There are points in life that deserve a soundtrack. You probably imagined the sound of a triumphant fanfare the last time you got an ‘A’ on a test, or a high energy rock anthem while you were getting ready to go out last Friday. However, it’s undeniable that American popular music is applicable only to a tiny fraction of your waking hours. There are no fitting chords for the 75 insufferable minutes of your humanities seminar, nor lyrics that can describe the time spent trying to fall back asleep after enduring the industrial wails of your roommate’s alarm. You could try to force sensical music on these nonsensical moments, and many do. However, there is something to be said for recognizing that much of your life slips by, and accompanying it with music that slips by as well. And of course, the only reasonable candidate to fill this void is ambient music.
Ambient consists of sounds that lack melody, rhythm or structure. It is music without our preconceptions of what music is. It encapsulates the spontaneity, freedom and unconscious expression that modern visual art has been chasing for a long while, but it does so far more naturally. This is perhaps because of how we consciously experience sound. Sight is always the focus of our attention, so works like those of Pollock and Rothko that subvert our attempts at scrutiny are awkwardly received by the viewer. In contrast, ambient music is a completely natural listening experience because we’re used to sound hovering at the edge of our consciousness rather than at the center of it.
That’s not to suggest that ambient is meant to be ignored. This genre is unique among all others in that the sounds seem to exist without regard to an audience. Most songs have lyrics that are intended to be relatable to the listener, often in an effort to emphasize the emotions and experiences that people have in common. However, the artist-audience dialogue clearly transcends lyrics. Songs in other languages can be very touching, and even post-rock instrumentals explore motifs and build to crescendos in an attempt to hold the listener’s attention. However, in ambient the artist-audience dialogue is nonexistent because neither party is acknowledged or even necessary. Great ambient music truly feels as if it was never created, but merely exists, such that if you were in a totally deserted forest and Brian Eno’s “2/1” drifted through the trees, you wouldn’t question it. Similarly, Robert Fripp’s distorted, aimless guitar on “Evening Star” sounds like the background static of the universe. These sounds seem to have been around forever, and they don’t give a damn if you’re listening or not.
However, I do care if you listen to ambient or not. I won’t say that it’s perfect study music — yes, it will fade to the back of your mind, but it can also grab your attention when you least expect it. I certainly have never been able to accomplish anything while Aphex Twin’s “#6” works its magic. Nevertheless, it’s a good way to get your mind off things and will certainly help you appreciate “normal” music more by virtue of its sheer contrast to everything else. Because of this, I’ve selected some of the most definitive ambient tracks, listed below, for your personal enjoyment.
Key Ambient Tracks
- Fripp & Eno - Evening Star
- Fripp & Eno - The Heavenly Music Corporation
- David Bowie - Warszawa
- David Bowie - Weeping Wall
- Brian Eno - 2/1
- Brian Eno - In Dark Trees
- Brian Eno - Under Stars I & II
- Aphex Twin - #2
- Aphex Twin - #6
- Suzanne Ciana - Concert at Phil Niblock’s Loft