A Beginner’s Guide To AMBIENT

Therefore I Am…

eno1Ambient electronic music is a much misunderstood genre. One is not talking JEAN MICHEL JARRE or VANGELIS who are far too lively and melodic to be considered ambient. And it is not chill-out that’s being talked about either, which seems to lump in any form of dance music that is under 112 beats per minute like MOBY, AIR or even MASSIVE ATTACK.

Modern ambient probably came to prominence with BRIAN ENO. While lying in a hospital room after a car accident in 1975, a friend visited him and put on a LP of harp music. However the volume had been set at an extremely low level and one of the stereo channels had failed. Unable to move to adjust this, Eno had a new way of listening to music forced onto him. In recalling this story for the sleeve notes of his ‘Discreet Music’ album, Eno said the music now became “part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of rain were parts of the ambience”. BRIAN ENO may not have been the inventor of ambient, but he was almost certainly was its midwife.

With its lengthy gradual processes and unpredictable changes, ambient can be listened to and yet ignored. Going against the Western tradition of music where vocals, melody and rhythm are essential components, ambient music is designed to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular. One of the other beauties of ambient music is that the pieces are often so progressive that it becomes quite difficult to remember individual sections. Therefore on repeated plays, the music can still sound fresh and rewarding.

eno_fripp_bowieComments about ambient music have predictably ranged from “it’s boring” to “it doesn’t do anything”! But that is missing the point…isn’t there some part of the day where one might like to hear music that has no vocal, no rhythms and is not too melodically energetic?

In the sleeve notes of VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE’s CD ‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’, it says “This album is intended to promote profound relaxation. It is best experienced at the point of near-sleep at the end or beginning of the day”. Apparently it was reported that Martin Gore had to stop playing a BRIAN ENO remix of DEPECHE MODE’s ‘In Your Room’ because it was making him feel sleepy! So the advice is don’t try listening to ambient music while driving!!

There are many excellent classic and contemporary exponents of ambient such as KLAUS SCHULZE, ASHRA, WILLIAM ORBIT and ARP, but here is a beginner’s guide that samples works by artists whose mainstream material one may already be familiar with, in order to get a straightforward introduction to the genre.

BRIAN ENO Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)

eno-Apollo-Recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the Apollo Missions to the moon, one of the inspirations of ‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ was to react against the uptempo, ‘newsy’ manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Eno wanted to convey the feelings of space travel and weightlessness.

Although based around Eno’s Yamaha DX7, the album is quite varied instrumentally as it features DANIEL LANOIS, who is Eno’s partner on the U2 production team, and his brother ROGER ENO, now an acclaimed modern classical composer. Dreamy soundscapes and aural clusters dominate. The album’s most familiar track ‘Big Blue Day’ was used in the ‘toilet’ scene of the film Trainspotting.

Try if you like: Eno’s dramatic church organ-like intro to U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ but lose interest when the band comes in!

Other recommended related releases:

BRIAN ENO ‘Music For Films’ (1977)

BRIAN ENO ‘Music for Airports’ (1978)

ROGER ENO ‘Voices’ (1985)

BRIAN ENO ‘Thursday Afternoon’ (1985)

BRIAN ENO ‘The Shutov Assembly’ (1990)

BRIAN ENO & J PETER SCHWALM ‘Drawn from Life’ (2001)


DAVID SYLVIAN & HOLGER CZUKAY Plight and Premonition (1988)

david_sylvian_holger_czukay_plight_premonitionBy 1986, the former JAPAN vocalist had grown tried of being a pop star and wanted to get away from singing as reflected by the ‘Gone to Earth’ double package which consisted of an album of songs and an album of instrumentals. Sylvian became interested in creating environmental music, an idea that had been investigated previously with JAPAN B-side ‘The Experience Of Swimming’ and the intro of album track ‘Burning Bridges’.

He found a willing collaborator in former CAN member HOLGER CZUKAY. Czukay was well known as a ‘sound painter’ who had developed several unconventional compositional techniques on his solo albums ‘Movies’ and ‘On the Way to the Peak of Normal’, using devices such as short wave radios and Dictaphones. So through a series of improvisations, the duo came up with ‘Plight and Premonition’, two 18 minute pieces that conveyed a sinister yet tranquil quality with the music just drifting along in complex spirals rather than in traditional chord structures.

Try if you like: the Stockhausen-like sound sculptures of JAPAN’s ‘Ghosts’ in between the vocals.

