Perspectives on Ambient Music

How the 20th Century Expanded Sound and Space

Curtis Emery · 02/16/24

The birth of modern music did not begin with a sound—but rather, with silence. It was not a new set of music notation, but rather the inclusion of what could be accomplished off of the page, outside of the perimeter of contemporary composition, and forward to a new sonic horizon which depended on many things—the modern world around the composer and the technologies available to the musician and listeners, to name a few.

The incidental sounds of our day to day existence are powerful triggers which can deepen a listener’s appreciation of music…expanding their interaction with the music to which they are listening. This is a main feature of modern music; and of course, it is also one of the main tenets of the beautifully tranquil genre of ambient music.

Piercing the Veil

In the 21st century, it is not surprising to hear found sounds in our music, and we understand how the sounds of a busy street or falling rain can heighten the experience of a song…or, how a synthesizer and modern production techniques can recreate an experience through slow building, droning, shimmering music. But, this wasn't always the case.

Composers in the late 1800s would go on to make history by capturing the ambience of daily life. Today, capturing the sounds of the world around us is so expected that sometimes we take it for granted—we couldn’t imagine a movie with music, no footsteps, and no wind, right?

Ambient music, a moniker coined by Brian Eno in the 1970s, is known for its attention to such simple, powerful sounds, and taps into a collective well of motifs to quench the listener. The genre is typically defined as instrumental music that focuses on texture, mood, atmosphere, and tone. As such, "ambient music" is an apt name for this genre, which draws as much from the past as it does from the future, appreciating ambience via music techniques that originated at the dawn of modern sound—nurtured, developed, and now still evolving over 150 years later.

Back to the Beginning

As with many movements the birth of ambient music was nebulous. In the esoteric ambient history book Ocean of Sound (1995), author David Toop states that Claude Debussy’s trip to the Paris Exposition in 1889, when he heard the gamelan during a Javanese dance performance, was a pivotal moment. From this era forward, Toop claims that musical expression changed…and a shift towards “an ethereal culture, absorbed in perfume, light, silence and ambient sound,” began to swell (Toop, pg 8).

Claude Debussy is considered by many to have been a pivotal figure in the evolution of music—famous for rejecting Germanic compositional techniques and envisioning new approaches to melody, harmony, form, and thematic development. Debussy’s work considered ambience as early as his Prelude to The Afternoon of A Faun (1884). As his fame and influence continued to build, he would go on to “raise the flag for total innovation,” and envisioned a new sound which he would create: ”The century of aeroplanes deserves a music of its own” (The Ambient Century (2001), Mark Prendergast, pg 9).

In 1887, Debussy had a following of like minded, esoteric listeners, Pre-Raphaelite poets, and occultist peers. Considered insane by the establishment, more traditional critics would try and tear down his work, which had begun to incorporate shimmering ambience and wave like motifs, as “bizzare, incomprehensible, and impossible to execute.” Some described this new trend as “vague impressionism,” which suited him and his constituents just fine (Prendergast, pg 9). The magickal wars of the late 19th-century, wherein the lines between art, the occult, and society were impossibly thin, would continue to marry esoteric thinking and art, setting the stage for minimalism and other spiritually-minded creative practices. However, Debussy should not garnish all of the praise.

Ambient music also owes a lot to Debussy’s French contemporaries, several of whom wrote similar, ambience-interested, slow, and oblique music. Maurice Ravel is certainly among these, but perhaps Erik Satie is the most potent example: his totally unique composition style and his unique notion of “furniture music” is considered a direct forerunner of modern ambient music and minimalism, and it had a significant impact on DeBussy and Ravel.

Specifically, Satie’s Trois Sarabandes (1887), a set of three dance pieces featuring unresolved chords and a floating melody—slow and radically tranquil—would become the foundation of Satie’s voice and change how his two peers would write going forward.

Satie would write two more sets of pieces which would eventually become his most influential: Trois Gymnopedies (1887), three very slow shimmering pieces, and Gnossiennes (1890–93), six crowning compositions with visionary performance directions, including “be clairvoyant” and other deep thinking instructions. In 1917, Satie would create musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”), which he considered background music. It was intended to be played between acts and performances, the cracks in the audience’s night out with music.

Satie’s life was full of controversy, and his music would lay silent after his death until American avant-garde composer and thinker John Cage brought Satie's work back into public focus while exploring sonic experimentalism in the mid twentieth century.

