It’s an Ambient Music World, From Eno to A.I.

by Marshall Bowden

If someone puts a record on in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

In his book The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby, Mark Prendergast tracks the slow drift of music towards the non-musician, the use of technology, minimalism, techno, and his conclusion is that they are all signs of a move toward ambient music. Seventeen years later, it’s eerie just how pervasive ambient music has become in our lives, not as entertainment or artistic expression, but as a tool to shape our moods and define brands. 

People tend to think of ‘ambient’ music in terms of electronic music but electricity is definitely not needed to generate an ambient vibe. Witness ECM records, founded in 1969 by German producer Manfred Eicher.

ECM’s slogan is ‘The most beautiful sound next to silence,’ and the label has gravitated towards chamber jazz, avant-garde improvisational music, modern classical, and solo piano recordings. These latter include pianist Paul Bley and flagship artist Keith Jarrett

Around the same time that ECM was getting underway, jazz legend Miles Davis went into a studio in NYC with his current band and laid down a meditative elegy for Duke Ellington entitled “He Loved Him Madly.” Across the Atlantic, in England, Avant-rock performer and theoretician Brian Eno heard the piece and was inspired to begin working with music that developed at glacial speeds. 

Eno and Fripp were working with tape loops that could be used to create a droning, slowly unfolding background over which they could deploy various keyboards, guitars, and effects. The idea was the very opposite of the Stockhausen-influenced funk noise that Davis created for his masterpiece On the Corner, where strong, looping bass & drum rhythm tracks were overlaid with horn lines, organ, guitar distortion, or Davis’ wah-wah pedal trumpet. 

Eno went on to produce recordings that expanded on the aesthetic he and Fripp were experimenting with and he gave it a name: ambient music. His most famous ambient recording is probably Music for Airports, a piece that Eno composed for an actual installation at LaGuardia Airport in 1980. The music for this installation is similar to that he and Fripp created except that instead of guitars, a piano is used to play figures over the drones.

Eno described the goal of ambient music as being “As ignorable as it is interesting.” It’s interesting also that the inaugural ambient recording (discounting Discreet Music, which is obviously a precursor to the whole ambient thing) should be designed for an airport installation. Airports are considered ‘non-places’ by architects and designers because they are a pass-through, meaning that we spend time there only on our way to somewhere else. They used to be places where we didn’t really do anything until the advent of the internet and smart devices. Now we actually live important parts of our lives in these spaces because we have the ability to perform tasks from other spaces (home, office, retail store) while we are in airports or hotels. 

And so Eno’s ambient sound design, meant to possibly ease the stress of waiting in an airport or at the least not to further enervate its listeners, has been freed to assert itself everywhere. There is nowhere you will go these days without hearing music of some kind. Television commercials are loaded with samples from hit songs of bygone eras as well as branded music that we don’t know but which becomes familiar by repetition. Music is played in every retail and service industry environment you can possibly imagine: grocery, coffee shop, nail salon, hairstylist, health club, yoga class, drugstore, massage spa, hotel, and so on. 

 “I want to make a kind of music that prepares you for dying–that doesn’t get all bright and cheerful and pretend you’re not a little apprehensive, but which makes you say to yourself, ‘Actually, it’s not that big a deal if I die.’”

Brian Eno

One industry that has taken music programming seriously for longer than most is the restaurant industry. Not the corporate restaurant industry, but individual restaurants where chef/owners often preside over every little detail, from decor and lighting to sound and music programming. 

It should come as no surprise that many chefs prefer to program their own playlists. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential presents the connections between the rock and roll lifestyle (in Bourdain’s case, punk rock) and the lifestyle of a line cook or other restaurant worker, and for several years Chicago’s Graham Elliot provided food for musicians playing at Lollapalooza. 

In the case of Minneapolis’ Boludo, Argentinian chef/owner Facundo Defraia says that music is an essential part of both his own identity and that of his restaurant. Of his playlist, which you can stream at Spotify by clicking here, he says:

“It’s the music I grew up with. You can listen to some tango, some rock, some reggae. It’s the music that influenced me to be in this industry and influenced me in my life.”  (Local Restaurants are Getting Choosier About the Music They Play, Sophie Vilensky, City Pages, 2/26/2020)

While some worry that music plus ambient noise in restaurants makes conversation difficult and can contribute to hearing loss, Defraia insists that the music and its presence in the dining room is an essential part of the Boludo experience. Other restaurant owners and chefs prefer to try to insinuate their soundscapes into the background yet remain interesting a la Eno. 

Some restaurants hire sound designers both to set up their sound systems as well as curate playlists. These professionals will sit down with owners and talk about their restaurant, their vision, the kind of food they serve, and their own life stories in order to draw on their knowledge of music from various cultures, both past and present. 

Then there’s Aldi, the grocery chain that doesn’t offer bags or carts in order to keep prices low. Another item they don’t offer is in-store music, again to save the line item expense of a third-party provider and/or licensing fees. They have determined, correctly, that customers would rather shop in silence and save money than being relaxed or entertained by music. 

Clearly, then, we don’t require music to sculpt our every experience, which makes it more special and intense at those times that we choose to immerse ourselves in listening to it. Yet so entrenched is the idea that music is the ambient sound for any occasion that there is now a large and lucrative business in ‘stock music’ (think stock photos, but music instead) and even using AI to create music that mimics certain emotional states without any human programming. 

All of which ignores the fact that many of us wander around with headphone pods shoved into our ears, talking on the phone, having a book read to us, or listening to our own personal soundtracks so that we never even hear the music that is played in order to influence us.

Which leads us to the question of what is silence and does it ever truly exist? John Cage made concert audiences sit in ‘silence’ for four minutes and thirty-three seconds in order to prove the point that there is no silence, really, and that music is simply another ambient sound that we contribute to the environment. 

That leads me to my answer to the famous Zen koan ‘if someone puts a record on in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?’  The answer, to me, is that there is always someone, or something there because life is ever-present in our realm of existence. The Buddhist would say that looking for the verb–‘to hear’–is the problem. There is always hearing, but there need be no one there to hear. There is just hearing. 

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