Ambient music at 40: Lawrence English examines the future of a drifting genre

Ambient is often conceptualized as a landscape, an environment, and these days anything remotely ambient is described with R. Murray Schafer’s term, soundscape. In the past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about this word ‘environment’ and how it acts upon us. In my experience people tend to think about environment as an external field, something complex and tangible ‘out there’. From there it’s a short step to the individual operating at the centre of the universe, marauding like a tank in order to penetrate and dominate the world that is not itself. It’s stereotypically masculine, a vortex of problems, and music, even ambient music in its surreptitious way, often conforms to that binary gendered model since it wants to shape and hold static an image of so-called beauty that excludes all that is inconvenient.” …

It’s critical to understand how ambient music is encountered and how it creates, augments and even interrupts spaces. When we listen to ambient music, be it to work to or even to sleep to, we are choosing it for a specific range of conditions it can help to realize for us in the places we work and live. It’s important to also understand how that process creates a temporally unique atmosphere that transgresses the boundaries of our interior thoughts and feeling, and the exteriority of the places we find ourselves in. Felicia Atkinson summarizes this: “Ambient Music is derived from impressionism, it emphasizes the singularity of perception, and it seeks to create an imaginative environment”.

By  Lawrence English,

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