The New World

The start of the twentieth century brought many technological advances and world-changing events. Rapid technological development and multiple World Wars complicated the human psyche, opening up new avenues of awareness that affected all of society. Modernism, Expressionism, and many other aesthetic movements were born from this tumultuous era. Of course, the 1920’s also saw the birth of the Jazz Age, and the beginning of the popular embrace of improvisation in modern music.

The popularization of improvisation would instill a new perspective where performance and composition became one, putting the power in the hands of the musician. Artists experimenting in solo endeavors became more common as creative practices began to arc inward, trading large production arrangements for slimmer outfits, sometimes just a composer and newly available audio technology.

The new world of the mid-twentieth century enjoyed new electronic devices and spawned many new perspectives. The tools available to a composer in the 1950s would have been otherworldly in the late 1800s. With such new developments like the transistor, printed circuit boards, and mass communications facilities like television and radio broadcasting, the mid-1900s boasted an open source tool kit where anyone with the drive, know-how, and access could realize their most ambitious creative designs.

Electronic Sound

In England, BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram would create the Oramics machine: her own electronic instrument. The Oramics machine was "programmed" using a series of film strips with hand-drawn curves/graphs for handling different musical parameters (something like automation lanes in a present-day digital audio workstation). This machine was used to contribute incidental music and sound effects for movies and beautifully modern music which seemed to come from a sci-fi universe.

Oram was heavily influenced by musique concrète, a French music practice originated by composer Pierre Schaffer in the 1940s, which is marked for its use of analog tape; it was one of the first forms of electronic music altogether.

The genre was interested in sound collage and capturing music that was not a result of notation, but of sound objects. Between found sound and pure electronic sound, musique concrète introduced the idea that every day sounds can be captured, transformed, and reproduced, playing an extremely intricate role creating modern music that was as theoretically engaging as it was aesthetically.

The technology boom of the postwar world was not just felt in Europe, but all over the globe—and soon, it was clear that electronic music was here to stay. Audio electronics and electronic instruments like the theremin, and countless one-off, handmade electronic music devices—alongside the mass production of music recordings for public use—revved the music industry. Sound effects, incidental music, sound tracks, and other non-melodic sonic assets were becoming commonplace, encouraging the use of newly developed audio effects and setting the stage for the synthesizer, which would change everything.

A Modern Menagerie

Electronic music opened up the sonic landscape of the 1950s, and the many experiments of early electronic music adopters created a whole moment of unconventional music—some like sound sculptures, which were somewhere in between what would be considered music and never-before-experienced sonic happenings.

In 1958, French composer Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique was performed at the Brussels World Fair in a cavernous pavilion with extreme spatial acoustic precision (using an array of as many as 450 loudspeakers). The piece was a multimedia arrangement: the pavilion itself was designed and executed by architect/conceptual artist Le Corbusier along with architect/composer Iannis Xenakis. As one entered the pavilion, they heard the peculiar crackling, electronically-augmented sounds of Xenakis's Concret PH. Once inside, the audience saw a film by Le Corbusier, which featured abstract black and white film imagery and Varèse's electronic score, which provided an uncanny ambience of known and unknown sounds. At some point the performance would seemingly halt, at which time Varèse would address the audience.

Varèse’s work can be described as dissonant, non-thematic, and rhythmically asymmetric—while it is on the whole considerably more dynamic and energetic than modern ambient music, it still possesses all the hallmarks of ambient composition, and certain sections of any given Varèse piece could certainly be part of a modern ambient work. As with the music of those before him like Satie, whose work was symmetrical and repetitive, it would evolve into a whole new sound which contained multitudes: a product of the technology and increasingly multicultural perspective of the era.

Less is More

The Moog Modular System, the Buchla Series 100 Modular Electronic Music System, the Mellotron—the 1960s saw the birth of the synthesizer, the rise of the electronic organ, and the evolution of many new trends in electronic instrument design, setting off the electronic instrument market that we know today. With these new instruments, artists could create new sonic worlds completely their own in real time, without the explicit need for splicing tape. From popular music to advertising, the synthesizer was seen as a huge advance in music technology.

In the early 1960s, composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender created The San Francisco Tape Music Center, an electronic music hub which cultivated would-be-legendary minimalist and ambient artists like Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley and Steve Reich.

