The basic premise of this paper is to briefly speculate on a philosophical paradox concerning Brian Eno’s use of the word ambient in relation to his compositional work between 1975 and 1982 and indeed, what ambient has come to mean in a broader cultural sense in 2018.
To begin with, three important definitions of the word are considered for this argument:
1) The Latin root of ambient (ambire) is discussed with particular reference to Eno’s various press statements c.1978 that Ambient music is intended to produce calm and a space to think.
2) Music for Airports is identified as an example of monocratic composition (one that subtly reinforces borders) within an historical timeline beginning in 1975 and is juxtaposed with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, which is considered as a parallel (albeit unintended) Ambient experiment and identified as a mutable composition (one that subtly annihilates borders).
3) The broader, philosophical implications of ambient are addressed in particular reference to current notions of dark ecology.
Putting an aesthetic layer on top of suffering can feel wrong
Mark Richardson (2011)
Which of these two 1975 recordings are more deserving of the epithet Ambient?
a) Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, released on the 1st of November, 1975
b) Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, released on the 1st of July, 1975
Two pieces of 20th century, avant-garde composition that reside at completely opposing ends of the sonic spectrum in regards to the conceptual, aesthetic and methodological approaches of their respective composers. The first, went on to successfully and indeed lucratively bring about the commodified genre of capital-A-ambient music and consequently the epochal recording Music for Airports, which we are all gathered here today, in critical appreciation of its Fortieth anniversary. The second, succeeded in damning its composer to years of critical vitriol and misunderstanding. The physical artefact itself (whether vinyl, cassette or 8-track tape) was consigned almost immediately to record store bargain bins (which is indeed, where I found my first copy) and apart from being lauded by a few hip aficionados (Lester Bangs for example, among very few others), sank into cultural obscurity until resurrected for the pseudo-modernist stage by the German contemporary classical ensemble Zeitkratzer in 2002.
In 1975, as a thirteen-year-old proto-punk-rocker in a verdant, outer suburb of South-West London, I was exposed to a vast cornucopia of wonderful and life-shaping music. Thanks to the then erudite journalists at weekly rags NME and Melody Maker, liberal doses of John Peel and Radio Luxemburg and above all my very open-minded local library and extremely tolerant parents, I devoured as much organized sound as my impressionable young mind could handle…from Pierre Schaeffer to Abba and pretty much everything in-between. 1975 was a particularly tumultuous year in terms of tragic world events, the sounds of rage, war, collapse, murder, social injustice and absolute bloody mayhem screaming out of our TV sets and radios; enough to send (on an almost daily basis) an aggressively clad and coiffed, yet hyper-sensitive teenage boy running for his Nan’s overgrown, end-of-garden bomb-shelter armed with a stained and tattered edition of Wind in the Willows and that month’s copy of Mark Perry’s fanzine Sniffin’ Glue.
In the balmy summer of that same year, during a lazy afternoon rummaging through the bargain bins of Virgin Records basement shop in Oxford street, I came across an already beaten-up vinyl copy of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music for 25p. Immediately seduced by the image of a leather-clad, alien Lou on the front cover, and already familiar with the Velvet Underground’s infamous Banana LP, I couldn’t wait to get it back home and desecrate the working-class, devout weirdness of my Mum and Dad’s psychotropically-decorated living room. Well, little did I realise…it scared me half to death and at the same time it completely blew-me-away! More than any snot-nosed outburst of three-chord, punk savagery, this music appeared to verge on an abstract sonic reflection of the horrific events that seemed to surround me 24/7…from the grotesque obscenities of the Vietnam war to the shameful plight of tortured lab animals…and on…and on…and ever on.
Being a huge fan of Roxy Music and Brian Eno, I was already eagerly anticipating the release that Autumn of Discreet Music on Eno’s own Obscure label (tactfully mentioned in various radio and magazine interviews), and to put it mildly, it lived up to all of my expectations. Here was my metaphorical bomb-shelter, my perfumed palliative against a brutalized world…my isolation…my heroin. However, blissfully numbed within my fake ambient womb, I sensed that something was culturally out-of-joint, that somehow I had become truly disconnected.
1590s, “surrounding, encircling,” from Latin ambientem, “a going around,” present participle of ambire "to go around, go about.”
The notion of “going all around” led to the sense of “encircling, lying all around”. (Allen 2014)
The idea of ‘surround’ or ‘surrounding’ (early 15c., “to flood, overflow,” from Anglo-French surounder, Middle French soronder, to, abound.
