Originally referred to in its infancy as furniture music, background music, environmental music, or simply minimalist, ambient music is a genre of music that focuses entirely on the tone, emotion, texture, and feeling of sound rather than any specific theoretical or structured approach.
Through its various incarnations over the years, composers and musicians have morphed the intent of the sub-genre. Some approach it as an emotional backdrop to the environment within which it exists, not to be noticed or recognized consciously. Some explore its depths to create emotional palettes of sound, focusing not on classical musical notation, but essentially an entire lack thereof. One of the premiere ambient experimenters of the mid-20th century, John Cage, took the approach into the entirely cerebral with his piece “4’33””. This piece is entirely silent. The performer’s instructions are to sit at their instrument in silence at the venue (for 4 minutes and 33 seconds), forcing the, I assume, somewhat confused audience to listen to the noises of the venue and the moment - the whirring of the AC system, audience coughing, cars passing outside the windows.
I’ve found myself in a music consumption rut. I tend to always make an effort to find new (to me) music and keep educating myself on what’s out there. Be it pandemic fatigue, general languish, or whatever other cocktail of emotionally draining circumstances, I haven’t kept up with my exploratory ambitions lately, and have found myself taking solace within the textures and moods of the ambient and minimalist music I’ve always loved. It is the perfect “turn your brain off” kind of music. Put it on and let its emotional landscapes put existence on hold for a bit.
The granddaddy of modern ambient music, Ambient 1: Music for Airports is the seminal album by music experimenter Brian Eno. It consists of four tracks of aimless, spatial music originally composed with the intent of making drab, trite, everyday spaces more relaxing (such as an airport). You'll be hard pressed to have any conversation of meaning about ambient music and its history and not refer to this album at some point. Ambient music existed long before this album, but this is the one many refer to as THE beginning of modern ambient.
In searching our catalog for examples, I came across this compilation that I'd never heard before, and I have certainly fallen in love. This collection is a look into the vibrant history of Japan's avant-garde scene and its contributions to the ambient and instrumental genres. It culminates with "Original BGM" by Haruomi Hosono, a piece originally commissioned to be the background music for a department store. There's a little bit for everyone on this compilation.
Every release from Nils Frahm I embark on I enjoy more than the last. This album is a soft, pensive, gorgeous series of minimalist piano pieces. I am a particular fan of how rough around the edges the recordings are, as they include the noise floor from the tape machine, creaking of the piano wood, and even what sound like Frahm's breaths between piano statements. This is the perfect rainy day accompaniment - mid afternoon, your favorite indulgent treat or vice in hand.
Written by an experimental artist heavyweight, this album is a bit of a deviation from the above examples. This collection is a series of experiments that range from off-kilter electronic beats, piano meanderings, combinations thereof, and beyond. There simply are incredibly interesting sounds on this album, and if you like visceral ear candy I'd recommend giving this album your attention. Fans of Nine Inch Nails' "Ghosts" series and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' subsequent film scores will almost certainly find something to dig on this album.
-Joel Bonner is a Technology Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.