In 1967, Morton Subotnick would release Silver Apples of the Moon, which was composed on the Buchla system. Silver Apples of the Moon, the first piece of electronic music commissioned by a record label, still stands out as a frenetic early electronic album which eschewed melody and harmony for a substantial new musical language.

Folke Rabe’s What?? (1967) was also released that year, a significant landmark in the ambient music story.

1968 brought a year of unrest in Germany, resulting in a student-led riot which rocked the country. The student movement sought to abandon the remnant Nazi infrastructure left over from World War II and resist the invasion of American pop music. They wanted their own type of music, and eventually, kosmische musik—better-known by its later, externally-bestowed name "krautrock"—was formed. Krautrock was known for its hypnotic rhythms and psychedelic, experimental ambience.

Characterized by long improvisational, sometimes drone-like, always trance-like, songs using synthesizers and musique concrète techniques, krautrock was quite unlike the rhythm and blues influence that had taken over popular music in America and Britain.

In 1969, minimalist guru Terry Riley would release A Rainbow in Curved Air, which still stands as one of the best ambient and minimalist records ever recorded. Riley, whose work is heavily influenced by Eastern thought, is known for his repetitive, trance-like pieces which envelop the listener. Riley was able to accomplish this with an electric organ and modern electroacoustic techniques even though the intent of the music is both global and timeless.

The minimalism so popular in work by composers like Terry Riley would pave the way for other, equally tranquil and transcendental sonic endeavors from artists all around. Genres like space music and new age started taking hold. Advances in music technology meant audio production could accomplish many heavenly, cosmic effects suitable for transcendental thinking and the expansive vision of the contemporary avant-garde composer.

The Birth of Ambient Music

By the 1970s, electronic music was truly in full swing, and yet-to-be-named ambient music was being created all over the globe. Drawing on the minimalism of the 1960s, the burgeoning krautrock scene, and use of synthesizers and ambience in popular rock and roll music, many electronic composers found promise in the open frontiers of electronic music.

Mark Prendergast calls out a somber moment in 1968 when German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen helped push the gestalt of ambient composition towards its more modern conclusion. During a period of personal depression, Stockhausen wrote the following Japanese-style verse:

“Play a sound, / Play it for so long, / Until you feel that you should stop / or / Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe, / Play a vibration in the rhythm of dreaming.”

Stockhausen’s moment of turmoil concluded with a single tone on the piano, a tone that was momentarily magnificent to Stockhausen and led to his conceptualisation of “intuitive music” (Pendergast, 1). Intuitive music is a type of constraint-based improvisation, based on rules expressed or not, that resists conventional notation and is directed instead by gestures, objects, or ideas. In some ways, Stockhausen’s ideas meshed well with American Midwest composer John Cage’s sonic sensibilities from decades earlier and, bolstered by minimalist gurus like Terry Riley, reinforced a new thread in music interested in ambience, composers are willing to go beyond expected performance and production to find new sounds and new modes for writing slow, sonically layered, transcendental music.

No one embodied and furthered this concept more than Brian Eno, history’s true champion of ambient music and the composer responsible for today’s modern idea of ambient music as a genre.

Former Roxy Music bassist/synthesist and legendary producer Brian Eno is known for his prolific list of producing credits and fundamental involvement in the ambient music scene. He coined the term “ambient music” by 1978 and consistently championed the work of minimalist and genre-defying musicians to every label he worked with.

In 1978, Eno released Ambient 1: Music for Airports, his sixth studio album, and while aesthetically similar to his 1975 release Discreet Music, it would be his first "official" ambient release, writing in his liner notes: "Ambient Music is intended to induce a calm 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."

Brian Eno’s beautiful thinking described perfectly both his work and the work of his contemporaries.

The 1970’s saw the release many great, minimalist ambient albums: Vangelis: L'Apocalypse des animaux (1970), Klaus Schulze: Cyborg (1973), Tangerine Dream: Phaedra (1974), Ernest Hood: Neighborhoods (1975), Edgar Froese: Epsilon in Malaysian Pale (1975), Iasos: Inter-Dimensional Music (1975), Jean-Michel Jarre: Oxygene (1976), Ashra: New Age Of Earth (1976), David Behrman: On the Other Ocean (1977)...and of course, countless others.

