Interstellar Music For Earthbound Dreams
Ambience in music isn’t designed for space travel, it’s designed to shape our thinking, soundtrack our dreams or fix our regrets.
It’s fascinating how modern ambient or soundtrack music is composed around the concept of space travel and the wider universe, when in reality space is deathly silent. Sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space, though NASA have captured planetary sounds, where matter exists. Spacey music tells us more about the human condition than it does about astronomy.
In fact, outer space is the last thing on our minds when listening to spacey music. Our thoughts are very rooted here on Earth, often idealised visions of past events, or maybe a hint of regret at not fully appreciating a particular time and place. I rarely imagine the future when listening to music. I view the universe as timeless, the past present and future have coordinates just like geometry. We invented clockwork time to enable a more orderly society. The true passage of time is measured by entropy, how matter is constantly smoothing itself out into a high entropy state. We make feeble attempts at imposing order on matter by cultivation and carving out territory, but can never affect the outcomes of entropy in any meaningful way.
We all have personal soundtracks that feel like they were tailor-made just for us. In an instant our mood is transformed from a troubled or stressed state of mind into a positive one. So naturally I feel compelled to talk about mine, which right now is Deep Distance by Ashra, from the 1976 prototype ambient album New Age of Earth, listed in Pitchfork’s Best 50 Ambient Albums of All Time. Although I was only seven when NAOE was released by German composer and guitarist Manuel Göttsching (1952-2022), somehow, the music transcends any era, it’s simply a mood lifter for me, perhaps tapping into the cliched phrase “it’s great to be alive”.
I also feel a connection with the artist, a self-producer. The equipment used on New Age of Earth is beautifully minimal, recorded with two analog synthesisers, an electronic organ and rhythm box. The cherry on top is a Gibson SG electric guitar. In comparison, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells consists of 250+ overdubs and many more instruments. Göttsching proved that great music can be made with less equipment.
Listening to recorded music is, today, rarely a communal experience. There is less peer pressure to follow a particularly genre. We can escape into a personal listening experience, which might once have been ridiculed as a guilty pleasure. We’ve no need to make excuses for our more left-field tastes, that don’t conform to tribal rules. Music is now ageless as well as timeless, we feel a sense of liberation in the music we listen to and, on the surface, respect the preferences of others. However, it still takes a lot of effort to engage with music outside of our comfort zone.
We are cautious of following outsider recommendations that we haven’t chosen ourselves, we navigate a highly individualistic social media world, we are marketing our own taste to others. I am always hesitant to recommend music, though I do it often in this newsletter. But I am no longer concerned with genre, just what music sounds like, does it move me? If music moves me, then surely it will move others? Ambient is a catch-all term for a hugely diverse range of artists and musical styles, from New Age or World Music to instrumental Hip Hop, Dream Pop or Techno.
A band that you may not associate with ambient, ethereal music is Radiohead, who appeared out of nowhere in the early 1990s, as I watched a late night indie rock show on a rented, portable TV in my East London bedsit. Radiohead back then were a subversive, alternative post-punk outfit, echoing the disruption to the traditionalist rock world caused by Nirvana in the USA. Since their early days as a raw, energetic force, Radiohead have never stopped moving forward and are progressive in the true sense of the word, incorporating elements of Jazz-like improvisation and electronic ambience that might either trigger an escapist mindset or provide the space to think more deeply about the human condition, without needing stimulants.
Radiohead are very influential on contemporary, electronic artists like Kelly Lee Owens, who covered their song Arpeggi (instrumentally) on her 2020’s Inner Song album. Today we are all looking for a kind of easy listening music, that makes it easier to do our work or assist in our creativity. And one person’s uneasy listening may be someone else’s ideal soundtrack, with or without a pulse-like beat.
While music provides a soundtrack to our lived memories or hopeful dreams, particular sounds might also generate new, abstract mental images that give us a strong sense of an alternative world. Often, we don’t need to watch movies to escape because our brain is the perfect cinema, without editing and a limitless special FX budget. We also hope that other listeners will feel what we do when recommending a particular song.
However, in practice, this only works when we identify as part of a tribe of fellow music fans, following a well defined genre. People in tribes might deny themselves a lot of great listening, I know I did when I followed Hard Rock. This is less true today, everyone is more open minded to unfamiliar sounds, because the entire history of music is available online. In popular culture, the latter, post-war generation gaps have shrunk. As a Gen-Xer I feel less connected to my parents generation and have more in common, culturally with Millennials. This dynamic is a result of the sweeping changes in technology that occurred throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Generation X were the first to adopt computers in their jobs, play video games and listen to electronic music.
In 1985, I was certainly not aware of experimental, electronic musician Javier Segura. Even to this day, it’s not easy finding any information on this Spanish pioneer of what algorithms might now categorise as Drone. A track entitled Malagueñas 2 has really captured my imagination, a five minute blast of sweeping ambience, where I imagine myself perched atop a mountain overlooking the sprawling, natural landscape, so high up I can trace the curvature of the Earth. But I am firmly rooted in the present, existing outside of civilisation, just for a few minutes. It helps me to reboot my thinking, focus on what matters. Amazing how powerful music can be, though everyone needs different soundtracks to reach a similar mental state.
Music is universal, but we are reluctant to admit it due to peer pressure or lived experience. We all have the same brain biology that stores alternative memories. Though musical taste is much less complicated than it might seem and our choices are all tied up in how we navigate the world or those we hang out with.
The three pieces of music I’ve highlighted in this post, by Ashra, Kelly Lee Owens and Javier Segura, all provided a jumping off point that lead me to discovering all kinds of ambient, mind-altering electronic music. The many other artists who provide soundtracks that provide escape or help me to think, include Pye Corner Audio, Jon Hopkins and Marconi Union. Ambient, soundtrack music certainly does not make me think of space travel, my thoughts are very Earthbound with the pressing issues of Earth’s depleting, natural landscape.
We are in an age of post-hedonism, popular culture has shifted to video. Music is highly valued for it’s well-being properties but devalued as a product. Post-war generations cling to their hedonistic youth, post-rock generations, like my own, straddle popular music’s past, present and future. We are comfortable with change, even as we age.
Music is entertainment, a tool for creative thinking and it helps us work.
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An interesting overview. I haven't thought of ambient music in these terms. Usually, it's a soundtrack as I drift off to sleep rather than something I actively listen to. Chillhop was a huge thing when I worked in the produce department at the local co-op, which provided an interesting (if not always enjoyable) background to sweeping floors and bagging spinach.
Ambient strikes me as altogether different and experimental while also having a calming effect. I may have to revisit some of my favorite sleep playlists when I'm awake and get a better sense of what you're saying. :)