Brian Eno’s new album Small Craft on a Milk Sea, his first solo album since 2005, comes out in just two weeks. With that in mind, this seems the perfect moment to look back at a genre to which he’s contributed a great deal over the years: ambient. Eno’s work throughout the ‘70s was pretty much unmitigated genius – the unhinged creative freedom of his solo debut Here Come the Warm Jets and its follow up Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, the lush grandeur of Another Green World, the collaborations with Robert Fripp – but even so, his quartet of ambient records were a particular high point. After all, not many people can claim to have created (or at least defined) a genre.
If you thought ambient was all whale calls and new age noodling, then think again: in the first installment of a monthly Mixtape Primers series, Tom Hawking gives us his essential ambient collection… designed to fit right onto a C60 for your listening pleasure! Go track by track after the jump, and listen to the whole mix at the end of the post.
1. Brian Eno – “1/1 (excerpt)” (6:12) From Music for Airports , 1978
OK, so in fairness, Eno might not have been the first to come up with the idea of music that eschewed rhythm and melody for atmospherics and texture, but he was the first to put a name to it, and his ambient records from the late ‘70s have been hugely influential on the development of the genre. This track is where it began: the first piece from his first entirely ambient album, 1978’s Music for Airports (apparently the idea of music designed to offset the generally unpleasant atmosphere of airports came to him after being stuck in a terminal for several hours). It introduces several of the concepts that Eno considered crucial for ambient music: the idea of a utilitarian sound designed for a specific purpose, which to some extent creates itself – the music on “1/1” is several tape loops of different length played simultaneously, interweaving and creating both dissonance and harmony as they do so.
Aphex Twin – “i” (1:17) From Selected Ambient Works Vol 1 , 1992
The genre’s roots in electronic experimentalism – early electronic pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Delia Derbyshire made abstract atmospheric pieces that could easily be labeled ambient, and Eno’s ambient albums leaned heavily on then cutting-edge synth sounds – meant that it was a logical step for dance music producers to explore its sound. Producers like The KLF (who pretty much invented the term “chill out” ), Future Sound of London, and The Orb extended the “background music” remit of ambient into down-tempo electronica, but it was Richard D. James – aka Aphex Twin – who made some of the most interesting and innovative electronic ambient compositions of the 1990s. Both his Selected Ambient Works compilations are excellent, and this short track from the first installment is a fine example.
Gas – “Untitled” (6:34) From Königsforst , 1997
The evolution of ambient dance music has continued apace over the last decade, and the 2000s have seen a heap of fascinating records, due largely to the interplay between ambient and minimal techno. At the forefront of this movement has been German label Kompakt, whose annual Pop Ambient compilations are pretty much invariably compulsory acquisitions. Even better, though, is the work of label founder Wolfgang Voigt, who records under the pseudonym Gas. The four LPs he released under this moniker between 1996 and 2000 pretty much pioneered ambient techno and are still, ten years later, pretty amazing listening – immersive, atmospheric and darkly beautiful.
William Basinski – “dlp 3 (excerpt)” (7:02) From The Disintegration Loops II , 2002
While Eno’s guiding vision involved music that was unobtrusive – “Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think,” he wrote in the liner notes to Music for Airports – this doesn’t necessarily have to mean easy listening. Bands like Coil and Ulver have taken the idea of non-melodic music in a distinctly dark direction, but for me, the most profoundly affecting ambient music you’ll ever hear are William Basinki’s Disintegration Loops. The concept is simple – in attempting to transfer some old tape recordings into a digital format, Basinski found that the tapes were falling to pieces as they played. Deciding to simply let them play out into nothingness, he recorded the sound of the tapes slowly disintegrating, capturing a sound that evokes decay and mortality. And if the music isn’t remarkable enough, consider the fact that he apparently finished the recordings on the morning of September 11, 2001, and was listening to the finished product as the Twin Towers collapsed.
