Ever since I was little I’ve always dreamt about having a machine that could just translate your thoughts instantly and directly into word form and transcribe them onto the page. When I was young, these were happy-faced, benevolent machines that always kept your privacy and never made a mess. As I get older, I care less for the tidy construct of untangled wires and the sweet sound of scribbling pencil attached to swishing robotic arm. Instead, in my growing desperation for what is true and naked and unsullied, I imagine a pair of hands plunging through my forehead and into my brain, ripping out a handful of thoughts, and scattering them with a clang onto a shiny silver tray. An image from a horror movie, perhaps, but purity has never been dependent on clean cuts.
Such a machine, ethical implications put to one side, would be a revelation for most of us because of a deep and debilitating affliction we all share: I like to call it The Fridge Door Syndrome. When the fridge door is closed, the disco ball spins. Seeds are swapped, skins are dropped, foodstuffs roam from shelf to shelf to shelf. You know it, I know it, Homer knows it. But then when you open that fridge door and look inside, the foods freeze, deaden, become statues of themselves. Close the door again, the volume knob is spun and the party resumes. So it goes with the mind.
The only difference is this: with the mind, you are both party guest and party pooper. Inside this unopened, unlit fridge, you stand blind. You experience waves of thoughts and ideas, of aches, lusts and disgusts, of exploding purple stars and flip-book fuzzy faces, of words and words and words and words. You are awash with the flood of feeling and are compelled to record, so you push the door open from the inside. Just a little, a poke, a peek. Light is thrown over the white-hot darkness; now you can write about what you see and see what you write about. But, then, there is nothing to see. Everything is still. What you end up writing about is what you think a broccoli stalk gaming last night’s half-eaten chow mein would look like. Not what it actually looks like. In your heart, you know it’s pale imitation.
This vanishing act of thought is at once a depressing and hyper-motivating sequence. Every time the thoughts disappear, you crumble and curse. Every time they reappear, you’re desperate to spit them onto any hard surface, to close the gap between thinking and writing. The least success I’ve ever had constructing that bridge is when writing about ambient. This is yet another attempt.
I feel I’m getting closer, and yet I’ve spent over 450 words describing the feeling of exactly the opposite of getting close – of pawing clumsily at a seemingly impermeable barrier. I have taken on so many different entry points, and written thousands of words without even nearing an infiltration. This may be, most likely will be, another of these attempts, destined to be filed in my jottings folder under the title Ambient #726. But the urge to Get This Down, the compulsion to see that silver tray splattered with the blood and stink of writhing, wriggling, skinless thought, is so strong within me that I need to do this to make peace.
Ready the tray.
I think, more than anything else, ambient is important because it shuns the spotlight. It shuns light full-stop. More than this, it takes the light and shines it elsewhere. It shines it inward, and it shines it outward. It shines it on what you can’t see, and it shines it on what you can see, so that you can see it better. It shines it on things you never even knew existed. It only allows light to be shed on itself if you physically wheel that spotlight over and burn it down upon it. Otherwise, it roams freely, throwing light over everything dark, and playing with the shadows of that which it cannot reach.
As much as I love metaphor, I don’t want to use it as a crutch. What I mean, in plain terms, is this: ambient music is not exciting, it’s not demanding, it’s not spinning plates trying to hold your attention. In a way, it doesn’t even want your attention. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t enjoy the drones, the fades and the hums for what they are. But oftentimes ambient is better when it is directing your attention outward. Then it has the opportunity to do what it’s built for: augmenting your reality.
Ambient tends to fail when it tries to draw attention to itself. A ‘look at me, ma!’ gameplan is destined to fail. Why? Because – and maybe I’m doing the genre (and humanity) a disservice – ambient is meant to offer us an escape from that almost intolerably self-centred, egoistic world. A lot of artists are desperate to showcase their ingenuity, whether that’s through their pithy lyricism, guitar solos, twinkling climaxes or eyeball-haemorrhaging blast beats. It’s natural, naturally. As humans in an individualistic age, we’re cultured to pursue both self-expression and external validation; we say we make music for music’s sake, but often we do it because we like the sound of our own voices and we want to know that everybody else does too. (I’m no different – I’m hoping you’ll read this and tell me you like it).
Ambient shuts this world out. It shuts out the smug spoken-word one-liners, the cute transitions, the innovation-masturbation, the ironies and idiosyncrasies. What it opens up is the opportunity to revel in your own repulsively self-referencing, unblinking world. More than this, it offers you the chance to go deeper, darker, to swim down into the mulch of thoughts you never realized you were capable of, to roll about in their filth, to examine and polish them and then, if you want to, bring them up to the surface. Ambient straps an unobtrusive tank to our back with an unlimited supply of oxygen and tells us to explore.
When you’re done down there, you’ll emerge to find the old world freeze-dried in a new hue. And this is the best part: ambient has the ability to transform your perspective of the world; it makes you notice it. I’m deadly serious: take Tim Hecker for a walk in the forest at dusk; start the car and drive nowhere in particular with Ekca Liena; sit in your garden, Stars of the Lid in your hands, and watch the birds swoop from tree to wind-tugged tree. Go, do it. Then come back and tell me you felt nothing you hadn’t felt before.
