25 Years of Ambient Music

In 1978, Brian Eno released an album of music titled Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It got little attention at the time, and many of those that listened to it were put off by the lack of any songs or melodies, and because the music didn’t seem to go anywhere.

In 1978, most people were listening to disco. The Village people had a hit with “YMCA” and Donna Summer with “Last Dance”. The disco era was in full bloom, and fringe hits were things like Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, or “Werewolves of London”, by Warren Zevon.

Against this backdrop, Eno’s quiet, meditative Music for Airports came out. Music for Airports is a sound sculpture, designed to be ignored as much as listened to. It has  no easily discernable rhythm, and no hummable melodies. Yet 25 years later, ambient music has grown to be a busy category of music, and countless musicians name Eno and his ambient music as an inspiration.

Ambient 1 is simply one of the most important pieces of electronic music ever created. Music for Airports created a new genre, ambient music, that has grown to be a popular and influential style.

What is Ambient Music?

Eno places ambient music as an alternative to Muzak. Eno felt that Muzak had created music that was so lightweight and derivative that it had effectively eliminated environmental music as a subject for composer’s attention, or for that of serious listeners. His use of the term “ambient music” was to create a distinction between his music and the canned background music that was available at the time.

Most importantly, Eno wanted to make music that would support reflection and space to think. Eno did this by creating music that was beautiful, but did not have a center of focus to demand your attention. In his liner notes, Eno puts it this way: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Classics of Ambient Music

Starting in the late seventies, Eno released of series of 4 works, Ambient 1-4, that defined the genre.

  • Ambient 1: Music for Airports, is slow and meditative. There are four pieces. Eno created each piece by making tape loops of varying length. On each tape loop, he recorded sounds that would work together as a whole. Because each tape loop was a different length, the intervals between repeats varied from loop to loop. The result is that the sounds float by in a constantly shifting collage, almost like a sound mobile. The result is very quiet and reflective, because Eno uses soft piano and women’s wordless voices as is sound sources.
  • Ambient 2: Plateau of Mirror. This is a collaboration with minimalist Harold Budd. On it, Budd creates slow piano works, reminiscent of some of Eric Satie’s more well-known pieces, or possibly Thomas de Hartmann’s. Eno processes Budd’s piano with phasers, tape loops, and backwards reverberation effects. Budd and Eno create sounds never heard before on Ambient 2.
  • Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. Day of Radiance is a colloboration with Laraaji, a musician that plays hammered dulcimer. Day of Radiance is a little different from the other three members of Eno’s seminal ambient series. It sounds upbeat and happy! How much happy ambient music do you hear? Edward Gordon, known as Laraaji, is unusual in that he plays an electric, open-tuned zither & hammered dulcimer, but not in a folk-influenced style. The pieces on Ambient 3 serve as a contrast to the other Ambient albums, especially Ambient 4.
  • Ambient 4: On Land. On Land is a test of people’s appreciation for the ambient genre. This is far away from many people’s ideas of ambient music. There’s nothing “new age” about this music. The cuts on this album are full of sounds and textures that some may find disconcerting or even creepy. Rumbly synths sound like thunder, or the wind blowing over an open bottle. Throughout the album, it’s rare to hear recognizable instruments. The music is made up of blurps, beeps and textures instead. Dark ambient artists owe a lot to On Land

Since these four important ambient pieces, much of Eno’s work has been in the ambient style. His colloboration with Harold Budd, The Pearl, is another collection of beautiful piano pieces. The Pearl is a lush, dark classic. Neroli is minimal, thinking music. Each of his more recent ambient works stakes out new territory for ambient music.

Eno’s work has inspired many other musicians, and many artists have released music that falls into the ambient category.

Planetary Unfolding is an 1980 piece by electronic composer Michael Stearns. This release mapped out the world of space music, a category that often overlaps with ambient. Planetary Unfolding was created using modular synthesizers, but used in a completely different way than synthesists of the early seventies, like Wendy Carlos or Isao Tomita, were using them. The album is a constantly evolving set of soundscapes that evoke ideas of space, and shifting through space.

Steve Roach’s 1984 release, Structures from Silence, is a minimal electronic album that shows the influence of German musicians such as Tangerine Dream, in addition to Eno. This recording is an evolving soundscape that features slow sequenced synth melodies that evolve and mutate throughout the piece. The music is relaxing and quiet.

aphex twin selected ambient works volume twoRichard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, released a CD in 1994 called Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2, that extends the world of ambient music. The music bears the indelible influence of Eno, but James charts new territory, too. His ambient pieces tend to be less murky, but just as dark and mysterious as Eno’s work on Ambient 4.

In the early 90’s, ambient music began to evolve into more mainstream styles. The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is a great example of pop ambient music. It mixes dance rhythms, samples, psychedelic music and sound collage to create a new style of ambient. This double album covers a lot of territory, and helped bring ambient music to millions of listeners that might not have otherwise heard of it.

Now, ambient music is more popular than ever. There are many artists, working in a variety of styles, that are influenced by Eno’s idea of ambient music. Many styles have grown out of ambient, including ambient space music, ambient techno, ambient electronica, ambient acoustic music, and dark ambient.

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