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Ambient Music

For a few months now, I’ve found it really hard to listen to music in general. For whatever reason, I’ve struggled to connect with it and mostly opted for listening to podcasts or other forms of media to fill the silence. Lately, every podcast I listen to seems wrong for the moment, so I’ve started to bring music back into my life, starting with ambient music.

Ambient music, as its name suggests, is music that is intended to fade into the background. It’s meant for both passive and active listening and is typically characterized by an emphasis on atmosphere and tone over the musical structure that tend to define most music we listen to. Ambient music acts similarly to a film score, meant to evoke certain feelings and ideas, but not necessarily meant to be the focus. However, since ambient works lack an attachment to a film scene or anything of the sort, they can instead create an atmosphere for whatever actions you take while listening. Instead of the dialogues and sound effects of the movies intermingling with the works, the sounds of the world around you interplay into the music, gaining their own musicality.

Ambient music traces its roots in avante-garde composers like Eric Satie, who called some of his pieces “furniture music,” meant to be in the background of a room, like a piece of furniture and meant to complement the ambients sounds of the room, clattering forks and scraping chairs. The tradition of drawing attention to ambient noises continued when John Cage orchestrated the piece 4’33”, in which an orchestra sat silently for four minutes and thirty three seconds. Eventually, English producer Brian Eno coined the term for a particular genre of music that carried on these ideas, often utilizing synthesizers and certain pieces of commitment.

I loved discovering this backstory, and the general artfulness of finding musicality in the non-musical. In this genre, music was less of a commodity to be sold to the masses and more of an artistic statement to be made. Ambient music makes me feel like I’m meditating, as I gain new appreciation for sounds that I wouldn’t necessarily consider music, even ones I hear outside of listening to any given piece. The tapping of my keyboard gains a new flavor to its rhythm, and the whirr of my fan seems to have a sweeter tone than I once thought.

However, as I learned more about the genre I started to question how the genre could been so racially homogenous. When looking at the canon of works in ambient music, you’d see things like Eno’s Music for Airports (admittedly phenomenal listening when at an airport) and William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (in which an old tape plays on loop, slowly degrading and disintegrating, sounding different each loop until it disintegrates completely, never to be played again), which were incredible pieces of art in themselves, yet it was rare to see any non-white perspectives in the work. So I went looking.

I found out that one of Brian Eno’s greatest influences in his own ambient music was Miles Davis’s 1974 album Get Up With It, an absolutely bizarre psychedelic jazz fusion record that makes time feel slow and loopy. And beyond that, I found a ton of amazing Black musicians who continue to make phenomenal ambient music. I compiled some of my favorites into a short little playlist named after the first song on Davis’s album “He Loved Him Madly”. This playlist has such wide range, which is part of the reason I love the genre so much. You have works of Nailah Hunter, who uses her harp to create resonate tones that echo through your skull, and Actress, who works with the London Contemporary Orchestra to create a new atmosphere out of a variety of instruments. 

I discovered that I had spent so much time focusing on the biggest artists in the genre, that I had ended up hearing only a small portion of what it had to offer. It was totally likely that I’d continue to just listen to Music for Airports over and over again if I hadn’t taken a moment to ask the question— what other voices seem to be missing in this space?
Things are starting to feel normal again, but the fight against systemic racism continues. Reminders:

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Nikhil · 325327 Georgia Tech Station · Atlanta, GA 30332 · USA

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