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Re: Ambient?

This is an interesting topic. I think this thread sprung from a question 
about how
to categorize loop music on a performance calendar-database, but it's a
good issue on its own. Some people are apparently adverse to having their
music called "ambient". One suggested that this thread is about the
"tyranny of ambient". 

John Cage once emerged from a soundproof room and declared that there is no
such thing as silence. To Cage, any and every "ambience" became music. The
residual rustle and tone and beat of ambient sound is around us always.
The issue that's brought up here is: what is "ambient music", what's it
for, and what does it have to do with looping? 

I know relatively little about the music of other cultures, but I'll bet
ambient music is no recent development. I would define it as music which is
consciously designed to fit in with other ongoing activities and to enhance
the experience of those activities. We also use the term "background
music". However, due to the simplistic and pervasive application of 
from Muzak, Inc., that term has a highly negative connotation in creative
music circles. Indeed, background music has a place in life. But "elevator
music" is not ambient music. Why?

Once background music pops into our foreground attention, it's not part
of the ambience any more. Elevator music is a mis-application of ambience.
In a fancy restaurant, when a classical guitarist is performing
miscellaneous pieces in a far corner, he can be a positive contribution to
the ambience. When he comes over to your table to "entertain" you, then
he's not ambient. In fact, he may well be (using exactly the same music
you didn't mind hearing five minutes before) totally annoying.

When ambient music makes us "feel" a certain way, without rising in
our consciousness above the near-subliminal attention level, it can be
powerful. But it's a fine line to tread. Diane Ackerman writes in her book
"A Natural History of the Senses": "Virtually all movies these days have
soundtracks and background music. The assumption must be that we need
music to provide us with quick, relevant emotions. Is this because we
don't think the world is worth listening to? Is it because filmmakers wish
to combine words and music for the most powerful effect?" Music producers
for films and TV DO use underlying music for emotional and punctiational
effect. In that context, they are making successful ambient music.

One of the best ambient music creations I've experienced is performed 
four hours a day, two stories underground in a long connecting passage-
tunnel between two concourses at O'Hare airport in Chicago. The music is
just tones and sounds, and interactively follows several parameters,
including the background people-generated sound level, and also tracks a
sequence pattern of changing neon tube-sculptures in the ceiling.  The
music is also "zoned" so that somewhat different sound patterns occur in
different parts of the tunnel. This ambient music successfully rides in
that space between subliminal consciousness and directed attention. If you
are alone and quiet, it creates a positive, light, atmosphere (and also
makes you aware of the relative silence or conversational level around
you). If you are in a group, and having a conversation, it may be
completely ignored. So it's just *there*-- a part of the building. Brian
Eno has also made several such ambient creations, and I've read of members
of this list doing the same. To me this is the *real* background music,
and when done right, it is wonderful. 

The more salient issue in this thread is that of live performance of
ambient music. I don't see how one could call it ambient music, by the
above definition, if people are being implicitly requested to pay
attention to it. So if a club owner looks confused when a group tells him
the style of music they play is "ambient", it wouldn't surprise me.
"Ambient" is a valid classification of a type of music, but outside of
music created to accompany another activity, I don't see it as a
logical way to describe a stage-performance style.

With regard to loop-music being "ambient" music-- Why not? I think we
should see looping as a technique, not a style of music. Bach used lots
of arpeggios in his compositions, but we don't say that he made "arpeggio
music". People trading ideas on this list call themselves loopers (here)
because that's what this discussion group focuses on. But mostly they are
*musicians* and sometimes *composers*.  If a composer uses loop-technique 
create a dense wash of underlying sound for a movie scene, we could well
call it "ambient music", and still call him a "looper" (and in the movie
credits he would be called "composer"). 

And when a guy gets up on a stage with a bass player and drummer, and he
starts laying down loop tracks as a background and then starts riffing over
the top of it all, it certainly is not ambient music, and we can still call
him a looper, if we like. But in the newspaper listing he would probably be
called a 'jazz artist".

It would be nice if all genre-labeling could be dropped, and people would
just listen to the music. Descriptions are in many ways anti-music. 

The Man Himself wrote:
>>Two cents on the ongoing "tyranny of ambient" thread...
>>People have wondered why so many assumptions tend to be made about
>>"loop-based" music being equated with "ambient" music, and why there seem
>>to be so many Big Three-wielding guitar players on this list. 

Let's simply quit making all those assumptions. And let's drop the "big
three" terminology. The passage of time changes all of this pretty quickly
--any given embodiment of technology is ephemeral.

As to why there are so many loopers who are guitar players on this list-- I
would like to think that it's just because there are MANY guitar players in
the world, and a (small) proportion of them are also experimental /
compositional musicians. And that looping technique is a powerful way to
experiment with musical composition with a guitar. And those experimenters
of guitar - loop - composition have aggregated in this wonderful little
corner of cyberville.  

The guitar is capable of many diverse tone qualities and sounds. Pure
tone, sustained tone, harmonic-rich acoustic tones, searing distortion,
muted distortion, lush chords, power-strumming, bass lines, scratching,
bending, whammying, tapping, hammering, thumping, e-bowing... It's just
that the guitarist doesn't tend to make all of those sounds at the same
time. With looping technique, a guitarist-composer can make powerful
layered concoctions of sound from these ingredients, and add herbs and
spices too. The guitar is a visceral, organic, tone generator.  A looping
device can be seen as a sound-combiner and in a very literal way, a

Let's end the confusion about Ambient, and just let it live, in its place,
alongside all the other arbitrary descriptions the world is compelled to
impose on the music we make.

Pat Kirtley