Cluster – “Für die Katz” (3:09) From Cluster II , 1972
No ambient compilation would be complete without mentioning the work of Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Möbius, the duo who made up all of Cluster and two thirds of Harmonia. Along with contemporaries like Kraftwerk, Popul Vuh and Tangerine Dream, this pair made some astoundingly inventive and ground-breaking music during the early and mid-1970s. This track, from their second album, is an atonal mix of sounds that have absolutely nothing to do with melody and everything to do with atmosphere. The duo would later work with Eno as, um, Cluster & Eno, making music that led directly into the composition of Eno’s ambient quartet.
Julianna Barwick – “Cloudbank” (4:10) From Florine , 2009
Plenty of ambient music is entirely instrumental, but it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, it doesn’t need instruments at all. This track features only Barwick’s unearthly vocals, layered and fed through washes of reverb. The result is dreamily gorgeous.
Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto – “Logic Moon” (6:50) From Insen , 2005
Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) was (and remains) one of the pioneers of using the glitches and hiccups thrown up by samplers as the rhythmic foundation and/or defining sound of his tracks. The idea of such random glitchiness ties in well with Eno’s ideas of a self-defining sound, and Nicolai’s collaborations with Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto have explored the interaction between electronic textures and improvised piano figures, creating music that’s both involving and soothing, interesting enough to listen closely to with a good set of headphones, but also pretty enough to simply soundtrack a quiet night in.
Philip Glass – “Koyaanisqatsi” (3:28) From Koyaanisqatsi OST, 1983
Ambient music and film seem like a perfect combination – the idea of music that’s subtle enough not to distract from the action, but potent enough to contribute enough to a film’s mood, is perfect for soundtracks. Some directors are masters of the use of music and sound design to create a mood for their work – the atmosphere of David Lynch’s films, for instance, owes nearly as much to the sound design as it does to his brain-bending scripts. The 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi took the idea a step further, creating a film where minimalist composer Philip Glass’s music is as important a part of the viewing experience as the visuals. The music moves from dramatic to quiet and subtle in sync with the footage on screen, creating an immersive experience that still packs a punch over 25 years later.
Kode9 & The Spaceape – “Ghost Town” (4:21) From Five Years of Hyperdub , 2009
Dub’s echoing soundscapes have a lot in common with the atmospherics of ambient, so it’s been no surprise to find its younger brother dubstep exploring the same territory over the last few years. Artists like Burial have combined ambient textures with fractured beats to great effect, and this radically deconstructed reinterpretation of The Specials’s “Ghost Town” by Hyperdub founder Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) takes things a step further, dropping the beats entirely in favour of ominous, spacious minimalism.
Eluvium – “Under the Water It Glowed” (5:10) From Lambent Material , 2003
Post-rock is another genre that’s intermingled with ambient over the last decade or so. Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai have explored epic soundscapes with their recordings, both deathly quiet and ear-bleedingly loud (often in quick succession). Eluvium’s debut LP Lambent Material, released in 2003, remains a fine example of this amalgam of post-rock and ambient. This track sums up Eluvium beautifully – a mix of delicate ambient and more rock-flavoured influences, unobtrusive but with just enough melodic bite (particularly the woozy, gliding synth sounds) to prevent it from slipping completely into the background.
Panoptique Electrical – “Tingling Cheeks are Love” (4:21) From Let the Darkness At You , 2009
We finish our mixtape by coming full circle back to a piece that picks up on Eno’s idea of utilitarian music – in this case, it’s music designed to put you to sleep. Australian producer Jason Sweeney – aka Panoptique Electrical – describes the work on his ambient compilation Let the Darkness at You as “like a sleeping pill” and “very intentionally driven to put me to sleep.” Describing music as a cure for insomnia is a joke that’s been done to death over the years, but in this case, Sweeney couldn’t have got it more right – tracks like “Tingling Cheeks are Love” are restful and also possessed of a strange, abstract beauty.
Listen to the whole thing: