A Brief History on Ambient Music — Hip Hop Electronic (2023)

Check out our list of ambient music pioneers

Written byMassimiliano Galli

“If we travel back in time, it’s quite emotional to imagineErik Satiesitting on the piano, composing hisMusique d’ameublement(Furniture Music) in 1917, while the outside world dealt with devastating war.”

It's even more emotional with the Ukrainian crisis events if we think about it today. A message of peace can be sent in many different ways, with pacifism, activism, protesting, or discussing (appropriately) the reasons behind conflicts to find peaceful solutions rather than just bomb each other senselessly.

MaybeSatiedidn't do it on purpose, but he planted the seeds for what will be known in the future asAmbient Music, a kind of genre shaped around space and nature, and, as we all know, nature has many different ways to express. It wouldn't have been a fast process, though, and the world would have started talking about this new music genre only in the late 1970s.

Other seeds were planted byPierre Schaeffer'sinvention ofmusique concrètein the 1940s and byJohn Cage'sthree-movement composition4'33in the 1950s, which consisted of only recorded silence. LikeSatie, he did it to capture the room's atmosphere. Their work is considered a precursor of modern sampling and ambient compositions.

A few years ago, one of my best friends and his partner had a baby girl, and I immediately made her a CD. It had a collection of electronic music I loved, just to help my friend get her to fall asleep or just relax while they were driving somewhere. Instead of silly songs for babies, I chose to use something a bit more inspiring and creative. It worked! She loved it!

It is, in a way, pretty hilarious to think about that compilation CD. Because, at that time, I didn't know that the American composerRaymond Scottdid the same thing, with the same concept, in 1962. He releasedSoothing Sounds For Babies,which, alongsideSatie's1917 compositions,Tony Scott'sMusic For Zen Meditation(1964),Environments(1969/1979) byIrv Teibel, Éliane Radigue'sVice-Versa, etc.(1970),Laurie Spiegel'sThe Expanding Universe(1974/1976), and theBuchla Concerts 1975bySuzanne Ciani, are considered the firstAmbient Musicalbums ever produced.

A little time ago, while the pandemic was changing all of our lives, I decided to move with my wife to the countryside and leave the chaos of city life behind. I finally started to listen to nature properly sounds again, like storms, rainfall, or the sound of the wind blowing, coming from the seaside, which is only 30 minutes away from where we live, or simply listening to the birds chirping, the crickets, and so on. And the music we hear is in complete harmony with it. We don't playHip Hop, Trap, Metal, orPunkmusic in the context we live within. It wouldn't make any sense.

This, in my opinion, isAmbient Music. A respectful, not too invasive human contribution to create harmony between the sounds we are surrounded by, the music gears, and the genius we have at our disposal.

This is probably the reason why the earlyAmbient Musicworks were created with a specific purpose: creating an atmosphere for life events like dinners, inSatie'scase, for example, or just helping babies to rest withRaymond Scott'sSoothing Sounds For Babies, and finally and most importantly withTony Scott'sMusic For Zen Meditation, to meditate. To truly connect with our inner self and the world around us.Ambient Music, over the years, will change shape and meaning, taking many different directions.

“The turning point for the genre is linked to the invention ofSynthesizers.”

If you are a musician or not, you'll probably never know what it feels like to sit in front of a Synth and not know what to do. Nowadays, it's much easier, you just have to look on the internet for tutorials, and you'll quickly understand how to start using it. Still, it is pretty fascinating to think about musicians in the 1960s and early 1970s approaching these new machines without having a clue of what they were doing.

Synthesizerwas the first instrument that didn't require much physical effort to be played. You can play it by just pressing buttons and turning knobs, usingreleaseandoscillators, for example, and the machine will keep producing sounds even if you aren't doing anything. If you stop moving, the guitar wouldn't sound, the drums wouldn't drum, and so on. You can play a Synth for hours and hours and not be physically tired, so I've always thought that the invention of these machines was a crucial element for instrumental soundtracks and ambient music compositions.

As we mentioned in ourKrautrockspecial here onHip Hop Electronic, the "Synth revolution" influenced the electronic music scene worldwide, significantly in Germany in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Berlin electronic music pioneersTangerine Dream'sfifth studio albumPhaedra(1974), is considered one of the firstAmbient Musicrecords. The interest around this musical scene helpedPhaedrareach number 15 on the UK charts making it one of the first commercial albums to feature sequencers and Synthesizers. Other instruments used in making the album were theMellotronand theVCS 3 synthesizer.

Other musicians creating ambient-style music in the 1970s and experimenting with synthesizers included French composerJean-Michel Jarré,Jamaican musicianKing Tubby, and Japanese electronic music composers such asIsao TomitaandRyuichi Sakamoto.

Canadian composerMort Garson'sMother Earth's Plantasia(1976) is another album that contributed to this new musical genre development. It consisted of a series ofMoog Synthcompositions designed to be played for growing plants. Upon release, it had a minimal distribution, only available to people who bought a houseplant from a store calledMother Earthin Los Angeles or those who purchased aSimmons mattressfrom aSearsoutlet. Both of them came with the record. We will find similar dynamics in the JapaneseAmbient Musicscene of the 1980s.

Despite this new instrumental music style and experiments being around worldwide, like French composerÉliane Radigue'sthree-hour-long works on theARP 2500

La Trilogie De La Mort(1988/1993),this new music genre was still hard to define.

