Exploring the Tranquility of Ambient Music

I’ve long appreciated the effects that meditation and sound can have on my mind and concentration. It seems that when I desperately need to fall asleep cars begin sounding their alarms, roommates enjoy themselves a little too much, and my brain recounts the endless list of obligations and to-dos. After many attempts to meditate on my own, I often find myself reaching for my headphones and my favorite ambient music playlist. It is then that my thoughts are silenced and the unnerving sounds of the city vanish. I drift into a euphoric state of peace before I finally begin to dream. Even if I am trying to focus on a project rather than fall asleep, I can drift into a deep state of concentration.

It wasn’t until I bought my first synthesizer a few years back that I realized I could make “thinking” or “ambient” music. I felt like this was a style of music making and performance where I could effectively work alone, letting emotion and sound be expressed in layers that were not totally premeditated. I let the music manifest itself to either exude beauty and stillness, or harshness and discomfort.

“Ambient music can take ordinary, often overlooked sounds and places, and exalt them to eminence,” explained artist Ariana Van Gelder. “It’s about listening carefully and amplifying sound to create rich, immersive voyages for the listener. Most of the music I make is largely escapist. It’s music to dream to, to get lost in. Lush, looped lullabies. I call it Dream Drone.”

This style of music is cinematic. It can be purely instrumental or it can have words. Typically, you’re able to form your own imagery in your mind…your own story and meaning. Sound is a universal language, with tones interpreted differently from one civilization to the next. Rather than instilling a specific idea in your head, I feel it leaves perception open to interpretation. It is complementary or transformative.

Brian Eno is a prolific and mainstream ambient artist. In fact, he coined the term ambient music. He began his ambient journey after a car accident that left him bedridden. A friend had gifted him an 18th century harp music record. As the record began to play at an accidental low volume, Eno heard something many others would overlook or be annoyed by. Eno stated in the liner notes for his influential album “Music for Airports/Ambient 1” that “ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” This epiphany was the beginning of a new path to music making. Since then, he has created dozens of ambient albums, never to return to the adolescence of pop music.

Eno says on his website of his new album “Reflection,” “I don’t think I understand what that [ambient music] stands for anymore–it seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows–but I still use it to distinguish it from pieces of music that have fixed duration and rhythmically connected, locked together elements.”

The world of sound is as boundless as the universe. The worlds of the ambient and noise genres reflect this vastness. This is an art form that aims to be inclusive, experimental, and purely expressive. I was recently invited to the first “noise” show I’ve ever attended by my friend Dylan Marcheschi of Eastern Tapes, a soft sound label based in New York. It was out in Ridgewood, Queens at the venue, Trans Pecos. Sam Hillmer, co-founder and artistic director of Trans Pecos is also a founding member of the genre-bending band Zs. The lights were dim and the entrance was primarily illuminated by a moody blue light. I walked to the back of the where the show was taking place. It was rather well attended, more crowded than I anticipated. It was Abstract Conditions’ one year anniversary and Dasychira’s “Immolated” EP release party. The debut EP is a concept record about the life cycle of the praying mantis. This was a show with artists ranging from “experimental sacred music” to explosive noise melding with breakbeats and bass lines.

Artwork courtesy of ARIADNE.

The evening began with ARIADNE, an A/V experimental duo from Brooklyn, New York featuring Christine Papania and Benjamin Forest. Everyone appeared entranced within seconds by operatic and feminine vocals paired with subsonic, atmospheric tones. Captivating visuals black and while colors, dark figures shimmering with reflected light brought this experience to the next level. Forest would strike a spring, contained by a solid backing, pairing it with delay and loops. It would break the sequence of tranquility and angelic beauty, as if falling to ground from above the clouds. It was a truly captivating and borderline religious experience. I was very present and in the moment, watching the performers carefully, the cues, the visual accompaniment, and the way the projections highlighted faces in the audience. It was essentially a DIY symphony.

Perhaps the important correlation between visuals and music is that, especially within a live setting, other humans can be distracting to the experience. Human focus is easily ensnared by light and movement. It deepens the captivity of attention and sensory experience. It can further convey a feeling or idea using imagery and color. It can transform a space to accentuate the ambience and atmosphere. “It helps truly achieve my three-point criteria for great art: connection, transportation, and transformation” says Van Gelder. On the other hand, if not executed properly, pairing visuals and sonic expression can work against the impact of a piece. “I think it’s become counter-intuitive for a lot of people to just put on a record and sit still and listen,” explains Marcheschi. “People don’t realize what they’re missing by using their eyes, they don’t realize how much of their mental powers are being taken up by processing visual cues, and how much closing your eyes opens your other senses.”

In high contrast to the operatic tranquility of ARIADNE’s opening set, Speak Onion exploded onto the stage with unwavering energy and abrasive sampling re-enforced by driving break beats. Out of control and impactful, head-banging in true rock and roll form, he began on the stage and ended on the floor with the audience. Smiles of awe, bobbing heads, and thrusting shoulders. We were truly connecting with this high-strung noisician and it began to feel like a party.

“The line between noise and ambient is a vibrating string drawn loosely between artist and listener, a tacit agreement, a handshake between friends” says Van Gelder. “If you ask around, you’ll get as many answers as people asked. Generally, noise invades, whereas ambient envelops. It’s pretty cathartic. In many ways, it reclaims emotional, mental, and sonic spaces by ripping through them completely. We invade what’s been invaded and destroy what has destroyed us.”

Luwayne Glass, AKA Dreamcrusher, is a prolific genderqueer noise artist based in Brooklyn. Seemingly contradictory to the aggressive feedback and walls of sound, their noise music is a commentary on discomfort and invasively combats marginalization and violence. Glass has dubbed the sound NIHILIST QUEER REVOLT MUSIK. Their goal to make the noise scene more inclusive and place where weirdos congregate and create.

It’s as if there is a consensus that this music is pre-existing and self-manifesting. Eno also says on his Reflection website, “Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves.” These modes of music seem to have all-encompassing and existential themes. Commenting on yet reaching beyond the human experience to reflect upon the being and perception of the universe.

“My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time–‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.”