Ambient Century


Challenge: Name a style of music you dislike and it’s up to fans of said style to find artists that could change your opinion.
This publication reveals the drift in 20th-century music from composers to non-musicians, from strict rules to no rules, from the single note to the sample. This drift through technology, Minimalism, the rock era and techno music is earthed by the development of ambient sound, to the author the most important breakthough of the past 100 years. With the help of electronics, new ideas and consumer music, Ambient music has established itself beyond question as “the classical music of the future.”

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Challenge: Name a style of music you dislike and it’s up to fans of said style to find artists that could change your opinion.(r/Music)

Okay, basically Ambient music owns and it has a vastly rich and complex history that I cannot even begin to touch on in any depth but it covers so much of our musical heritage that it might help to interest you if I tell you where it comes from. Ambient music, or at least, the concept of ambience and ambient sound is a key musical theme that pervades the entirety of 20th Century music. The actual genre itself is the culmination of decades of musical innovations from a wide range of artists. I’m going to go through a key selection, so if you’re feeling tl;dr, just skip to the end for some modern, well-defined ambient reccommendations.

Ives and Debussy are some of the key composers of the late 19th Century; Debussy in particular produced some wonderful compositions that were aimed at creating some subliminal sense of the beauty and power of nature, drawing upon ethnic musical motifs and atypical (for the time) harmonic and melodic structures.

These composers lead us to one Erik Satie, a French composer and contemporary of Debussy who, inbetween being a hilarious bohemian alcoholic, composed music based on the treatise of musique d’ameublement; to be played in salons as background music, much like a furnishing that was not the direct center of the listeners attention, but rather there to create a particular mood or “decorate” the space in some fashion. His 1888 composition suite Trois Gymnopediés is perhaps his most well known and considered an “ambient” classic due to its thoroughly dreamlike, motionless narrative that covers a wide range of moods within a limited harmonic and melodic palette.

The next revolution in ambient comes later from a different time, mainly in the works of three composers: Cage, Stockhausen and Ligeti. Although the Western art music tradition is indebted to a constellation of innovators, these three, spanning the post-war years up and into the 80’s are my personal three favorites whose work typifies the ambient music revolution. John Cage, most famous for his hermetical prepared piano etudes, created music that some consider to be proto-techno in their structure but it is his more traditional, dreamlike piano compositions and notorious silent peice 4’33” make him a figurehead in the acceptance of ambient music and the deconstruction of moderism in the public eye. Like many of these composers, there is so much to be said on the matter that must be left for now. Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer who explored the realm of electronic music and tape initially in a form of music called musique concrete, but later on went to perform insane multi-part operas and compositions for helicopter. His work spearheaded and drove electronic music and technology forward into the artist’s toolkit, allowing it to gain a kind of “notorious acceptance” in music that was not properly fulfilled until bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd took the ideas and harnessed them into pop music. Finally we have Gyorgy Ligeti, a mischevious but brilliant Hungarian composer who experimented with many different mediums but is most well known for his simply sublime etudes and startling larger-scale compositions that played masterfully with dimensions of time, silence and pitch to create otherworldly visions of a supernal, transcendant reality. Stanley Kubrick exposed the world to Ligeti through his films The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey for maximum effect.

In the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, many bands, taking a cue from the post-war giants, started to integrate ambient music into their own pop and rock heritage. Most notably Pink Floyd, whose 1971 epic Echoes is a profound journey into the past; evoking a primordial landscape and space-like dreaminess that ambient music has long sought to capture, all the way back to Mnsr Debussy. Other bands from this decade took the ideas in different directions, most notably the Krautrock and kosmische artists of Germany like Tangerine Dream and Can – but with an aim to maintain a sense of atmosphere with electronic instrumentation that had become popular and affordable.

But of all the artists in this period, it is undoubtedly Brian Eno who is responsible for uniting this thematic, sonic and creative buildup into a unique, singular vision. Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was originally the keyboardist and “sound wizard” for Brian Ferry’s Roxy Music, until he left the band through disputes and started a long and illustrious solo career. His first releases were electronically-inflected pop suites; the last two of which, Another Green World and Before and After Science contained some ambient ideas. These ideas came about from two sources, the works of the aforementioned composers (honourable mention here of Steve Reich whose “Minimalism” of the 70s contained much of the conceptual framework) and a car accident he had in the mid-70s. To quote:

“Eno’s ambient ideal was formed in 1975 during months of lying in a hospital bed recovering from a car accident, forced to listen to too-quiet 18th century harp music that his body cast prevented him from turning up. This alerted him to the way that recorded sound can effectively merge with the environment in which it’s played, appealing to “many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular.” He aimed to create a cocoon for thought and reflection through a music that could be used with utilitarian purpose. He has described the process as a painter taking the human figure out of a landscape. In music, this figure took the form of his own voice, a cohesive melody, and other evidence of human intervention– by eliminating these, he created a sense of space where there was once an object.”

These ideas coalesced over a series of albums in the late 70’s and early 80’s, most notably reaching compositional perfection on the 1982 release “Ambient 4: On Land”. The linked track, “Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)” is one of the greatest ambient compositions, embodying everything that Eno sought to achieve with ambient. From the liner notes of the album:

“[The places described on the album] they are my experience; of it derives not from having visited it (although I almost certainly did) but from having subsequently seen it on a map and imagining where and what it might be.”

This idea of creating and representing traditionally non-representational physical locations, feelings and memories in the form of music is, I feel the aim of all good ambient music and certainly the benchmark that is set against all who come after Eno. Eno continued to make some of the most brilliant ambient music, and still does to this day. These albums caused an explosion of interest and development in ambient music, with artists like Steve Roach and Vangelis taking the music in their own direction. Much of the work of this period is today considered trite, having dangerously crossed streams with a lot of New Age through the works of artists like Enya (and worse). However, there was a germinative effect taking place- during the rest of the 80’s and 90’s this ambient music seeped into mainstream consciouness through every viable outlet, be it the etherial brilliance of The Cocteau Twins or 90’s electronic dance music acts like The Orb and Aphex Twin reappropriating the ambient style for their own ends. As you can probably tell I’ve written a lot about this already and I haven’t even got on to my landmark records because the history and importance of ambient music is so incalculably vast it could fill an entire book – and it does! See Mark Prendergast’s “The Ambient Century” for a comprehensive history of this subject. From the 90’s onward, post-rock, most notably on the Kranky label, and the techno on the Warp label brought ambient music to yet another generation of listeners and musicians – and this is the kind of ambient the author grew up on and is most fond of. Previous history aside, the following records are must have for any ambient fan looking to get started:


First of all, go here and check out this amazing ambient mix, it showcases some of the best artists who work or have worked in this genre.

Now my choices (items with a * are super-essential):

Brian Eno – Ambient 4: On Land*

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2*

Stars Of The Lid – The Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid*

Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal* (Watch out for the first track on this album!)

Tim Hecker – Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again*

The Dead Texan – The Dead Texan

Belong – October Language

William Basinski – Disintegration Loops I-IV

Fennesz – Endless Summer


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Mark Prendergast

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Bloomsbury Pub Ltd

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Ambient Century

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