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  • What definition do you work with?

    Personally I haven't thought too much about how to define "ambient" music. I just know what I mean when I use the word by the feelings and sounds I associate with the word. But when I've mentioned to friends that I've been to an ambient concert recently, they've asked, "What's ambient?" and I found it tough to find the right points of reference that don't make it sound overly simplistic (it's not just the background music to movies for example, but that's where most people will have heard ambient music, if nowhere else).

    Just came across this definition from Brian Eno in the liner notes to one of my fav all time albums. Does a definition like this help or limit the music you are making? I'd love to hear any critiques of or improvements on this definition!

    "The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces - familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music as an idea worthy of attention.


    Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised. To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music.



    An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.



    Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music 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 accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

    Brian Eno, Music for Airports / Ambient 1 - 1978


  • #2
    I would say yes, this is the definition I use. Most all of my work, to me, is the setting of a scene, a landscape.

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    • #3
      I tend to agree with about 3/4 of his definition when it comes to my works - I try to create a "sonic environment", an atmosphere, that creates an emotional reaction (subtle or not) in the listener's subconscious.. that gradually enters the conscious level.

      Not sure if that qualifies as "ambient" in the classical sense. But it's what I strive for.
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      • #4
        I can certainly appreciate the Muzak and sort of Eno sentimentalities of Ambient music, but I often feel it pigeonholes the genre a bit into the beatless drone aspect of ambient music. I cringe a lot because so much of this music doesn't really come across as music to me, but rather just drone noise. I have walked in on countless art installations where I just think to myself "this stuff is shit...". For me ambient isn't really a genre itself, but more and idea that can span across different genres. Sure, there are the atmospheres that we all love, but I think stuff like Jamie Myerson's "Music for the Lonely", which does have a heavy DnB aspect to it can certainly be classified as Ambient based upon the tone and mood it sets.

        I really like the idea of the ambient definition setting a mood or tone, but I think the music still needs to have musical concepts of structure to still be called music. A track could be percussively complex, but I think still can achieve ambient sentiments.
        Last edited by sup909; 03-03-2014, 11:06 AM.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by sup909 View Post
          For me ambient isn't really a genre itself, but more and idea that can span across different genres.
          Well said.
          It is interesting to try to catch the core of this idea in different moods/atmosperes invoked by compositions usually assigned to "ambient". What is it? Impression of space ? Kind of "impersonalness" of such music?
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          • #6
            Originally posted by MetaDronos View Post
            Originally posted by sup909 View Post
            For me ambient isn't really a genre itself, but more and idea that can span across different genres.
            Well said.
            It is interesting to try to catch the core of this idea in different moods/atmosperes invoked by compositions usually assigned to "ambient". What is it? Impression of space ? Kind of "impersonalness" of such music?
            Yeah, I think percussion is often time neglected in ambient, but can actually be used quite effectively when done right. If you look at what a lot of people like about ambient, it is the almost zen like feeling it can create. Tones can certainly create that feeling, but I think repetition and rhythm can also create that same effect.

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            • #7
              Showing my age here - I grew up listening to 'ambient' when it meant no rhythms or beats.....Zeit, Irrlicht etc.

              If there were rhythms or beats in it was electronic....

              How much the world has changed since then.....:eek:
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              • #8
                Originally posted by Seren View Post
                Showing my age here - I grew up listening to 'ambient' when it meant no rhythms or beats.....Zeit, Irrlicht etc.

                If there were rhythms or beats in it was electronic....

                How much the world has changed since then.....:eek:
                Yeah..me, too. :blush:

                I think Eno's coined phrase still holds true..well, for me, anyway. Ambient music is what Eno said it is..and he should know, seeing as he invented the name..who am I to argue with that.

                But, having said that, I think..just like all music..Ambient has grown and evolved since then, giving birth to its own child sub-genres..and it's to one of those my music mainly belongs for the most part. In my case, I tend to label most of what I do as Ambient Orchestral Electronica..not to be pretentious, but because that is simply the nearest I can get to actually describing the sounds I make musically.

                I know my music falls under the Ambient banner, as my starting point in any project is always mood orientated and encapsulating some feeling is always the main goal of any production. The "orchestral" aspect speaks for itself, as I tend to use strings, keys and brass, as well as choirs a lot..and, well, "electronica" also needs no explaination, but a good one from Wikipedia is as follows..

                "Electronica is a music genre encompassing a wide range of contemporary electronic music designed for a wide range of uses, including foreground listening, some forms of dancing, and background music for other activities. Unlike electronic dance music (EDM), not all examples of electronica are necessarily made for dancing. The genre is loosely defined and has different connotations in different regions and time periods.

                Electronica has grown to influence mainstream crossover recordings. Electronic sounds began to form the basis of a wide array of popular music in the late 1970s, and became key to the mainstream pop and rock sounds of the 1980s. Since the adoption of "electronica" in the 1990s to refer to more underground music with an electronic aesthetic, elements of modern electronica have been adopted by many popular artists in mainstream music."

                In short, I think of the term "Ambient Music" as the starting point..the parent or mother, that has spawned many forms or sub-genres that we have today..all of which are something different, yet all are Ambient at heart. It's an intrinsic quality that defines them, without which they would clearly fall into one of the many other forms of music, be they mainstream or not.

                And, to me, that "intrinsic quality" is and always will be tightly bound up with the creation and / or manipulation of mood first and foremost..even more so than the actual musical structure of the piece. In fact, the simpler the structure the better the music..well, that's what I've found and personally aim for when producing.