After parting ways with his bandRoxy Music, English producerBrian Enostarted a solo career. Looking for new inspirations, he traveled to Germany in the 1970s to explore the localmusic scene, which was growing a lot and capturing British press attention.Enowas a fan of bothCluster, one of the most representative bands of theKrautrock/Kosmischemusic scene, andHarmonia, a supergroup formed byHans-Joachim RoedeliusDieter MoebiusandMichael Rother, who was also a former member ofKraftwerkandNeu!guitarist.Enosoon became friends with them and spent some time together jamming in their German studio in the country town of Forst. During their time together, they recorded a vast amount of material and two albums,Cluster & EnoandAfter the Heat,which was released in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

Eno'smusical background and this experience in Germany perhaps inspired his future works, includingAmbient 1 - Music For Airports(1978). The album title itself finally gave a name to the genre, and, just to make it clear, in the liner notes of the album,Enowrote: "Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular, it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." The term from now on will be used to describe all these types of long instrumental suites and performances.

Ambient Musicbecame a recognized music genre worldwide and opened the doors to a much broader musical production.

The early days of Ambient Music in Japan

One of the first and biggestAmbient Musicscenes was developing in Japan almost simultaneously. The country was at the beginning of an economic miracle that would have reached its peak in the 1980s. The introduction ofSony'sfirstWalkmanin 1979 was probably another critical element of this Japanese musical boom. Young Japanese, before anyone else, had the chance to listen to the music they loved as they wandered around a developing urban landscape.

“Japan was the perfect scenario forAmbient Music.”

Mkwaju Ensemble-Ki-Motion(1981),Hiroshi Yoshimura-Music for Nine Post Cards(1982),Midori Takada-Through the Looking Glass(1983), andWatering a FlowerbyHaruomi Hosono(1984) are considered fundamental albums to explore this vast music scene. The transformation ofAmbient Musicinto a recognizable music genre is apparent if we compareWatering a Flower,composed with an array of new musical technology like theLinnDrum, MC-4 sequencer, Prophet-5 synthesizer,and earlysamplers, toMort Garson'sMother Earth's Plantasia. Even the concept behind its composition is very similar. We previously mentioned howGarson'salbum distribution through mattress and plant shops was unusual.

The partnership between artists and corporations has always been a strange matter to discuss, to say the very least. While exploring theJapanese Ambient music sceneof the 1980s, we notice how corporate sponsorship in music works in some cycles.

It was ok to allow corporations to use your music in the 1960s, then it was not too cool, but still ok in the 1970s, then it was ok again in the 1980s. The 1990sGrunge music scene,with its poisoned relationship between stardom and reality, rejected big corporations' sponsorships and led us to a sort of "point of no return" that ended with the arrival of the late 90s and early 2000s boybands. Nowadays, we are experiencing a hybrid territory where musicians and artists can't wait to sign a deal with big corporations. It's their only way to generate an income, most of the time. And brands are open to paying any money as streaming services operate as greedy mediators in the background.

Japanese Ambient musicians didn't have to worry too much about it. They already had a different kind of role in the music industry. So it happened thatYoshimura's1984 albumAIRwas used byShiseido, a health and beauty worldwide known brand,Yasuaki Shimizumade music forSeikowatches,Takashi KokuboforSanyo'snew line of air-conditioning units, andHosonomade music to be played in JapaneseMujistores elevators.

The use of the music brings us back to the origins ofAmbient Musicwhen the primary purpose behind it was about creating the right atmosphere in different environments. Because of the economic boom Japan was experiencing, artists had complete creative control over their music. All these corporations were curious enough to explore new ideas and mostly had a considerable amount of money at their disposal to do it.

The Japanese music scene of the 1980s never really expanded across the borders of the Island. It has been rediscovered in recent times thanks to the internet and Youtube algorithms.

The interest in the new genre, together with a growing rave culture, made things turn differently in the 1990s.Ambient musicinfluenced British artists such asOrb,Aphex Twin,Seefeel,theIrresistible Force, and theHigher Intelligence Agencybegan gaining commercial success. Because of their variety of styles, the music press introduced new sub-genres to describe them, likeambient house,ambient techno,ambient dub,ambient industrial, andIDM.

EspeciallyAphex Twin'sSelected Ambient Works 85-92(1992) is considered a masterpiece of the genre and was the beginning of a successful career for Irish-bornRichard David James, considered nowadays as one of the most influential electronic music composers of all time.

Other influential British artists wereThe KLF(Chill Out, 1990),Autechre(Incunabula, 1993),the Black Dog(Temple of Transparent Balls, 1993),Global Communication(76:14, 1994),The Future Sound of London(Lifeforms, 1994), andBoards of Canada.

Ambient music’s part in electronic dance

Ambient musicin rave contexts started to be used as a calming break from the intensity of thehardcoreandtechnomusic played at parties and festivals. It was often used in other rooms or parts of the warehouses where parties were to allow people to relax from the heaviness of the BPMs and beats they were surrounded by.

Other global ambient artists from the 1990s include American composersStars of the Lidand Japanese artistSusumu Yokota.

With the arrival of new technologies and easy access to computers and samplers, the following decades have seen the number of artists composingAmbientinspired music increasing and becoming almost impossible to track. The only (sad) way to do it is perhaps by Youtube visualizations. Old new story.

Uploaded pieces, usually ranging from 1 to 8 hours long, are available everywhere online and are getting millions of hits becauseAmbient musicis ideal for yoga courses, studying, and working.Ambient musicis also used for music therapy and stress management, or simply to fall asleep, like the CD I made for my friend's baby girl.

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