Other recommended related releases:

DAVID SYLVIAN ‘Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities’ (1984)

DAVID SYLVIAN & HOLGER CZUKAY ‘Flux + Mutability’ (1989)

DAVID SYLVIAN ‘Approaching Silence’ (1999)



VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (2000)

spectrum-pursuit-vehicle‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ was composed by VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE in 2000 as part of an Illustrious art installation in a circular, white clothed room where the colours referred to in the titles of the six lengthy pieces were “programmed to cross fade imperceptibly to create an infinite variation of hue”. Its titles include ‘White – You Are In Heaven’, ‘Yellow – You Are On A Beach’, ‘Blue – You Are Underwater’ and ‘Green – You Are In A Forest’.

Using binaural 3D mixing techniques, the sleeve notes also recommend that the album is best heard using headphones. Part of that concept dates back to Ware’s BEF cassette only project ‘Music For Stowaways’ from 1981 which was conceived to be listened to on Stowaways (the original name for the Sony Walkman) to provide a living musical soundtrack. Perfect for the iPod and definitely music to soothe the head.

Try if you like: esoteric instrumental B-sides such as ERASURE’s ’91 Steps’, BEF’s ‘Decline Of The West’, THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Toyota City’ or OMD’s ’66 & Fading’.

Other recommended related releases:

BEF ‘Music for Stowaways’ (1981)

THE CLARK WARE EXPERIMENT ‘Pretentious’ (1999)


DAVID BOWIE All Saints: Collected Instrumentals 1977-1999 (2001)

david-bowie-all-saintsWhen Bowie released his now acclaimed ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ albums in 1977, he confused fans, record company and critics alike with each consisting of one side of songs and one side of instrumentals. Most of these instrumentals were doom laden and almost neo-classical. Bowie was going through his post-cocaine rehabilitation having moved to Berlin with IGGY POP as part of his recovery.

Heavily influenced by the Germanic experimentation of pre-‘Autobahn’ KRAFTWERK, TANGERINE DREAM and CLUSTER, he was also working with BRIAN ENO and using his infamous ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards. These randomly instructed the pair to try techniques that were very much part of the avant garde and what Bowie would later call ‘The New School Of Pretentions’. ‘All Saints’ is a compilation of those Berlin instrumental pieces plus assorted B-sides like ‘Crystal Japan’ and later soundtrack work. However, the near-ambient effect of the album is spoiled at the end by the incongruous inclusion of PHILIP GLASS’ rather frenetic orchestral version of ‘Some Are’ rather than BOWIE’s own synthetic original.

Try if you like: instrumental music with a decaying chill. As some of the pieces feature a livelier percussive tempos and abstract vocals, this collection might also be more easier to digest than some of the other selections listed.

Other recommended related releases:

EDGAR FROESE ‘Aqua’ (1974)

TANGERINE DREAM ‘Phaedra’ (1974)

TANGERINE DREAM ‘Rubycon’ (1975)

CLUSTER ‘Sowiesoso’ (1976)

CLUSTER & ENO  ‘Cluster & Eno’ (1977)


JOHN FOXX & HAROLD BUDD Nighthawks / Translucence / Drift Music (2011)

FOXX & BUDD Nighthawks etcA sumptuous triple CD set featuring two artists from opposite ends of the music spectrum but both with the common factor of having worked with BRIAN ENO. ‘Nighthawks’ is JOHN FOXX & HAROLD BUDD’s most recent collaboration which also features minimalist composer RUBEN GARCIA. It is a soothing tranquil work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape that is appropriately nocturnal in line with its Edward Hopper inspired title.

Meanwhile, the earlier ‘Translucence’ from 2003 is a close relative and classic HAROLD BUDD. With lots of beautiful piano sweetened with JOHN FOXX’s electronics, it is all very reminiscent of HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO’s 1984 collaboration ‘The Pearl’. Partnered with the more subdued ‘Drift Music’ on its original release, this offering has Foxx developing his interest in ambient from his own ‘Cathedral Oceans’ compositions but without the Gregorian chants. Both achieve a fine degree of textural fulfilment. If ‘Translucence’ can be considered the morning soundtrack of this pair, then ‘Drift Music’ is best experienced at the point of near sleep.

Try if you like: slow atmospheric piano with lots of reverb and synths that drift into the ether!

Other recommended related releases:

HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ (1980)

HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO ‘The Pearl’ (1984)

HAROLD BUDD ‘The White Arcades’ (1992)

ROBIN GUTHRIE & HAROLD BUDD ‘After the Night Falls’ (2007)

ROBIN GUTHRIE & HAROLD BUDD ‘Before the Day Breaks’ (2007)

JOHN FOXX ‘The Complete Cathedral Oceans’ (2010)

JOHN FOXX & THEO TRAVIS ‘Torn Sunset’ (2011)



Text by Chi Ming Lai
13th August 2011

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