“The biggest revolution in music, ever?”
See what you think . . .
An over-view of Western-art-tradition (i.e. “classical”) music : the history of music (from this perspective) is a thousand-year progression of increasing complexity of harmonies, all based on the concept of notes. Starting from plainsong, where only octave and 5ths were allowed, gradually adding other degrees of the scale (with the even-tempered scale being an important milestone, enabling one piece of music to move any distance from the root key without re-tuning the instrument), all the way to 12-tone compositions and micro-tone scales.
At that point the only place to go was beyond notes entirely, to deliberate use of sounds themselves.
Notes are symbols for sounds, carrying far less information than the sounds do (for example a MIDI file might be 2,000 times smaller than the audio file for the same track). The entire progression of around a thousand years of music history was based fundamentally on notes. The ambient revolution changed this, with sounds themselves becoming more important than notes. In fact, that can be used as a definition for “ambient music” . . . music where the sound is more important than the notes.
This same progression can be seen in the evolution of arts as a whole from symbolizing reality and choosing to be distanced from it, to desiring real contact with it. The same revolution can be seen in the visual arts moving from symbols to reality and abstraction (where the piece of art itself is the reality, with no external reference). An example of a tipping-point on that progression is J. M. W. Turner’s, “Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”, (1842) being mostly an abstract painting but still having to include a subject that could be put into words (i.e. symbolized) to be acceptable to the culture of the time.
Ambient music, like abstract art, could be said to be like a landscape with the figure absent. A Rothko can be seen as very much a landscape painting, despite there being no figure.
As well as the ambient revolution happening in classical music, the same thing happened in non-classical music at about the same time. One view of this is the progression of dance music from disco through techno and rave to ambient, each step along the way decreasing the importance of notes (along with rhythm, melody and harmony, which are concepts relating to notes) and increasing the importance of the sounds themselves.
This happened along-side the changes in music due to technology (particularly in terms of sound-recording). Since, as Brian Eno found, a person today can recognize a track they know from one fifth of a second of it, that means it’s not the lyrics, melody, harmony or rhythms being recognized, it’s the unique character of the sound itself. Which again brings us to the definition of ambient music.
A remix can produce a new, unique work of art, clearly recognized as being different from the original, even though the notes, lyrics and basic rhythms might be the same.
Brian Eno can be said to have invented ambient-music when he was sick. He was playing some harp music at low volume when it started to rain heavily and the music was almost obscured by the sound of the rain. He didn’t feel well enough to get up and increase the volume of the music, so, after some initial frustration, discovered something interesting and worthwhile in its own right in the juxtaposition of the two, moving beyond the boundary between music and sounds from the rest of the world.
Some ambient artists and producers created music that is obviously ambient, by adding two deliberately different pieces of music at the same time (this was done more than once by The Orb), while John Cage’s famous “4:33” consisted of the performer in a concert hall walking in, opening the lid of the piano and sitting still without playing any notes, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, then closing the lid of the piano and departing. The sounds of the audience and the environment became defined as the music itself.
“From a slice of infinity, to the emotional-curve, and back again.”
Indian classical music doesn’t have a start and an end in the same way that most Western classical music does. It could have been going on forever before, and after, the section that the listener happens to be present for. Plainsong is somewhat similar, as is most ambient music.
In between plainsong and new music, Western music (although more so for classical than non-classical, with most folk-music having structures which can be repeated an arbitrary number of times) was all about the emotional curve, with a beginning, some journey through obviously different states, one or more climaxes and an ending. The emotional-curve can be seen as presenting “art” as something separate from the world outside, it’s own universe with its own independent start and finish.
These changes can be seen in the cyclic or repetitive nature of a lot of pop music, and the progression from there to dance music which is even less about a clearly defined structure in time. Although there are obvious changes in texture within dance music, the concept of a fixed and complete overall structure for the track, with an essential beginning and end, has largely vanished.
“The biggest revolution in the arts . . . that nobody’s noticed.”
As with the majority of changes on this planet, most people haven’t noticed it consciously, and their thinking hasn’t changed much, yet they are profoundly effected by this dramatic evolution. At the time of writing, Wikipedia still defines music as having melody, harmony and rhythm, which some ambient music doesn’t have at all (there is no mention ambient music at all in the main article, despite this most significant revolution in a millennium having occurred several decades ago, and despite it being, arguably, the most important concept in music as a whole).
Yet the same people can recognize a track they know from a fifth of a second, so their reality is profoundly influenced by this revolution they don’t see. Production, in terms of chosen coloring of sound qualities, is an integral part of almost all recorded music these days, which can be seen as inseparable from the ambient revolution . . . the focus on sound itself.
Music is an integral part of movies and TV, yet that music is not being presented as music to be listened to in its own right, it is being used to create an atmosphere . . . an ambiance.
As is often the case with such changes, with the benefit of hindsight the progression and its results seem inevitable and obvious when pointed out, yet were unexpected to most people at the time it was happening, and the revolutionary changes passed by unobserved by nearly everyone, even after it’s happened.
A quote by quote by Morse Peckham “an artist does not lead us to a new reality, he presents a way of escaping from some conventions,” (see Peckham, Morse. Beyond the Tragic Vision; the quest for identity in the nineteenth century. New York, G. Brazillier, (1962)) would justify ambient music as being the biggest revolution, having freed music from the thousand-year tyranny of the profound limitations of notes.
Having said all this, while it’s great to understand ambient music and think about it, it can be said that, for ambient music more than any other musical form, the point is the experience itself rather than intellectualizing about it. Yet, with instructions such as to play the music at a “barely perceptible” volume (from the album “Buried Dreams” by David Toop and Max Eastly) the experience of ambient music is one which deliberately includes the world around, after a thousand years of music trying to minimize external noises during performance.
Perhaps that’s the biggest revolution of all?
To hear some of my favorite examples of ambient music, see our “Ambient Music page“