“If you listen to a Beyoncé record through a wall it’s not exhausting, it’s warm.”
If you make electronic music and are into generalizing, you know that there are two broad sub-categories of style into which your music might be placed. There’s dance music, which is usually music with some kind of beat. And there’s ambient music, which is usually music without a beat. Beat-driven electronic music is often exciting and has a sense of urgency about it. It pushes forward, pausing the beat only here and there for its inevitable re-introduction via a “drop.” Ambient-oriented music is often calming and has a sense of stillness about it. Rather than pushing forward like beat-driven music, ambient creates its own stasis and reassurances. Its sound set, tempo, and overall aura promise not to assault you. If you produce electronic music, at some point in your working it becomes clear whether you’re aiming for a big beat “banger” or something softer and more amorphous.
Of course, many musics combine beat-driven and ambient sensibilities—think ethereal pads floating atop fast pulsations, as with the music of Skee Mask,
or the dance-music tempo’d yet atmospheric and beatless music of Steve Hauschildt.
But in general, producers generally commit to one broad style or the other, as if pre-answering the questions we’ll have when we listen: But what is this music for? How can I use it?
The term “ambient music” was coined by Brian Eno in the 1970s to describe music “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Eno’s way into the concept was listening to a record of harp music while he was in the hospital. The volume on the stereo was low enough that the music was hard to discern over the sound of the rain Eno heard through an open window. Thus, the story goes, began the notion of ambient music. Eno extensively used tape loops of individual tones gently interacting in ever-changing ways as the generative source of compositions that are reassuring to the listener whilst simultaneously disinterested in their own directionality. In the liner notes to Music for Airports, Eno wrote: “Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.”
Precursors to ambient (and influences on Eno) were John Cages’s “4’33”, a silent piece from 1951 that encourages audiences to hear everything in the soundscape around them as music,
Steve Reich’s 1966 canonic tape music piece, “Come Out”
and earlier in the 20th-century, Erik Satie’s “musique d’ameublement” (“furniture music”), a concept he developed in 1917 to describe background music played by live performers. Satie described furniture music as sound “which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration.”
In the 1990s, Eno’s ambient concept was picked up by electronic musicians and as I mentioned earlier, ambient is still mostly electronic music without a beat. Some compelling examples include:
Aphex Twin’s “#20” (1992)
Biosphere’s “Poa Alpina” (1997)
and Autechre’s “Overand” (1995)
Today, ambient tracks often feature long tones with slow attacks and long sustains, generous amounts of reverb, warm timbres, and field recordings as source material to create richly layered tapestries of sound. Compelling examples are:
Benoit Piulard’s “Veil” (2021)
r beny’s “we grow in a gleam” (2021)
Gabor Lazar’s “Return” (2021)
and KMRU’s “Well” (2021)
In the music steaming ecosystem Spotify, there are countless ambient-oriented musics and it can be difficult to hear significant differences between one piece and another. One critique of this music is that it doesn’t leave enough space. Its long tone washes can be beautiful, but without some silence among the parts there’s little room for the listener. In other words, some ambient risks turning into a wall of sound (which moves us towards drone music).
Turning to the question in the title of this essay, What is after ambient? One could make the case that ambient music, like jazz music before it, is an omnidirectional influence gatherer–it can incorporate any music into its aesthetic fold. For example, ambient now includes all kinds lofi and “chill” instrumental musics. Consider the “lofi hip hop” genre which threatens to swallow every coffee shop in the world, or at least recreate coffee shop ambiance for you at home. To take one of thousands of possible examples, consider Hevi’s “Above Skies” (2021). While tracks such as this have beats, the beats don’t make the music kinetic; they just keep it ticking along. Lofi hip hop nevertheless does loosely fulfill Eno’s ignorable as it is interesting dictum.
Finally, swap the T for a C and an E and ambient music can include the immersive YouTube ambience videos that digitally render “cozy” libraries and home interiors to a soundtrack of a crackling fireplace and muted rain, wind, snow, and thunder sounds. Intended for relaxation or productivity, these videos re-frame timeless sonic environments into unobtrusive soundtracks. In some ways such videos are the best kind of ambient music, because you can imagine in them whatever you want.
(The musicians are playing violin and hurdy-gurdy.)
• The physicist Michio Kaku defines beauty in terms of symmetry and the re-arrangement of components (and provides one of the most compelling explanations of compelling music). The podcast is here.
“Beauty to a physicist is symmetry. There’s a symmetry in music. For example, the simplest symmetry is a rubber ball. You rotate the ball and it remains the same. Why is a kaleidoscope beautiful? A kaleidoscope is beautiful because you rotate it and it turns into itself. Why is an ice crystal beautiful? Because you rotate an ice crystal by sixty degrees and it rotates into itself. So that’s what beauty is: If I re-arrange the components of an object, it remains the same. Now you can apply that to music, you can apply that to physics. When you apply that to physics, it means that I have an equation and I rotate its components in a certain and precise way and it rotates into itself. That’s called symmetry.”
“This is the quiet miracle of repetition: its ability to not only make actions easier over time, but also change one’s desires, bringing the cravings of the flesh in line with the aspirations of the spirit (or as [William] James puts it, making ‘our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy’).”
“Rhythmic labor is highly spiritual labor.” – Karl Bücher
• A video about AI in music production.
“A significant percentage of music listeners aren’t actively listening. They’re passively listening. When music is background music, there doesn’t need to be an artistic statement or anything especially interesting or novel happening. And Spotify themselves have taken advantage of this. They commissioned unknown artists to create music for meditation and running playlists at royalty rates much more favorable to the company. Obviously, this only worked because the music is structurally simple and easy to churn out. Sounds like something AI could do in the not too distant future.”
• My track “Unfolding” from Bowedscapes is available on Spotify’s Ambiente Playlist for “today’s cutting edge Ambient, Atmospheric and Neo Classical Music.”