How to listen to ambient music

Musical cabarets and targets

I remember her gushing with a catalog of Rothko’s works, while I thought it was necessary to face aesthetic challenges; I just didn’t get it. After all, most of the paintings were only large, colorful rectangles, with slight irregularities and contrasting edges or stripes. All known reference points of line and shape, perspectives and shadows have disappeared. I could appreciate them as “design”, but not as “art”. Although they were pleasant enough, I couldn’t see why anyone would rhapsodize over these abstractions…… until I saw them for myself – a completely different experience! When I came across them in the Museum of Modern Art, they literally stopped me in my footsteps, overturning conscious thoughts and immediately plunging me into a changed state. These were not just flat canvases on the wall, but rather seemed to be living things, pulsating and pulsating in resonance to a wavelength that had a fundamental connection with the Source of things. I was stunned. They did not “express” feelings – they were more like feelings in themselves, and it seemed to me, Rothko, or anyone else, like nothing personal. When I later looked at the reproductions of Rothko’s works in books, they returned to flat spots of color. There was a memory, but not a recreation of my experiences. It was an experience that depended on the presence of the original artifact (art: fact).

The tunnel is not a tone

I spent my early musical life working mainly with music, which – as in the case of representative art – used a certain set of familiar musical conventions to create its effect. There are many dictionaries of melody, counterpoint, rhythm, harmony, and structure that situate music in the context of a form that makes it understandable to listeners. “Understandable” is not exactly what I mean – it suggests that music communicates only intellectual ideas, while in reality it communicates and expresses a whole range of ideas, feelings, sensations, and associations.

However, there is an element of “intelligibility” of conventional musical forms, which depends on a common formal vocabulary of expression. There are known elements that listeners use to anchor their experience in real time in a composition, formal or sound elements that are borrowed from other works created and listened to in the past. When I find that I humming a melody from a Beethoven symphony or evoke one of its characteristic rhythms (dit-dit-dit-dit-DAH), I reduce the complex sound fabric to abstraction, an abbreviation that is easily recognizable to other people who know the music.

I can share my musical idea with other musicians who use abstract notation. But “melody” is not “tone” and “note” is not “sound”. It’s an idea, even a powerful idea, but when I find myself in humming a melody, I know that I somehow “consumed” the music, reduced it to a subset of its convention, deconstructed and reconstructed it for my own purposes.

Ambient music, and in particular the kind of ambient music that I will call “sound landscape”, abandon, or at least relaxes, many of these conventions. Generally speaking, there is usually no humble melody, there is often no recurring rhythmic pattern, and if there is a larger “form”, it is often nothing familiar or recognizable, even for skillful musicologists – it can be completely idiosyncratic for the composer. Even the vocabulary of “instruments” is fluid and too extensive to be remembered. With an abundance of sounds that are generated electronically or extracted and manipulated from field recordings, it is rare for instruments or sounds that can be separated and recognized to be identified – that is to say, they are “named”. Classical composers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century worked hard to remove the known boundaries of individual instruments, using unusual instrumental combinations and extended instrumental techniques to blur the sound lines. Ambient music takes it even further. The sound palette of ambient composers is more diverse and less subject to “naming” than composers who use traditional instrumental ensembles to present their compositions. While a savant may be able to identify a sound source as belonging to a specific generation method (analog, FM, sample manipulation, etc.), diffuse mixing and morphing of sounds may even confuse experts.

Insignificance of virtuosity

To a large extent, the virtuosity of music – often an important element in other musical genres – is replaced in the surrounding musical world by the composer’s ability to create and shape the sound. Slow tempos are all the time.

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