A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.
Ask yourself the following questions: First, "what would happen if we associated music with psychoanalysis?" and second, "what's the first thing that comes to mind if you think about a composition style that's capable of evoking sensations of cognitive passivity, which is able to make you become completely introspective?" Both questions seem like a strange, pretentious combinations of unspecific experimentalism—a manner of thinking that lands halfway between musicology and transversal studies of the human psyche, which is of doubtful importance. So why would an exercise like this ever be interesting if it already makes us nervous to treat it as truth?
If you were to ask the same questions to Erik Satie and John Cage, what would the response be—especially when they attempted to introduce the world to a sound that doesn't exist and is therefore all the more relevant to over-existing, in terms of sound at all?
Nowadays, you'd think it'd be easy to follow the conversational thread of discourse on a certain genre. There'd be a map of the network—something to reconstruct all the how's and why's; all the hierarchies and concepts of any and all musical ideas that have come and gone on this earth, from Vivaldi to Sinatra to Pink Floyd and Beyoncé. Even the most complex histories can be understood if you treat them as reality and contextualize them in a way that, within a few clicks, opens your eyes to the thing that the artist wanted to convey in their art. But can you still consider it a success if you're able to understand the thing an artist wanted to get at, especially if the artist in question considered music as the antithesis to their own words—and especially if that artist was born at the beginning of the last century? Yeah, we know. It's difficult to imagine for us, too.
Enter ambient music.
The reason that it's possible to define ambient music as a sort of branch of psychoanalysis of contemporary genres—particularly electronic and new wave music—is because ambient music is firmly aware of its desire to not be designated as an intrinsic participant in its own art, but instead as a thing that corresponds to its own metaphysics. Take Brian Eno, for example, who's commonly referred to as ambient's "founding father," the first guy who started weaving all the threads of its large-scale development towards the ends of the 1970s. But before ambient à la Eno came along, there was another, primordial phase of it that came about a few decades earlier that we don't always remember.
At the end of the day, the over-intellectualism that influenced one subset of the classical music genre was actually brought on by a much more transparent and clearer opinion than the one that occupied most of traditional music thought. On the surface, every clear, concrete, and reliable element of a song vanishes, and all that's left for the ear to hear is the selected sounds that remain, and cognitively pursue their development. On the other hand, in the more common musical methodology of the time, every detail was emphasized and put on display without allowing our attention to maybe pick up on it, and on the direction of the song's engagement as a whole. The emotive penetration of a sound as we perceive it is taken for granted. When combined, the uncertainty and the doubt we experience only serve to strengthen the sound that's happening, like in random acoustics.
What are random acoustics then? Werner Meyer-Epplerm, a Belgian physicist who studied experimental acoustics at the Darmstadt University of Technology during the 1950s, defined randomness as "A process of determined development in a general path, but dependent on chance in its details." John Cage, a composer already entangled for decades in a similar experiment, was bringing that a concept to a more extreme level: Silence, photographed in his immortal 4'33" (today there is even a statue dedicated to it in the MoMA in New York, for example). It's a taboo for anyone who's ever set foot there, because every public from every period has always needed an explanation while listening—almost as if there were some kind of universally agreed upon vocabulary that could instantaneously translate the emotions a composition was putting forth, like an entity that interprets between the composer and the listener.
But none of that matters if music itself becomes absent. The noise, the causality of the events around us and their foundation are integrated into the composition. From there, the concept of randomness is to restore those sounds to the role of the protagonist, accompanied by an intentionally misleading language, to the point where the material being relayed to the listener isn't comfortable even for the artist who created it. In this way, the overall detachment from a framework of essential understanding is sharpened, and that will be the music's greatest virtue, its signature, like in Dadaism and the Impressionism that inspired both Satie and Cage.
The synth landed a particularly crucial role in this story, which is where Eno hit a crossroads. The British artist confirmed that the synth was an instrument that required infinite, potential combinations: It was a device without any history, conception, or applicable method that had been passed down and practiced for centuries the same way, like the piano. It wasn't possible to establish things that worked and things that were less effective—you had to invent new worlds from absolute zero. From that reality came great strength: It was possible to accentuate certain characteristics and make electronica become the new pop music (you've heard of Kraftwerk, right?), or, alternatively, reveal the genre's less sadistic facets, and write the next chapter of music with this intuited idea of a nonexistent foreground. It was a question of resources, not means, beginning with revolutionizing the process of listening to music and appropriating its ambition. In short, it was the same thing Satie taught with musique d'ameublement.
In a way, even manipulating sound waves in an abstract manner (like, among his other projects, Eno did in Oblique Strategies), the disconnect Cage bridged resulted in the progressive elimination of a certain breed of nihilism, or the rigidity of a certain theory. For Eno, ambient is free atmosphere: It's the creation of a mood and generative potentials without solutions (which still remains his trademark, as evidenced in the iOS app specifically designed for his last album, Reflection, which allows unlimited listening, always different, of the same album). For Eno, experimental music had been misguided by music that "controls" and "organizes" itself in a calculated way, and in order to demonstrate that those intentions are completely in opposition to one another—that uncertainty is an essential element of music, not one of its weaknesses—results in a metaphor destined to endure: A song doesn't need to amount to anything itself, but it can allow the listener to determine its nature.
It's not the musician's responsibility to situate the background and the foreground for the listener—both are found through finding the other. This distinct pivot in direction came after having composed successive albums of more varied musical typologies (in certain years, his work felt like a kind of rock), but even today Eno loves to consider himself an "improvisational" musician, to which he'd like to create some artistic connection. In 1975, he released Another Green World and Discreet Music, and in doing so definitively signaled the beginning of a new era: Ambient music was presented as an unprecedented aesthetic experience, a destabilized narrative in which images, soundscapes, and atmospheric recordings flowed. It's the continuation of randomness and of furniture music, and it tells new stories in the modern era.
Then came a series of albums explicitly titled with an announcement of their intentions, "ambient," accompanied by a contextually appropriate manifesto (beginning with Ambient 1: Music for Airports, in 1978). This language that operates through repetition and subtraction, without points of reference, turned into a genre that sounded like the future: "As easy to ignore as it is interesting." And at the point of no return, it gathered "intelligent" artists in the 1990s through variations like "ambient techno" and "IDM," amongst other subsets.
From that point forward, his music would become sample-oriented (if not nonexistent)—but it's not like Eno could've known that 40 years earlier. Gradually, an established song form is dissolved. The essential thing is to make use of all the shades, like a picture: It's not necessary to focus on fixed scores and keys, on scope or evolution, and make the sound become a "place." If you want to compare it to the auteurs of cinema, it's the role of the director to give directions here and there, and in doing so move the plot along and scatter the scenery with events that are more or less important; but in the end, it'll be up to whoever's watching on the other side of the screen to best interpret the scheme of events.
From Eno's innovations came similar stylistic motifs, like downtempo, chill-out, trip-hop, and artists like Massive Attack, Portishead, and Moby—all of whom made music whose common denominator is its link between "relaxation" and diversion, to return to our earlier point about passive listening.
Eno recently remarked, in his usual metaphorical lingo, that as a contemporary musician he should be considered a gardener; the music of the past, on the other hand, is an architect. An architect, in their mind, constructs the structure of an edifice and meticulously calculates every centimeter—he knows exactly what each will serve and what he has to do. But the gardener plants the seeds in the soil and waits for something to happen; he gives nature some input and seeks to impact the course of its events, but he can't predict anything that results from his actions. If you've understood Eno's personality and his approach to understanding art, congrats: You're ready for a free psychoanalytic treatment, and it's as easy as putting an ambient record on your stereo.
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