Sense of “to shut in on all sides” first recorded 1610s, influenced by figurative meaning in French of “dominate”. (Allen 2014)
In a 1994 German documentary entitled Solo Fur Eno directed by Henning Lohner, Brian Eno speaks about composing Music for Airports as music to die to (subtly alluding to the artist as shaman/healer dialogue earlier in the same documentary). Music to alleviate the uncomfortable nearness of possible death apropos a common fear of flying, international terrorism, skyjacking and so on (which could indeed be interpreted as draping an exquisitely designed sonic veil over a heightened fear of mortality, especially in comparison to Pierre Henry’s masterful and truly terrifying ode to death and transfiguration Le Voyage (1968).
Apart from the rather sanctimonious (perhaps ironic) tone of Eno’s whenever speaking or writing about this work, one only has to give the actual music a cursory listen in order to understand its relationship to the rarefied atmosphere of medieval liturgical music, especially 1/2 in its invocation of Gregorian chant, which lends the composition a particular, indeed illusory essence of religious contemplation…a meditative state within which a pious individual habitually attempts to communicate with God (I really hesitate to raise the spectre of Enigma’s Principles of Lust here, but it’s a salient reminder of one of the many diverse paths that capital-A-ambient music has taken over the last Forty years in regards to fake modes of spiritualism).
Given Eno’s well-known predilection for sacred choral music, this comes as no surprise, and yet it raises certain concerns in regards to his continued espousal of indeterminacy as methodology, the non-hierarchical role of the composer and the almost Marxist subjectivity of the listener. Firstly, in the usage of clearly defined loops of melodic phrases, a strict hermeticism is alluded to regarding the self-referential, self-contained I, which immediately affords the work a powerful semblance of non-communalism in that it is defined objectively as a completely closed, untouchable construct, one that appears to have no need of discourse whatsoever…to be received intimately, within the consecrated space of self, from priest-on-high (Eno) to lowly disciple (the listener). Secondly, Eno’s dictum that “Ambient music is intended to produce calm and a place to think” (Eno 1978), indicates that very specific listening codes were designed by the composer and suggests elements of not-so-subtle listener coercion. This imposed sense of spirituality and musical sensuousness seems to suggest that, despite all of the media-talk at the time concerning Cageian principles of generative composition and the blurring of psychological and architectural spheres, Music for Airports is a deeply manipulative, monocratic work (one that confuses, yet imperceptibly reinforces borders).
By way of its gene-spliced transformation via New Age through to Rave, capital-A-ambient can be seen as a precursor to a kind of mass occidental/post-industrial narcosis which, whilst acting as an introvertive barricade against the super-aggressive manoeuvres of global capitalism, technocratic alienation and the horrors of an uncaring, unloving universe, emphasises the materialistic/egoistic self and the impossibility, in any real sense, of communication with our environment, our fellow humans or indeed the other species that coexist beside(s) us. Therefore, and solely for the purposes of this argument, Ambient music and above all, Music for Airports is classified as heretical and misanthropic in its complete disregard of real tragedy, luxuriating in a fantastic glow of monomaniacal self-adoration and blasphemous self-glorification…a kind of religious megalomania that in composer and writer David Toop’s words “wants to shape and hold static an image of so-called beauty that excludes all that is inconvenient.” (English 2018)
On the other hand, whereas Ambient music reinforces aggressive capitalism by refusing to challenge it in any compelling way, so-called cybernetic music (i.e. that which makes use of circular-causal-relationships, self-regulating mechanisms and nonlinear dynamics etc. as indeterminate compositional tools) disintegrates all notions of object, institution, authority and control, and instead allows a navigational freedom in order to arrive at the goal of conversation and communalism as opposed to the soft tyranny of neoliberal economic stratagems (i.e. a co-opting of the music underground and a locating of culture receptors happy to accommodate this takeover et cetera), leading to possible states of political lethargy, social withdrawal and zealous narcissism. Within this context of automatic or generative sonic design, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music can be identified as a mutable composition (one that seeks to annihilate borders rather than sanctifying them) and also, more pertinently in regards to this argument, an ambient one, according to the philosopher Tim Morton’s usage of the word (Morton 2007).
Within Morton’s definition of ambient (an undermining of the metaphysical distinction between inside and outside), Music for Airports, despite the artificial blurring of real and imagined space, could be classified as being conceptually and temporally rigid. Whilst using the same critical theorem, Metal Machine Music could be classified as conceptually and temporally smeared, a constantly shifting, fluid mass, without edges or middle, in a continuous, impressionistic haze of appearing and evaporating. According to music critic Massimo Ricci, this teleological approach towards an interpretation of ambient, specifically in relation to cybernetic composition, “establishes a cathartic landscape, an articulate volatility dismantling the temporal coordinates of our perceptive development” (Ricci 2018).