I’m not for a moment criticizing the intents of artists that want their hard work and individualism to be acknowledged. I just think that we’re confronted with those intentions nearly without pause, not just in music but in life, and – at least for me – a reprieve is necessary from time to time. By the same token, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t appreciate the painstaking work ambient artists put into creating and stylizing their albums. If we don’t, we’re not squeezing the fruit hard enough. As Brian Eno once said, truly great ambient music has to be listened to on a number of levels, be it actively or inactively. This ‘active’ listening is paramount to fully realizing the ‘inactive’. It is the small details that make the big picture, the broken colours that birth the Water Lilies.
Ambient is not background music, and, if one is to make the most of it, it shouldn’t be treated as such. It has to be engaged with. You might feel a contradiction here, but there isn’t one. Yes, I mention that ambient can reach its higher plains when you’re not paying attention to the music. But that doesn’t for a second mean you shouldn’t pay attention. If you don’t, ambient becomes as much white noise as any pop-punk record, friend’s boring story, or TV in the room down the hall that you’re hearing but not listening to. When you are simply paying attention – I can’t elaborate on this, just pay attention (if I do elaborate, we’ll be here for days) – you are engaging with the music. Perhaps you are not consciously focusing on the swell of synthesizer here or the crackle of static there, but you are allowing the sounds to shape a new reality – and you are (or you should be) consciously aware of that, and the perceptions and thoughts that accompany it. I don’t want to get all Zen on you, but ambient really does require a meditative focus if you want to wring it dry.
Of course, ambient can work as background music. After all, it (or most of it) is pleasingly unobtrusive. I just don’t think an ambient record should be spun with the intention of ‘just needing a pleasant noise’. You have elevator music for that. Don’t get me wrong, you can use it to relax. That has to be one of the major pulls of ambient – the lull. Just be aware of the difference between ambient and elevator: ambient will provide a cradle to lower yourself into, another viewpoint to see the world from, even if your lids can’t stand the weight; elevator will merely envelop you in a stuffy-aired, brain-sapping dark room and shut you down.
But despite saying all that – sometimes it is nice to just be shut down. And I will use ambient for this.
The other key reason for needing to engage with ambient is quite neatly encapsulated in a quote taken from the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard:
“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist.”
Knausgaard was talking about our strangely vacant perceptions of the world when we have too little or too much experience of something, and about how the aim of writing, of true writing, is “drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows”. The author uses the example of a school playground he has just relocated near. Awash with the sound of children’s laughter and play, he fails to notice the school bell has rung until all the students are back inside. He knows too little – the sounds are “new and unfamiliar” – the same way you don’t pick up on the nuances of a song on first listen, and the rhythm in which they surface. But before long, he will “get used to them, to such an extent that they would fade into the background again.”
You’ll be acutely aware of this condition, I’m sure. The ‘too little’ end can be forgiven. But the ‘too much’ can be embarrassing. You’ll have felt it any time you opened your wardrobe, almost exploding with clothes, and had ‘nothing to wear’. You’ll have felt it every time you bemoaned the lack of beauty in the world before looking up at the sky. More relevantly, you’ll have felt it every time you’ve shuffled through your iPod and felt you had nothing to listen to. Your eyes glance over the old tracks as if they weren’t even there. In this zone, if I paused the song you had on, you’d struggle to tell me what it was without looking. This is a slight simplification of the author’s idea, but it works when talking about ambient. If you don’t engage with it, it will pass you by as if it were silence.
“That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.”
Writing is a difficult task, and the difficulty of that task, of figuring out how to get there, is Knausgaard’s cross to bear. It’s been mine, too, for the period I’ve spent writing this tribute, and for any other time I’ve reached across the chasm to try and grasp at something real, but behind me. Ambient, at the very least, allows us to bask in the there without the work required to find it. It holds our belt, leans us over the edge, and permits us to stare right into it. Of course, we’re in it all the time. You’re in it right now. But I doubt you’re aware of it. Ambient makes it so – if you’re willing to fend off the ‘too little’ and the ‘too much’ and engage with it. If you heed its request to sit still, to pay attention and to listen, the genre will shed light and you will see.
Ambient, then, is the celebration of the here through the illumination of the there.
Post-script: What I am genuinely worried about – and I’m near certain this fear will come to fruition – is that I will look back on this piece and feel I wasn’t honest about my feelings. The reason I’m so sure that this will happen is because of the difficulty of writing; because, right now at least, I do not have the talent to capture an idea with justifying accuracy . That’s one of the main reasons I don’t write (well, publish – 99% of what I write is filed under ‘jottings’) as much anymore: cowardice. There is some consolation, however, and, of course, it comes from my subject: Ambient will always reward us with the present, no matter how many times we struggle with the past.