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In Search of the Origins of Dark Ambient

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  • In Search of the Origins of Dark Ambient

    This is a long exploratory post as I will present some of my findings and see if the community here has more to add or correct. As a longtime fan and a more recent artist in the subgenre of dark ambient music, I have been keen on discovering its variations and styles. This has led me to explore its history as best I can. I will present here what I found out and maybe you have some more information to share.

    My personal definition of ambient music is the music of being. It could represent the sounds of being in an environment familiar or alien to us. It could also represent being in one’s own mind. A utility of it is to transport a listener to a place of existence through sound. Pleasant ambient music often uses chords and overtones which are integer multiples or easily divisible fractions (such as major chords) in frequency space. On the other hand, dark ambient often mixes dissonant frequencies (whose fractions can approach irrational number space). If you make random sounds and mix them, they will more likely than not be dissonant rather than harmonic. In a way then dark ambient can explore a very large frequency space. But what is the crossover between noise and dark ambient? Here's the earliest track that I want to bring to your attention…

    1948 - Pierre Schaeffer - Études de bruits (Noise studies) -
    This is one of the earliest recordings demonstrating the use of sampled sounds to create music. By the nature of assembling noises, you will reach some dissonant tones, and there are parts where Schaeffer does (particularly the piano samples used). But this doesn’t seem to be his intention, rather I believe he was intending on demonstrating a sampling technique and how it can be used. Almost a decade later…

    1957 - Iannis Xenakis - Diamorphoses -
    From what I read Xenakis used the sounds of distant earthquakes, mechanical devices, and burning coals throughout his career. If that’s not dark here, I don’t know what is. What helps make this piece dissonant is his use of a modulated synthesized tones. I cannot say for sure if Xenakis was intending on making a foreboding piece of music or if it happened to be that way due to his techniques naturally creating dissonant tones and noises. And the use of ambient sounds helps qualify it as ambient. Five years later…

    1962 - Else Marie Pade - Faust -
    Here Pade created a purely synthesized piece full of dissonant tones and appropriate ambient movement. Some of the sounds are closer to what you may hear on more modern dark ambient. I don’t know a lot about this piece and I am unsure where the title “Faust” comes from. The first search result for Faust is a character in a German legend who made a pact with the devil. If this is the case this is perhaps the first intentionally dark ambient piece. Only 2 years later…

    1964 - Delia Derbyshire - Falling -
    Derbyshire collaborates with Barry Bermange in reciting poetry over dissonant sounds. This recited poetry describes falling into nothingness and darkness. She composed an intentionally dark piece of music to be in ambience to the poetry. Thus the backing track checks both marks for being dark and ambient. Onto 5 years later…

    1969 - Éliane Radigue - Feedback Works -
    With the advancement of electronic synthesis techniques and effects, Radique was able to create deeper and more sinister tones. The movement in her music is much slower than may previous efforts, making it closer to drone, which dominates many dark ambient labels. From what I read she typically does not want to categorize her compositions, even with the term drone, so it is hard to say if she intended on making foreboding sounds or more likely found them interesting. Three years later…

    1972 - Klaus Schulze - Irrlicht (will-o'-the-wisp) -
    Here I include Klaus Schulze’s “Irrlict” over Tangerine Dreams’ “Zeit” of the same month, as I believe he was intending a darker piece overall, although “Zeit” does have plenty of dark moments. Irrlicht is the German term for a ghostly light that appears over bogs and swamps at night. In this one piece there is elements of drone, noise, and what would eventually be called “dungeon synth” which is sometimes considered a part of dark ambient.

    I’ll stop here as there’s examples of sampling, field recordings, synthesis to create dissonant and foreboding sounds; techniques which are used to create modern dark ambient. Keep in mind the term “Ambient music” wouldn’t be coined until a few years after 1972 and the term “Dark ambient” wouldn’t be coined until much later until the 1990’s. If I have missed any important artists and compositions in this early pre-ambient defined era (before I was even born), please share their works. If you had to ask me what the first dark ambient piece of music was, I would say either Xenakis’ Diamorphoses or Pade’s Faust. Then the more modern techniques, styles, and dark ambient intentions would evolve from there with other exceptional artists.

    Most of these artists are mentioned and celebrated in academia by those who know, but I can imagine the general public being unsure how to handle and possibly confused by such music at the time. It is still somewhat the same with dark ambient. However, I believe big-budget sci-fi and horror films that would come to be in the 1970’s and 1980’s understood the utility of dark ambient music introduced it to an unknowing general audience. Then beginning in the 1990’s, with labels such as the Cold Meat Industry, it became more common to enjoy dark ambient outside a film for more of the general public (who had already experienced it in their favorite films). This was further reinforced by video games who utilized such soundtracks into the 2000’s. Now that it is the dawn of the internet era almost worldwide, where people can become exposed and discover all kinds of art forms almost instantly, all music, including dark ambient, is becoming even more exposed.

    Anyway, what do you think?
    Dark ambient horror utilizing a completely-original synthesizer on YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Facebook.
    Also join me on the Dark Ambient Discord Server.

  • #2
    I think you should include this in your research, Immorpher , as I think that before Dark Ambient came along, some of the artists you mention above had their works pigeon holed in the musique concrète genre:-

    I suppose, though, that it is not unusual to re-classify stuff many years after it has been created. But many may not agree.


    I may not post anything useful, but at least I do it often

    Bandcamp // SoundCloud // YouTube


    • #3
      Indeed since dark ambient wasn't coined into the 1990's, many would have definitely been classified as the concrete genre. I am wondering was there ever a time where an art form was unclassified? There always seems to be a catch all term for anything outside normal standers. But I remember that fine art dealers would refuse to recognize Frank Frazetta's art as fine art, so in a way it went unclassified, although it was still labeled as fantasy.

      I have a feeling that Pade was intentially creating dissonant and foreboding tones with her piece, so it was dark, but did she intend it to be ambient, perhaps for a play about Faust? I have no idea. On the other hand Derbyshire's backing music was both intending to be dark and ambient for her poetry. So maybe that is one of the first dark ambient pieces, although back then it would probably have been in the concrete genre.
      Last edited by Immorpher; 01-20-2019, 11:42 AM.
      Dark ambient horror utilizing a completely-original synthesizer on YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and Facebook.
      Also join me on the Dark Ambient Discord Server.


      • #4
        Yeah, it's the good old genre debate... Who chooses? The creator or the listener?

        Does my head in to be honest...

        I remember watching an interview with the band Rush, quite a while ago and when asked about their "prog rock" stuff they we not too happy about that. But it sticks and to this day they are considered to be a prog rock band regardless of what the band think.

        I may not post anything useful, but at least I do it often

        Bandcamp // SoundCloud // YouTube