                As an example of what I've just said, I offer one of my main inspirations and motivators, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and his seminal piece "Spiegel im Spiegel":



                If..one day..I can achieve such levels of complexity in simplicity with my own work, then I'll die a happy man. :blush:
                Last edited by Ambient Mechanics; 03-05-2014, 12:34 PM.

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                • #9
                  Personally, I don't use any definition. I just do what I do. Musical "definitions" fall somewhere between the human need to categorize and identify (with) things, and artsy-fartsy bullshit IMO. Some producers/musicians can get so wrapped up in their own supposedly lofty concepts and sense of self as an "artist". If they could fit a contact mic and a reverb unit as far up their ass as their head, they'd never get a breath of fresh air. :p

                  I don't pay much attention to Eno, his words or his musical wallpaper. Nothing personal towards him, just never found him or his musical output very interesting.

                  That said, I think its pretty clear that ambient is a "genre" at this point, even if its a rather broad one. I like percussion elements in "ambient" too, though I think there are some limits. Some music people describe as ambient...whether its New Age drum machine stuff that makes me want to head-butt an empty soup can, all the way up to most "Ambient Black Metal"...doesn't usually seem truly ambient to my mind. Something can sound ambient and atmospheric, or it can sound atmospheric without being ambient too.
                  "The only thing that means a thing in the end is what you loved, and who you loved, and you let it take you home..."

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                  • #10
                    I don't play music as a background to other activity. If I like a piece of music, I can't relegate it to a supporting role for some other pursuit. I have to actively listen to it. For the same reason, I can't do the day job with a pair of headphones on. I don't want to be distracted from my main purpose during the working day. I'm being paid to turn up, so my employer deserves my full attention with no distractions. Anything that affects my concentration is a definite no-no, and I have no desire to pump stuff into my head, only to ignore it. Let's cut out the middle-man here.

                    Background/furniture/muzak descriptors remind me of the elevator scene in "The Blues Brothers", although I think the melody from "The Girl from Ipanema" is actually a masterpiece of '60s music composition.

                    For me, "ambient" is an idea, or a feeling (it can also be a genre, but I think it's more important than that). I like taking sounds, or groups of sounds, that might be considered ambient in nature (though not necessarily exclusively so), and merging these concoctions into other styles - a mashup, if you will.

                    For me, ambient is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

                    A definition coined over 40 years ago may not necessarily have withstood the test of time given the pace and intensity of subsequent cultural and technological progress.

                    ymmv
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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Pyne View Post
                      Personally, I don't use any definition. I just do what I do. Musical "definitions" fall somewhere between the human need to categorize and identify (with) things, and artsy-fartsy bullshit IMO.
                      I think I agree. At this point I'm tending to think of Ambient as an umbrella term about as defined as 'Rock'. What's 'Rock'? The Eagles? Interpol? Sonic Youth? Rammstein? Know what I mean?

                      Originally posted by seismic1 View Post
                      I don't play music as a background to other activity. If I like a piece of music, I can't relegate it to a supporting role for some other pursuit. I have to actively listen to it. For the same reason, I can't do the day job with a pair of headphones on. I don't want to be distracted from my main purpose during the working day. I'm being paid to turn up, so my employer deserves my full attention with no distractions.
                      I definitely 'use' music; guilty of putting on Jazz at a dinner party, rock anthems while driving, ambient/laid back IDM etc whilst working etc... I find I can actually concentrate better with music (think 'scientists' have proved this to an extent). Maybe not sitting at work with phones on but having just one earbud in with WFMU or BBC6 or ResonanceFm etc keeping the part of my brain that tends to wander while the rest is trying to concentrate occupied.
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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by GaryG View Post
                        I think I agree. At this point I'm tending to think of Ambient as an umbrella term about as defined as 'Rock'. What's 'Rock'? The Eagles? Interpol? Sonic Youth? Rammstein? Know what I mean?
                        Yes, exactly, an umbrella term much like "rock" music. An example being the varied list of ambient styles that stillstream.com radio has on its home page:
                        - Soothing light ambient
                        - Ambient mood music
                        - Impenetrable dark ambient
                        - Berlin-school electronic ambient
                        - Challenging experimental ambient
                        - Futuristic ambient noise
                        - Powerful tribal ambient
                        - Cinematic symphonic ambient
                        - Expansive space music
                        - Textural abstract ambient
                        - Exotic world ambient
                        - Uplifiting new age ambient
                        - And much more
                        "The only thing that means a thing in the end is what you loved, and who you loved, and you let it take you home..."

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                        • #13
                          Genres are really just convenience...this may sound severe, but thinking about them too much actually limits creativity, IMO. The definition Brian Eno gives is a functional one, and one that he came to through experimentation, he's far from the first person to play with this kind of concept either.

                          Genres and categories are great for description, cataloging, and helping people find your music, but IMHO worrying about definitions as a prerequisite to making music, or as some kind of guide tends to produce staleness.

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Zach Zinn View Post
                            Genres are really just convenience...this may sound severe, but thinking about them too much actually limits creativity, IMO. The definition Brian Eno gives is a functional one, and one that he came to through experimentation, he's far from the first person to play with this kind of concept either.

                            Genres and categories are great for description, cataloging, and helping people find your music, but IMHO worrying about definitions as a prerequisite to making music, or as some kind of guide tends to produce staleness.
                            well said, couldn't agree more
                            Last edited by GregH; 03-13-2014, 10:56 PM.
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