A New Golden Age

Technological developments in he late 1970s and 1980s made synthesizers much easier to use, and made them more approachable by keyboardists and traditional musicians: synthesizers became increasingly focused on polyphony, and capable of storing a wealth of sounds for easy, instantaneous access. This wave of developments brought some of the most beloved synthesizers of all time: the Yamaha CS-80 & DX-7, Oberheim OB-Xa, Moog Memorymoog, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Roland Juno-106, Korg Poly 800, and many more.

FM synthesis and digital rack mount multi effect processors were large steps forward toward today’s modern music production landscape. All of these new options meant musicians now had more tools to create than ever before.

The electronic sound was irresistible, ambient composers like Vangelis garnished commercial success with soundtrack work for movies like Blade Runner or Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s soundtrack for the movie Akira. Synthetic strings and electronic drones became commonplace, igniting a small rush for sound design using six-figure systems like the Synclaiver II.

Wonderfully cerebral music became a staple for many of the movies that came out in the '80s. In fact, it was in the bones of ambient music itself, its applicability to many levels of listener’s attention, that made it a perfect accompaniment to visual stimuli. Like Satie, Debussy, and Varèse before them, ambient composers of the 1980s created music that the audience could engage with: the music was to be listened to, and the reaction was essential to the experience.

Notable ambient releases of the 1980s include: Laurie Spiegel: The Expanding Universe (1980), Laraaji: Ambient 3: Day of Radiance (1980), David Lynch & Alan R. Splet: Eraserhead (1982), Hiroshi Yoshimura: Wave Notation 1: Music for Nine Post Cards (1982), Brian Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), Steve Roach: Structures From Silence (1984), Brian Eno & Harold Budd: The Pearl (1984), and Pauline Oliveros / Stuart Dempster / Panaiotis: Deep Listening (1989).

A New Normal

By the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, ambient music was ready to take its next big steps in a new direction. With the rise of electronic dance music and the popularization of synthesizers across all facets of the modern world, ambient music was primed to be consumed en masse through genres like dub ambient house, ambient techno, dream house, and many more electronic dance music subgenres.

From chill-out rooms for over-indulgence at raves to chart topping hits, artists like Aphex Twin, The Orb, The KLF, and Autechre were making their mark in the popular electronic music market.

Meanwhile, electroacoustic practitioners like Stars of the Lid, Windy & Carl, and others continued the tradition of slow droning, building, tonal music which looked back to the minimalism of the '70s with modern techniques like effect pedals and contemporary instruments and amplification options.

The drone-forward, sometimes grunge-inspired, alternative sound of bands like Stars of the Lid would spawn a burst of independent and alternative, mostly guitar lead, but notably synthless, electro-acoustic ambient artists like William Basinski and Labradford who would ride ambient music’s segue into the new century, setting the pace for the maturation of the ambient genre.

A Nebulous Future

The modern ambient scene of today is as open and experimental as you could expect the music world of the mid-to-late 1800s. Major technological advances in computers, the resurgence of modular synthesizers and analog masters, modern methods of disseminating content, and the virtual expanse of the Internet and social media, are just some of the leaps that came with and from the turn of the 21st century.

And, like Debussy, who sought to score the future, contemporary ambient musicians are forging a new future for ambient music leveraging the many subgenres of ambient like ambient house, dark ambient, post-rock, ambient techno, and more.

With more and more artists willing to experiment with and bring ambient into their genre of choice, ambient music’s nondenominational foundation means that the present and future of ambient music is one thing before all else, evolving. Artists like Tim Hecker, GAS, Grouper, Oneohtrix Point Never, The Haxan Cloak, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Julianna Barwick, and more contribute to the very active ambient music scene of today.

Recently ambient albums like 坂本龍 [Ryuichi Sakamoto]: 12 (2023), Ceremonial Abyss: 23 (2023), Brin & Dustin Wong: Texture II (2023), Aidan Baker, Tim Wyskida, Daron Beck: Trio Not Trio - Trzecia (2023) all speak to a future that includes all types of ambient sounds—electronic, sparse, slow-building, acoustic, analog, and digital.

Works Cited:

  • Prendergast, Mark J. The Ambient Century. London, Bloomsbury, 2000.
  • Toop, David. Ocean of Sound. Serpent’s Tail, 2 Aug. 2018.