Matthew Leigh Embleton

Musician, Composer, Producer, Language and History Enthusiast, and Author

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What is Ambient?

The origins of Ambient music can be traced back to the early 20th century, notably the two art movements Futurism and Dadaism that encouraged experimentation with various musical and non-musical forms, while rejecting more traditional styles of expression. This included experimental and 'anti-music' musicians such as Francesco Balilla Pratella, Kurt Schwitters, Erwin Schulhoff.

The Art of Noise by Luigi Russolo, 1913

These experiments were influential for the early 20th Century composer Erik Satie who created what he called Musique D'Ameublement (Furniture Music) to create a background atmosphere for an event or activity, rather than serving as the focus of attention.

Erik Satie, Carrelage Phonique, 1917

Brian Eno is generally credited with coining the term 'Ambient music' in the mid-1970s to refer to music that can be either 'actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener', and on the 'cusp between melody and texture'. He described his experiments in sound as 'treatments' rather than as traditional performances. He used the word 'Ambient' to describe music that creates an atmosphere that puts the listener into a different state of mind, from the Latin term 'ambire', 'to surround'.

"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".

"Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think."

With the increasing availability of synthesisers, experimentation in timbral characteristics of sound became more possible. A whole genre of Electronic music also emerged with the synthesiser playing a dominant role. This was pioneered by artists from 'The Berlin School' such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Ashra, Popol Vuh and others. This music was characterised by long compositions, synthesiser sequenced ostinatos or 'loops', improvised lead melodies, changing and evolving structure and timbre of sounds.

Other significant artists such as Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre, and Vangelis have all added to or directly influenced the evolution of Ambient and electronic music in their own way, and also works by groups such as Pink Floyd and Yes who experimented with technology and incorporated it into their music.

During the 1980s several albums that are now considered Ambient classics were produced, notably Brian Eno's 'Apollo' and 'Ambient 4' and collaborations with Harold Budd 'The Plateau of Mirror' and 'The Pearl', David Sylvian's 'Gone To Earth', and his collaborations with Holger Czukay 'Plight & Premonition' and 'Flux and Mutability'.

By the early 1990s the next generation of electronic musicians used this Ambient influence in their electronic music, such as Aphex Twin, Biosphere, Boards Of Canada, Future Sound Of London, Global Communication, Higher Intelligence Agency, KLF, and The Orb. This was an alternative to much harder and faster dance music scenes at the time such as 'Rave', 'Hardcore', 'Drum & Bass'. This more Ambient electronic music was in fact incorporated into the scene as 'Chillout', often being played in a dedicated 'Chillout room' at a rave event where people could relax and calm down after dancing or experiencing intense drug induced experiences.

Today the term Ambient is perhaps not as universally recognised, used, or understood as it once was, but the influences and principles of exploration and experimentation, and contemplative and meditative states of mind still live on in music, art, and film, and continue to provide calm and space to think, a sane antidote to the stresses of modern life.

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