This sprawling book traces the development of ambient music over the past 100 years, from composers like Mahler and Satie, to current musicians like Moby and Aphex Twin. It covers a huge amount of territory, and serves as an easy introduction to many of the significant composers and musicians of the twentieth century.
The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance – The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age uses the term “ambient” music much more freely than common usage. To author Mark Prendergast, ambient music is interesting music of the twentieth century. He notes two significant aspects of it: the tendency to “deconstruct” the forms of Western music; and the influence of recording technology. Prendergast includes everything but the kitchen sink under this umbrella. Schoenberg and Webern, Satie, Raymond Scott, Morton Subotnick, Joe Meek, Bob Dylan, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Mike Oldfield, Donna Summer, and the Chemical Brothers are just a few of the artists that are included.
The book starts with a Forward by Brian Eno. Eno’s essay is short and not his best, but his essay serves as an introduction to some of the ideas and music covered in the book.
The book is divided into four main parts:
- Book I: The Electronic Landscape
This section covers the broadest timeframe, starting with Mahler, Satie and Debussy and continuing to almost the end of the twentieth century. The theme of this section is really less about the development of electronic music, and more just an overview of composers that Prendergast feels are significant in this era. For readers with a weak understanding of classical Western music of the twentieth century, this section hits some of the highlights. It does cover the development of electronic musical instruments. While it doesn’t delve very deeply into either electronic instruments of the musicians that used them, but it does put these developments into a historical context.
- Book II: Minimalism, Eno and the New Simplicity
This section covers musicians that are closest to what many would consider “ambient” musicians. La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and other minimalists are discussed, along with other composers and popular musicians that create music that encourages different perceptions of time. Prendergast puts special importance on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, because of the influence that they had on other artists.
- Book III: Ambience in the Rock Era
This section looks at how technology has affected the way popular musicians record and perform music, and includes groups like the Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, Ennio Morricone, Peter Gabriel, and Enya. Prendergast takes serious looks at the “Berlin School” of synth-rock, especially Tangerine Dream. This section covers many musicians that readers may find tangential to the subject matter of ambient music.
- Book IV: House, Techno, and 21st Century Ambience
The last section tries to filter modern electronica through Prendergast’s broad ambient lens, and looks at everything from Donna Summer to Moby. Again, this section covers a little of everything, but is a good introduction to many dance-oriented electronic musicians.
The Ambient Century is a sprawling book, perhaps too sprawling, One occasionally gets the impression that Prendergast has simply included the music that he likes rather than conform to the common use of the term “ambient music”, or create his own cogent argument for what ambient music is. Prendergast’s book does a very good job of covering a lot of interesting musicians and composers of the last century. He also does a good job of introducing some of the ideas and technologies that affected the development of art music in this era.
Prendergast does a less convincing job of connecting these things together thematically. After reading the book, it’s still difficult to see the connection between musicians like Mahler, Eno, Miles Davis and Yes. The book is full of information, but doesn’t effectively tie this information together with ideas. Readers may find themselves asking “why was this musician included”.
One other weakness of the book is the number of typographical and factual errors it contains. The book is nearly encyclopedic in scope, but diminishes its value as a reference because of the large number of errors it contains. The Ambient Century could benefit from some editing and fact checking. Let’s hope that there will be a second edition. With some editing, this could become an excellent introduction and reference.
The book’s greatest strength is that it will introduce almost any reader to some interesting musicians. The Ambient Century coves one hundred years of interesting music. Because of its scope, it doesn’t look at any artist in great depth. However, it does cover many of the highlights of the last century’s music, and will inspire many readers to explore sounds that they might not have otherwise known about, and even to listen to some familiar works with open ears.