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Acid Seven: Ambient 1 - Precursors

 The following is part one of an ongoing series on the history of ambient music. Maybe it'll crop up every other month, or maybe it won't.

“I have endless memories which are worth more than reality” Claude Debussy, c. 1888
The popular notion of ambient music is one of transience; Brian Eno famously wrote that ambient music was to be “as ignorable as it [was] listenable,” like an intricate wallpaper. Much of his work, consequently, focuses on creating atmospheres. These are not definite atmospheres. Almost by definition, they can’t be. In his study on ambient music, David Toop writes that ambient is “drifting or simply existing in stasis rather than developing [...] Structure emerges slowly, minimally or apparently not at all, encouraging states of reverie and receptivity in the listener that suggest (on the good side of boredom) a very positive rootlessness.” Ambient calls to mind the sounds of the environment around a listener, taken or left, and assigns no particular gravity to one point over the other. On top of this, it’s usually wordless. What, then, is it trying to communicate?

Any number of things, really. The system of meaning ambient has established is clearly not rootless; it calls to mind dreams, stillness, unaffected atmospheres, and an indecipherable calm. In other words, it has come to constitute its own language as a genre, earning its transience precisely by dealing with transient concerns. This has been a fairly consistent feature.The cultural history of ambient (as the West knows it) is traced back to two composers: Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. The latter of the two is a bit closer to our familiar conception of ambient. In 1917, Satie completed what he called ‘furniture music,’ whose names included things like “for the arrival of guests,” or “at a bistro.” 


Immediately, we have a throughline from then to a half-century later: Brian Eno releases ambient works in the same spirit, entitled “Music for Airports (1978),” “Music for Thinking (1993),” etc., citing Satie as one of his influences. Debussy, on the other hand, is a bit harder to pin down in this continuum.


Of course, there is never a straight line charting the history of any cultural object. This connection in particular, though, requires a bit of creative speculation. Toop traces the beginnings of ambient as we know it as singularly within the works of Debussy, yet we find nothing like the affinity between Satie and Eno with Debussy and any such prominent ambient musician -- much less the person who coined the term "ambient." Debussy and Satie were roughly contemporaries -- the former aligning with the Symbolist movement, and the latter with its successor movement, the Surrealists. So while the stylistic choices of the composers are distinct, it is safe to say that they were working within the same mode. Satie was perhaps inspired by the more somber, “liquid” Debussy compositions; for instance, La Mer (c. 1903), which, instead of seeking to create an atmosphere, took on the tonal characteristics of an object: the ocean.


Not long before, however, Debussy would not have been so keen on entertaining this more experimental venture. Just before, he was an adept of the Romantic composer Richard Wagner. The great sea change came in 1889 at the Paris Universal Exposition, a colonial world’s fair featuring cultural attractions from 35 different countries. Debussy was in attendance at the Exposition. Toop writes that what broke Debussy out of his affinity for Wagner was a Javanese gamelan group, accompanied by a bedhaya dance.


Toop writes that the beliefs informing such performances suggested “an emergence of dreams and unconscious desire into the tangible world of consensus reality” (though this may be a fairly western, exoticized reading). The associations of Javanese compositions with water would form a tenuous link with Debussy’s La Mer and subsequent works, like Reflets dans l’eau (1905).


Perhaps it’s only fair to say that all of these cultural confluences informed each other; Debussy’s compositions could hardly be said to have been entirely informed by Javanese gamelan music, but the shift of his trajectory from Romanticism to the more indeterminate openness of his later works suggests that gamelan music had some impact on his concerns as a composer. Beyond these broad concerns, some speculate that certain techniques of gamelan music bled into his construction of timbre (like his use of pizzicatos, or the plucking of the strings of a bowed stringed instrument). While he may have here been embodying what would become the concerns of ambient music, it was Satie that more closely resembled the total picture of an ambient atmosphere we associate with ambient today.

Returning to Debussy's object-oriented concerns in La Mer, I'm reminded of the work of Shawn Hansen in Kansas City. Already we're seeing the depth of the Thomas Kinkade Duodectet lineup -- pick any one musician from the show and you'll find a history of a musician tapping into their niche in the sonic margins. Shawn's affinity to Debussy isn't apparent in terms of composition, but rather as an outgrowth from similar -- much more elaborate -- philosophical underpinnings. He calls this underpinning Tangential Assertivism, which "focuses on the practice of insisting on the relationship between disparate objects or thoughts by placing them within close proximity spatially or temporally." Works like Feldspar Ford Maverick (2015) and Radio Badlands (2018) take as their objects various electronics -- both instrument and non-instrument -- and field recordings. The result of these improvisations are dizzying ambient atmospheres calling to the fore the sounds of the objects powering the great American road-trip.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter.

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