An Exceptionally Brief Primer on Some Ambient Music

Brian Eno – “1/1” from Ambient #1 Music for Airports [1978]

Stars of the Lid – “Even If You’re Never Awake (Deuxieme)” from And Their Refinement of the Decline [2007]

If you have never heard “1/1,” then what the hell is your problem. This is the eponymous and seminal work of ambient music, a genre now flooded with dreck not nearly as thought-out as Eno’s work. Just reading the liner notes to records like “Music for Airports” and “Discreet Music,” you can see how much thought Eno put into the process of making ambient music. It’s not just keyboard drones, you see. It’s the method, and this is what makes Brian Eno more interesting to me than John Cage. Cage was all about ideas while Eno focused on means. Cage’s ideas were (are still) of the utmost importance to modern conceptions of music and what it should be, but Eno always had the engineer’s mindset. He would wrap loops of tape around the steel legs of office chairs to sync up the tape differently. He would set up a soundsystem to virtually run itself until external stimuli interceded. And I suppose that he and Cage were never that much different. It’s just that Eno’s creations were so much more accessible, so much less cerebral, that some dumb college junior could hear this and be instantly devastated. I’m telling you, most people who hear John Cage just get angry. People hear Brian Eno and they melt.

But all this is not to pet the already velvet ego of Brian Eno. He gets enough praise, some of it undeserved (Paul Simon’s Surprise, anyone?). What I would like to contend is that Eno never gave his idea of ambient music enough weight. From the liner notes to Music for Airports:

Whereas conventional background music [ed: he refers to Muzak] is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to “brighten” the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.

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.

See? He’s very much onto something, with the importance of ambient music to create space, both external and internal, but he ends with that dilly of a quote. Ignorable? Sure, it’s noble to become smaller, to shy away from attention. But the weight of “1/1” is undeniable.

And it is this very weight that has been explored, spelunked, and mapped by Stars of the Lid. This is music that demands your attention, even in its minimalism. Because so little is happening at such a slow speed, the payoffs are three times as good. Trust me. A trailing synth wash followed by…wait! Wait! No! Wait! ANOTHER SYNTH WASH. Aah. There it is. And it sounds really boring on paper, but it just isn’t, in large part because their instrumental diction is impeccable, and nowhere is it more apparent than on this song, particularly at 3:36, 5:25, and 6:04. It isn’t just loop-based or long for the sake of being long. It’s a real, written-out song, with movement and parts and feeling. Everything has an important part to play, and they all come together, a dozen undeniable parts, and form something beautiful, compelling, and interesting.

One quick example: Listen to the piano in “1/1,” and you will be sweetly lulled into contemplation as the theme gets repeated throughout the whole song. But listen for the piano in “Even if You’re Never Awake” and it’s instantly clear, the whole song stops for this one tiny bit of what sounds like an upright played in the room next to yours underwater. And that’s why Stars of the Lid trump Eno: they make no grand statements about the nature of music or the place of ambient sound in this our modern world. They have simply created an unignorable soundscape. While their methods may not be as novel as Eno’s, they rightly bypassed the ignorable qualities of Eno’s methodology and went straight for the heart of the interesting. And then they flew away with it, light speed.

Ignore it here

Get interested here

Posted by Phil

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4 Comments

Filed under 1970s, 2000s, Experimental, Instrumental

4 responses to “An Exceptionally Brief Primer on Some Ambient Music

  1. Jordy

    The thing that impresses me about “1/1” is how absolutely delicate and deliberate it is. It seems like a great amount of care was taking in writing and performing it.

  2. Phil

    No matter what, I’ll always be impressed by “1/1,” and as time goes by, I’m more and more impressed by the rest of the album. The pacing is so perfect, and the interplay between the keyboards is even more so.

    I think my argument is more that Brian Eno just didn’t give himself enough credit, or that he had clipped the wings of ambient music or something.

  3. I’ve got an album by Brian McBride, one half of Stars of the Lid, called When the Detail Lost Its Freedom, and it is incredible.

  4. Also, I just learned that Brian McBride is a nationally prominent debate team coach. Thanks Wikipedia.

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