Before and After Ambient, Part 2
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.
In this second part of my series on ambient music, I have settled on the following musical definition of ambient for the purposes of narrowing the field of choices. Ambient is 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 ecosytemof 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.
In the first part, we explored forerunners of the ambient sound, including works by Erik Satie, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Eliane Radique, and Teresa Rampazzi. Then we hit the motherlode of Brian Eno’s output in the late 70s which leads to various works on the ambient idea by other artists including Harold Budd, Robert Ashley, and Conrad Schnitzler. In this part, we explore a variety of ambient sounds from the early 1980s to the nearly present. We’ll hear some things from the prolific Japanese vein of ambient from the 1980s, ambient works from Pete Namlook and Tetsu Inoue from the 90s and early 2000, the recent work of Sarah Davachi and Caroline Park, and a few little heard recordings from a number more obscure artists who nonetheless continued to travel the road to ambient music with focused dedication.
The opening background music is a sampling of generative ambient music created using a program called Droneo by Henry Lowengard. Henry was good enough to let me know about his program after hearing part 1 of this series on ambient music. Droneo can run on a smart phone and allows you adjust musical parameters such as the tonal system being used and timbre of the sound to create self-generating music with which you can interact. It will bathe your mind in polyphonic sound.
Before and After Ambient, Part 2
1. Midori Takada, “Mr. Henri Rousseau's Dream” from Through The Looking Glass (1983 RCA Red Seal). 高田みどり (Midori Takada) is a Japanese composer and percussionist. She was a key figure in the Japanese ambient movement of the 1980s. Composed, performed, produced, Marimba, Gong, Cowbell, Recorder, Wood Bell, Ocarina, Tam-tam, Midori Takada. She performed all of the instruments on this album. The album was not immediately popular but seeded the nascent ambient movement that was growing in Japan at the time.
2. Midori Takada, “Trompe-l’œil” from Through The Looking Glass (1983 RCA Red Seal). 高田みどり (Midori Takada) is a Japanese composer and percussionist. She was a key figure in the Japanese ambient movement of the 1980s. Composed, performed, produced, Marimba, Gong, Cowbell, Recorder, Wood and clay Bells, Ocarina, Tam-tam, Cola Bottle, Reed Organ, Midori Takada. She performed all of the instruments on this album.
3. Brian Eno and Harold Budd, “Their Memories” from The Pearl (1984 Editions EG). Composed by Brian Eno, Harold Budd; produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
4. David Behrman, “Interspecies Smalltalk Scene 2” (1984) from Leapday Night (1987 Lovely Music). Composed, produced, and computers by David Behrman; violin, Takehisa Kosugi. "Interspecies Smalltalk" (1984) is an interactive piece originally commissioned by the Cunningham Dance Company.
5. Yutaka Hirose, “Light Which Shakes Quietly” from Nova+4 (2019 WRWTFWW Records). Bonus track on this reissued album that dates from 1986. Composed , Arranged and Computer by, Yutaka Hirose; Synthesizer, Jun Tohyama.
6. Takashi Kokubo, “A Dream Sails Out To Sea - Scene 3” (2019 Light In The Attic). Originally released in 1987, this track was part of the new wave of Japanese ambient music. By that time, Kokubo was already reknown for his synthesizer skills on a part with Isao Tomita. He turned to sound design and ambient music and has been instrumental in addition to creating such sounds as the nationally-used mobile phone earthquake alert and credit card payment jingles.
7. Yoichiro Yoshikawa, “Nube” from Cyprus (1988 Eastworld). Original sound track of Japanese TV program. Yoshikawa was already a reliable session musician when he acquired one of the first Phophet-5 synthesizers in Japan. He quickly became a go-to composer for television and other purposes, such as soundscapes for museum exhibitions.
8. Tetsu Inoue, “Low of Vibration” from Ambiant Otaku (1994 Fax +49-69/450464). Before I met Tetsu around the year 2000, I was fascinated by music such as this which had all of the elements of ambient music—slow and forming harmonies, spatial rhythms rather than beats, and a sustained energy throughout—without sounding at all like something out of an Eno production. Produced and performed by Tetsu Inoue.
9. Kenji Kawai, “Ghostdive” from Ghost in the Shell (Original Soundtrack) (1995 RCA). An ambient work from the popular movie soundtrack.Composed, Performed, Produced, Arranged, Keyboards, Instruments, Kenji Kawai; synthesizer, Hironori Houki.
10.Waveform Transmission, “V 1.3” from V 1.0-1.9 (1996 Silent). Analog Tone Engineering and Realization, Recordings Of The Dead, Shortwave, Field Recordings Made During Periods Of Highly-charged Paranormal Activity, Korg MS 10, Korg MS 20, Korg MS 50, Roland System 100 Synthesizers, Home Built Analog Synthesizers, Tape, Loops, Chris Troy; Digital Audio Graphs, Granular Synthesis, Microwave Communications, Psycho-acoustics, Tape, Loops Otari MX 5050 loops, Rod Modell.
11.Experimental Audio Research, “Automatic Music (For Oscillator, Ring Modulator & Filter Clusters)” from Pestrepeller (1999 Ochre Records). UK release, limited to 1000 copies. Engineer, Serge Modular Music System, Sonic Boom (Pete Kember). Some interesting modular synthesizer ambience.
12.John Foxx and Harold Budd, “Raindust” from Translucence + Drift Music (2003 Edsel Records). Composed, produced, and performed by Harold Budd, John Foxx.
13.John Foxx and Harold Budd, “Some Way Through All the Cities” from Translucence + Drift Music (2003 Edsel Records). Composed, produced, and performed by Harold Budd, John Foxx.
14.Pete Namlook, Tetsu Inoue, “Ethereal Being” from 2350 Broadway 4 (2007 Fax +49-69/450464). Composed, produced, and performed by Pete Namlook, Tetsu Inoue. Recorded at Bretton Hall, New York and Klanglobor Hödeshof. Tetsu was an endless collaborator. Here he and the wondrous Pete Namlook wove some ambient magic.
15.Tetsu Inoue, “Kaze” from Inland (2007 Fax +49-69/450464). Written, performed and produced by Tetsu Inoue. This was his post-glitch faze, which brought together, strangely enough, element so his earlier ambient work and glitch music for computers.
16.Masuko Shinji, “Woven Music for Blue Steppe” from Woven Music (2011 Jagjaguwar). All music, vocals and guitar, 増子真二 (Shinji Masuko). This is a project by Masuko, who sometimes works with the Boredoms. It has a characteristic high but sustained energy level that flirts with the outer reaches of the ambient music concept.
17.Caroline Park, “Grain 5” from Grain (2011 Private Chronology). This is a cassette release by Park, often known her for generative composition work and electronic improvisations based on parameters that she defines. Recorded, performed, and mixed between May 2010 and January 2011 in Los Angeles and Boston.
18.Sarah Davachi, “First Cadence” from Antiphonals (2021 Late Music). Composed, Recorded, Performed, Mellotron (bass flute, recorder, oboe), Tape Echo, Sarah Davachi. A recent ambient work by this contemporary experimenter.
Opening background music: An example of ambient music from the program Droneo by Henry Lowengard, which produces self-generating ambient music on a smart phone. “Droneo 1.5 vanDelay and Ape,” (5:25).
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.
For additional notes, please see my blog, Noise and Notations.