piece in 2016. I thought it would be fitting to open the program with this because Satie’s was one of the first works to be recognized in recent times as a kind of proto ambient composition. Satie preferred the term “furniture music” and thought that it would be suitable for background sound during a dinner party. The Bhutan version, realized in electronic instrumentation, is a fitting bridge of the old and the new when it comes to ambient compositions.

2. John Cage, “In A Landscape” (1948) from In A Landscape played by Victoria Jordanova (2007 Arpaviva Recordings). This early Cage work was originally arranged either for piano or harp. It is very much the interpretation that makes this akin to ambient music. I selected this version for electric harp because it maintains the original’s sense of suspended time and energy. I also like William Orbit’s version but he took the orchestration to greater lengths and transforming it into something not so ambient. There is also a really quiet piano version by Stephen Drury which remains true to Cage’s original intent of being “soft and meditative” with “resonances” being sustained by depressing both pedals throughout the performance. But I included this version for electric harp by Jordanova because it is more in tune with the electronic nature of the music we feature in this program.

3. Morton Feldman, “Projection 1” (1950) from Arne Deforce, Yutaka Oya, Patterns In A Chromatic Field (2009 Aeon). Cello, Arne Deforce; Piano, Yutaka Oya; composed by, Morton Feldman. This is an acoustic work by Feldman (I couldn’t find any electronic renditions) but I include it to draw similarities to the work of Harold Budd, also a pianist. In fact, Feldman was a long-standing favorite of Budd.

4. Raymond Scott, “Sleepy Time” from Soothing Sounds for Baby, Volume 1 (1964 Epic). This legendary work is from a set of electronic and ambient records that Scott produced in the early 1960s as background music to help babies go to sleep. The electronic music was produced with his own creation, the Electronium, a from-scratch built custom synthesizer that combines electronic sequencing with tone generation and various filters.

5. Eliane Radigue, “Vice - Versa, Etc. (Mix 1)” (1970) from (2013 Vice - Versa, Etc.). Processed tape reorder feedback. Realized at the composer's studio in Paris. Premiered in 1970 at Galerie Lara Vincy in Paris, on the occasion of a group exhibition. The stereo synthesis presented here was made in Lyon at Studio Fluorescent between 2010 and 2011 by Emmanuel Holterbach. Produced, composed, recorded using feedback by Eliane Radigue. Originally conceived as a sound installation, using several reel-to-reel tape players controlled through a mixing desk. The tapes could be played at different speeds, either forward or backward, right channel only, left channel only or simultaneously. The audience could create their own mix.

6. Teresa Rampazzi (N.P.S.), “Environ” (1970) from Musica Endoscopica (2008 Die Schachtel). Created in 1970, this work represents a kind of reproduction in electronic sound of an ambient environment, peppered with noise and even voice. Rampazzi was a pioneering female composer of electronic music who founded the N.P.S. (Nuove Proposte Sonore) group and studio, where this was realized.

7. Harmonia, “Hausmusik” from Harmonia (1974 Brain). Recorded and produced June - November '73 in the Harmonia home studio. Guitar, Piano, Organ, electronic percussion, Michael Rother; Organ, Keyboards, Guitar, electronic percussion, J. Roedelius; Synthesizer, Guitar, electronic percussion, D. Moebius.

8. Brian Eno, “Discreet Music” (excerpt) from Discreet Music (1976 Obscure). Synthesizer with Digital Recall System, Graphic Equalizer, Echo Unit, Delay, Tape, Brian Eno. Brian Eno (b. 1948) worked with tape delay much in the manner defined by Oliveros for I of IV. However, he expressed a somewhat indifferent attitude toward the outcome. He described the realization of Discreet Music (1975): “Since I have always preferred making plans to executing them, I have gravitated toward situations and systems that, once set into operation, could create music with little or no intervention on my part. That is to say, I tend toward the roles of planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results.” Eno’s composition consisted of a diagram of the devices used to generate the music. His approach was identical to that of Oliveros except that the sound material was specifically melodic and he did not modify or interact with the sound once the process was set in motion. The result in Discreet Music is the gradual transformation of a recognizable musical phrase. These 10 minutes are excerpted from the beginning of the extended work lasting 31 minutes.

9. Brian Eno, “Through Hollow Lands (For Harold Budd)” from Before and After Science (1977 Island). Bass, Paul Rudolph; Vocals, Bell, Mini-Moog, CS80, AKS synthesizers, piano, guitar, Brian Eno. This is one of the only tracks that I would consider to be ambient from this album.

10.Robert Ashley, “Automatic Writing” (excerpt) (1974–79) from Automatic Writing (1979 Lovely Music). This work was much talked about when it was released on record by Lovely Music Ltd. in 1979. Ashley wrote it over a five-year period after having just come back from his self-imposed exile from composing in the early 1970s. He performed it many times in various formative stages with the Sonic Arts Union before finally committing it to disc. It does indeed have a vocal, but it is also imbued with quiet, ASMR kinds of sounds that mesmerize. The basic musical material of Automatic Writing was the spoken voice, closely miked, uttering what Ashley characterized as “involuntary speech”: random, seemingly rational comments that might not make sense at all, depending on the context in which they were heard. These 10 minutes are excerpted from the beginning of the extended work lasting 46 minutes.

11.Sri Dinesh, “Le Chant Des Étoiles” from Para Symphonie (1978 Alain Grima). French album of music to accompany meditation. It consists largely of short, repeated organ patterns and falls within the frame of mind for which ambient music was intended.

12.Brian Eno, “2/2” from Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). Engineer, Conny Plank (yes, the producer of Kraftwerk). Composed, conceptualized, produced and engineered by Brian Eno.

13.Theresa Rampazzi, “Atmen Noch” (1980) from from Musica Endoscopica (2008 Die Schachtel).

14.Conrad Schnitzler, “Control B” from Control (1981 Dys). Edition of 1000 copies. An electronic work by Schnitzler, who played the devices, produced, and recorded the music.

Opening background music: Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, Bloom 3.2 (10) (2014 Opal Ltd.). Bloom is a generative music application that composes ambient music. This recording was made using Bloom running in “Classic” mode on a Macbook Pro running Ventura 13.5.2.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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