When applied to established borders (be they social, political, psychological, economic et cetera), the act of dismantling reveals an inherent desire to embrace our (physical and metaphysical) surroundings as opposed to cutting ourselves off from them (or indeed retreating from them as in the case of ambient techno), particularly natural environments that have been almost irrevocably damaged by cultivated greed and ushered in (c.1962) a geological, deep-time era known as the Anthropocene. And yet, in the very act of embracing our environment, we disappear from it. That is to say, in a moral universe, if man is perceived as being fundamentally and innately criminal in its destructiveness, then to recognise and to consciously embody an unmoral universe (i.e. one without enforced, intelligently conceived limits) essentially means that man would become non-criminal and therefore non-human, ergo…absent.
Beauty in erasure perhaps?
The no-input mixing board (non)composition Nõ Music for Abandoned Airports (an homage to Brian Eno and indeed Music for Airports), is a re-imagining of an ambient music that acts as a post-embodiment, acoustic after-image of the profane traces of human chaos channeled through the ‘perfected art’ or telistic suspension of Nõ theatre in which, paraphrasing the poet Tan Lin, people, like paintings or poems are most beautiful, and least egotistical, at the precise moment they are forgotten…or disappear (McGuire 2012). It also considers the pre-embodiment paradox (or existential panic) of mankind’s theoretical acceptance of material instability, a non-hierarchical merging with the natural world and consequently, it’s inevitable, yet harmonious dissolution (as opposed to Ambient as opiate, which implies the sustaining of a fearful culture via the nurturing of illusory dominions and thus precipitating inharmonious dissolution). The choice it seems, is ours… a poignant vanishing or sadistic annihilation.
Nõ Music for Abandoned Airports is defined within the parameters of Tim Morton’s notion of empty urban spaces as sites of environmental suffering (in this case, an abandoned airport), the human causation of such suffering and, in a strange loop, the human suffering engendered by being continuously surrounded by catastrophic world events and the inexorable raping of our own planet…which of course, coils weirdly, but gracefully backwards to that gentle, Thirteen-year-old boy at the beginning of this paper.
Allen, J. (ed.). (2014). The Penguin English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Penguin
English, L., Ambient music at 40: Lawrence English examines the future of a drifting genre [Online] Available at: <https://www.factmag.com/2018/02/04/ambient-music-at-40-lawrence-english/> [Accessed 4 February 2018]
Eno, B. (1978). [liner notes]. Music for Airports/Ambient 1 [LP]. EG/Polydor.
McGuire, K. [Online] Available at: <https://www.dailyserving.com/2012/12/reading-the-internet-with-joan-jonas-the-task-of-the-cultural-critic-in-the-ambient-age> [Accessed 24 April 2019]
Morton, T. (2007). Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press
Ricci, M., FURT – The Details [Online] Available at: <https://touchingextremes.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/furt-the-details> [Accessed 24 April 2019]
Richardson, M., Disintegration Loops and Simplesongs [Online] Available at: <https://pitchfork.com/features/resonant-frequency/8667-disintegration-loops-and-simplesongs> [Accessed 24 April 2019]
Solo für Eno. 1994. [Film]. Henning Lohner. dir. Germany: Henning & Peter Lohner
About the Author
Andrew Leslie Hooker was born in England in 1962. He is a filmmaker and composer of electroacoustic music currently based in North Wales. He began his career as a photographer and graphic designer, collaborating with various music, art and fashion publications, record labels, theatre and dance companies. He has exhibited paintings, photographic works and experimental films in various galleries throughout Europe and the United States and was included (as filmmaker) in the 49th Venice Biennale.
At the present time, having recently completed an MMus (with distinction) in electroacoustic composition at Bangor University of North Wales, he is continuing his studies as a PhD research student at the University of Huddersfield whilst contemporaneously working on various music, dance and extended cinema projects. His film works and compositions are published by Entr’acte (London/Antwerp) and Dinzu Artefacts (Los Angeles). Selected past collaborators include: Gavin Bryars, Manuel Zurria Philip Jeck, John Duncan, Jon Wozencroft, Cosey Fanni Tutti Aleksander Gabrys, Seijiro Murayama, Valerio Tricoli, Stefano Pilia Carlos Cassas, Nico Vascellari, Giuseppe Ielasi, Graham Dunning Penny Rimbaud and Eve Libertine.