I’m sure that many of the regular readers of TAP have WTF? moments when I post a random review of an ambient album.  And I truly realize that ambient music, which is a created swarm of sounds to make up a full-scale landscape of music that often has its own life, is not for everyone.  Nevertheless, I thought, by way of explanation and introduction, I’d start an ambient series that not only explores the old ambient works, like Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Cluster, Brian Eno, Tomita, Michael Hoenig, and Mike Oldfield have created, but also, the newer works like Three Fields, Steve Roach, and Dirk Serries have mastered.

HoenigDepartureArtFor me, ambient music is quite a thrill for several reasons.  First, and chief among the thrills, is the absolute necessity of pure focus.  Often, ambient music is used for background music, which is ok for those that like it.  It’s especially ok for the kind of ambient music that is designed to be background music, with no other purpose but to be a continuous, non-joined stream of notes. Often there is no relationship of the beginning of the music to the end of it.  But well-crafted, fully fleshed out suites of ambient works are memorable in their story-telling, often discerned in the title of the tracks.  What this demands is a sitting and listening, shutting out all of the other routines around you.  It is similar to sitting in a movie theatre.  You have dedicated several hours of your time to immerse yourself in a bit of fantasy.  Ambient music is quite like that.

Second, the music is therapeutic, soothing.  Without the need to split concentration with lyrics, all that is necessary is to just listen.  If it has hooks, they go deep into your conscious and fill it with visual imagery, different every time.  In fact, well done ambient music can recreate itself time and again every time you listen to it.  And that, my friends, is fun…more fun than you can imagine.  And memorable.  I cannot tell you how often I have old classic ambient music running through my mind from 4 decades ago.  Seriously.  Good ambient, like some of you may already know, can do that.  Example: I’m betting that many of you remember quite well the Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells tune affixed forever to the Exorcist mystique.

There are multiple styles of ambient music.  There’s the elevator stream, designed, as wehave said before, to be a continuous stream of unattached and meaningless music.  Just sounds going on and on…and on.  then there is the “traditional” style, the style that many of you would be familiar with.  With Tangerine Dream, that involves computer-y and electronic sounds.  You can point at many artists, and this would be the kind of music that you would be referring to, or remembering.  In the case of Mike Oldfield, it could be the use of conventional instruments blended to create a suite of perfection, no electronics involved.

There is also a feedback style of ambient.  Often called “drone”, it usually involves the use of guitar and feedback sounds to create what might be referred to as a minimalist experience (sounds that depend on what came before, often in a reused but altered state).  Currently, Dirk Serries is a champion of that style, often thought to have been birthed by Lou Reed with his Metal Machine Music album, called by some as a fiasco, others as a brilliant drone ambient work.  Nevertheless, the use of drone music these days has evolved to a complete art form.  It may not be tolerated by many, but it can be enjoyed under the right – and proper – frame of mind.

Yes, there is a lot to ambient music.  I hope that you will follow what I come up with in The Ambient Series, both as introductory to a new style, or new bands, and, possibly, as a path of remembrance.

By MARowe

5 thoughts on “The Ambient Series”
  1. Looking forward to your series Matt.

    I started listening to “ambient” early in my music listening years and found that it is an extremely satisfying experience if you can detach yourself from structured expectations and take the time to immerse yourself in the music.

    The field stretches from classically influenced musicians like Oldfield and Philip Glass, or even some of Miles Davis’ experimental works, to extremely heavy metal (found in a bands like ISIS or Focus for example). I might be going a little far with my definition to include artists who create demanding soundscapes that push the borders of music within a genre, but the breadth of instrumental music (including the human voice, without lyrics) and bands that push the edge of sound is truly impressive. The only problem is trying to find new artists that are truly above the general crowd. And, there are a lot of failures out there.

    This discussion also borders on the listening experience and what we, as the participant, are willing to put aside to listen to the music that has been created. This goes back to the ongoing discussion about “listening” and not just “hearing.”

    And, by extension, we must define what belongs within the parameters of “music” – as opposed to random noise. Any sound, if listened to in the right frame of mind, could be defined as music – Lou Reed’s MMM.

    An historical study of music development will probably be necessary at some point because “classical music” probably started the entire ambient process with the advent of modernism, early in the 20th century, that sought to free music from its prior constraints.

    Again, I will be interested to read your thoughts and see the artists and recordings you come up with for discussion.

    (NOTE: My favourite artist in this field is Vangelis who ranges from almost pop sensibilities to the sublime – Invisible Connections.)

  2. I am not fan of Ambient as a rule, but I am always interested in reading about a genre of music that differs from my usual taste. Perhaps my views of Ambient are too narrow, but when you mention Mike Oldfield, I can see Incantations as coming under the Ambient banner but not Tubular Bells. The famous “Exorcist” theme is a small portion of the work, the rest being a Rock instrumental. Mile Davis doing ambient? I’ve never heard any of his work that I would call as such. I haven’t heard a recording by Vangelis I would call Ambient either. I certainly wouldn’t throw every instrumental electronic work in the Ambient pile. I guess what I am saying is I will be interested in what you are defining as Ambient or not – should prove to be a fun discussion!

  3. Matt,
    Very excited about this series. I am a huge Vangelis fan, who I consider one of the greatest musical artists of our time.

    One thing you might be interested in, is that announced today are 6 new remastered albums from his Sony and Arista periods. http://www.elsew.com/data/latest.htm
    Heaven and Hell, Direct, Spiral, Albedo 0.39, Beaubourg, and Jon and Vangelis Page of Life.

    Looks to released November 25th.

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