...with the music we will paint pictures of earth and space, so that the listener can be taken somewhere... - Jimi Hendrix
Sat in the shivering turbulence of morning commuter hell. Enough unfriendly data to saturate every sense. Eyes are aching under the persuasive weight of gaudy promotional symbols, the body rocked with the shuddering and wooshing of mass transit. Our sense of hearing bears the brunt of this chaos, being a system we can’t easily shut off whilst we’re conscious – the liquid and drum of the ears are in an unwelcome panic as mankind’s thunderous incubator exploits their fragility with a heavy hand, relative silence choked into a coma. For some, the role of ambient music in these environments can become very significant as an antithesis or antidote, something to soften the edges a bit.
As headphones are wearily extracted from a bag and vague ideas of listening material coalesce, the strength of the sonic intrusions wavers slightly and becomes weakened under the first ripples of an impending trance state. Of course, that slight inner worry of bending to floppy New Age escapist silliness bites gently… but screw it, anything is better than this. This screaming, clanking, gushing soundworld that just grinds anything approaching calm out of the atmosphere. But… why is calm so important anyway? Ah yes, contemplation, reflection, spiritual nourishment… the time to realign the completely thrown-off-centre soul is precious, necessary time, and it may be the case that a trip between distracting environments offers a brief window for this to happen, may even necessitate such behaviour.
So there lurks this question, this is an escapist trance… climbing into a mental space that exists in the centre and outside of a stereo field… kind of pondering the idea of ritual…?
The process of definining and analysing ritual practise lacks the framework that offers structure and common form to literature, for instance, or scientific analysis – such is the depth of the importance and profoundness to the individual. Far from quantitative it becomes something elusive, esoteric and highly subjective. Still, some degree of understanding exists – Robert Bocock’s notion that any appreciation of material of an aesthetic type counts as ritual action has a vague neatness, bolstered through considering the importance of inherent symbols and various established associations. Further sculpting the idea, this sentiment has been echoed and directed towards music by various others: Michael Tucker, David Toop, Jamie James et al who reflect on the subject so poetically and with real familiar and comforting personality, making far reaching historic links in referencing such thinkers as Pythogoras and Vincenzo Galilei, with them supporting the idea that music has the power to, as Cicero put it really rather beautifully, ‘elevate the soul to a higher cosmic harmony’. And when cosmic harmony is lost under the weight of an increasingly frantic existence, the role of music becomes ever more important.
One needen’t be an academic, a philosopher or any kind of artist, however, to experience this potential for brief headphone rituals. Especially when appreciation in a soulful and artistic sense can be augmented by one of something closer resembling utility. A utility to draw back the covers of a concealed trance that transforms a period of cluttered time into a cleansing interlude, replete with tools to achieve something comparatively tranquil, free of the distractions of full consciousness. Amid the clamour surrounding us there are those that may possibly be engaging in numerous personal rituals on a daily basis, sharing quasi-theraputic or shamanic duties with the composers they choose. And clearly each has their own family of figures to whom they turn in times of need.
The continuing revival of ambient based music seems to be holding strong in the global roar – a plausible reason may lie in the function it has to shield listeners from the instrusions of information, noise, chaos… perhaps from ourselves and the mess of a frazzled inner monologue, the scrape of sorting damaged thoughts. In this case, the aforementioined New Age accusations appear largely redundant – a sincere and serious need to (mentally) ‘get the fuck out of here’ collapses the corniness that has arisen within the term, stereotypical New Agers with awkwardly soundtracked relaxation CDs replaced with very everyday, nine to five appreciators of music. Early in the twenty first century a confused and alienated race experiences so much advancement, so little enchantment – so some of us turn to our collections of tones and drones, melodies and noise… a decentralised Zen-like audio movement free of ideology and godhead hierarchy.
When one is moved to consider the path modern ambient music has taken throughout its history, development and flirtations with other genres, it comes as no real surprise that the pool of timbres is so vast.
The modern ambient composers – for these purposes ranging from the classically inspired, the experimentalists and those exploring something altogether much darker and noisier – portray a genre refreshed, abundent with wildly contrasting sounds. This range suggests a movement that doesn’t see boundaries between the styles from which it takes inspiration.
Interestingly though, the thread that runs through the current wave of producers could well be the potential their material has for personal spiritual satisfaction. Within the spectrum resides the modern classical songs of Max Richter, Goldmund, Rafael Anton Irrisarri… the barely moving drones of Loscil, softly distorted undulations of Belong, semi-classical slow movements of Stars of The Lid… then approaching the other end there is the noise and fuzz element introduced into the works of Tim Hecker, Fennesz and William Fowler Collins… and the darker psyche, ceremonial and doom influenced sounds of Menace Ruine, Barn Owl and, in a more extreme sense, Gnaw Their Tongues. Informed by the minimalists – themselves partly drawing direct influence from Eastern ritual music – there may exist a repetitive, rhythmic aspect central to the work, like in the case of William Basinski’s Disentegration Loops or the synthesised forays of Oneohtrix Point Never. Comparisons can be made to the repetitive chants of those engaged in a shamanic ritual, the recurring phrase opening doors of perception to a spirit world or alternative mind-state. Of course there sometimes crops up a jarring dichotomy between these styles, especially when the noise and darkness treads into more violent and discomforting territory, but both poles share the same ability to channel attention and draw focus away from far more undesirable environmental conditions. These aspects of ambient music point towards the haven the listener seeks. Sat on a crowded train yet lost in a shimmering world of layered tones, they are engaging in an inward, personal ritual of escape, of distraction.
A sense of statis or slow development, welcomed noise and secret, socially acceptable self-hypnosis are, for some, important aspects of auditory escapism. Just like the first sweet freedom of free-raving engaged us with a mutual appreciation for counter-hedonism and punks collaborated in a free system of policitcal and social defiance, today’s modern ambient composers are providing us with a means to flee our frantic lives, if only for the duration of a train journey, to reconnect with patience, nature and spirit.
Right now on the speakers is the most recent Lawrence English album For / Not For John Cage, a work of subtlety, space and patience that treads rather murky paths through both melodic and textural minimalism. A detailed analysis of the properties of the music itself would only draw upon obvious, though not at all insignificant associations – calm, mysterious, gently undulating tones where timbre is as important as musicality in establishing a less hectic mental environment. Something about the almost religious way ambient music is used to bring about this sense of contemplation, relaxation or rapture lefts it to an almost ceremonial plane, with the composer and his tones at the centre of preceedings. If the shaman’s work is to cure the sick of heart and mind, the modern ambient composer has, inadvertently perhaps, become a contemporary equivalent in facilitating a retreat from the tumult of the developed world. Some may shrug off the comparisons that can be drawn with a shamanic or religious figure, and these people may well be right to. It’s the beauty of open interpretation – coupled with the elusive crux of what ritual behaviour is – that allows others to indulge them.
Let me share these words again:
“…with the music we will paint pictures of earth and space, so that the listener can be taken somewhere…”
I certainly hope so… I look around myself, experience a tranquility-shattering chaos that demands a way out. Anywhere but here.