Article Originally Published by Nick Lawrence on North Texas Daily
I hope people are finding ways to keep themselves preoccupied during the quarantine. I’m a firm believer that every task should have good background music, so I have compiled a list of ten ambient and ambient-inspired albums to ponder and explore with all this alone time. I have put them in chronological order of release so you can see how ambient music has evolved — and maybe even devolved — over time.
- Terry Riley – “A Rainbow in Curved Air” (1969)
Four years before “A Rainbow in Curved Air” was released, jazz pianist Bill Evans began using overdubbing when recording his piano pieces. This process involved taking a piece of pre-recorded music and continuously adding recordings over it to give it a more spacious aura. This practice is as conventional as they come nowadays, but it was groundbreaking in the late ‘60s.
Terry Riley would take this concept of overdubbing and push it forward with more instrumentation, using an electric organ, two harpsichords, a dumbec and a tambourine. He composed his ambient symphonies with the mind of a classical composer, yet the minimalism of a film composer. His contributions to overdubbing would inspire many rock and electronic acts after him, even minimal classical composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass.
- Fripp & Eno – “No Pussyfooting” (1973)
Inspired by Terry Riley, Brian Eno would invite King Crimson guitarist, Robert Fripp, to his home to experiment with a new type of tape system that put an emphasis on delay. They would record a track and that track would be sent to another tape recorder, then back to the first tape recorder, giving the effect of a delayed musical response that could sustain itself for a long time.
Along with Brian Eno’s knowledge of synthesizers, Fripp would use his diverse and highly influential style of electric guitar playing to pioneer a guitar looping effect that would be dubbed “Frippertronics.” This type of guitar looping can now be found in many guitar effects pedals today. The result of the project found hypnotic, synthesized landscapes with soaring guitar overhead.
- Ernest Hood – “Neighborhoods” (1975)
Ernest Hood was becoming a prolific jazz guitarist before being diagnosed with polio in the 1950s, and Hood moved on to less physically-demanding string instruments and a hobby for field recording. “Neighborhoods” would eventually be released in the mid-seventies on a private press for family and close friends. The album took Hood’s wire-recorded field recordings of various birds chirping, water running, kids playing and any other suburban sound you can think of and melded this with melodic synthesizer and zither passages. These melodies hearkened back to the nostalgia of the ‘50s, while the field recordings made it sound like you could be walking through your neighborhood with your eyes closed.
- Steve Reich – “Music for 18 Musicians” (1978)
Using the overdubbing technique pioneered in the ‘60s, classical minimalist composer Steve Reich crafted his magnum opus in “Music for 18 Musicians,” a piece he ironically says would actually benefit with more than 18 musicians. The musicians would play the piece – which is based on a cycle of 11 chords – and build off one another. It’s a piece of minimalist classical rather than an album, but the hour-long piece is sure to keep you adrift. You will get lost in the sea of violins, clarinets, xylophones, piano, and female voices. It’s one of the grandest pieces of 20th century classical music and as essential as they come.
- Midori Takada – “Through the Looking Glass” (1983)
Midori Takada would take instruments like the xylophone, marimbas, gongs and ocarinas and play them conventionally or manipulate them to sound animalistic. In an article from The Guardian, she said, “Everything that exists on Earth has a sound. Even if humans don’t call it an instrument, on this earth, there exists a significant vibrancy.”
“Through the Looking Glass” was shrouded in mystery. The piece of cult Japanese ambient music was only released on CD and vinyl recently in 2017. It might seem forgotten at times, but its analog recording gives it a warmth like no other. You can find the full album on YouTube, as it’s not available on any streaming platform, or you can purchase a physical copy online.
- Aphex Twin – “Selected Ambient Works Volume II” (1994)
I have no quarrels with saying that Richard D. James, known as Aphex Twin, is the Mozart of electronic music. It’s a bold statement, but his fingerprints are all over ambient electronic music and IDM, encapsulating artists from Boards of Canada to the trip-hop and house movement. He approaches music like a classical composer, with perfectionistic tendencies at every loop, sample and recording.
The album is based on James’ lucid dreams, which he would try to recreate upon awakening. All 24 tracks are named by numerical value and feature sparse percussion, only leaving behind vapor trails of canvas-like pieces. It is the musical equivalency of labyrinth, with jaw-dropping beauty at one turn and eerie sonic echoes at another. It begs the listener to wander until they find the middle.
- Swans – “Soundtracks for the Blind” (1996)
“Soundtracks for the Blind” is one of the most terrifying and enlightening musical experiences I’ve ever had. Its two-and-a-half-hour runtime is the least of the listener’s worries, as the album expands upon the darker ambient works that preceded it while containing the post-rock, noise, gothic and industrial elements that made up Swans’ music beforehand.
The album was originally recorded to accompany a film that was never made, with recordings from band member Jarboe’s father’s tenure as an FBI agent eerily commanding some of the tracks. Organic electronics weave between noisy, subdued guitars, while some songs take on the pathos of folk music.
The album stands more as a post-rock monument, inspiring many of the 21st century post-rock acts we have today, but it’s defined by its ambient influences. It’s one of the only ambient albums listed to contain a song-like structure and vocals. Listen if you dare, but don’t expect to come out the same.
- Pete Rock – “PeteStrumentals” (2001)
First off, this is not ambient music, but it shares the same kind of listening experience as its ambient brothers and sisters. Pete Rock might just be one of the greatest producers in the history of hip-hop, and “PeteStrumentals” provides a tour through the mind of Rock’s genius for instrumentals.
The album shares a plate with traditional hip-hop while also predicting what would be found in 21st century hip-hop. Artists like J Dilla and Madlib would take notes from Rock, branching off and creating their own classics. It’s a great album if you want a little more funk to your ambient experience.
- Boards of Canada – “Geogaddi” (2002)
The Scottish duo’s second outing, “Geogaddi,” darkened the sound they created while also pushing it forward. Much like Aphex Twin and Swans before them, they would manipulate their electronic sounds into sounding organic, even eerie.
Behind the ambience is a sense of rhythm and drive. The songs feature electronic drums to build grooves off of the psychedelic melodies. It’s something you can move to while also reminiscing. Its schizophrenic nature marks a turning point for what ambient music could be in the 21st century.
- Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – “The Social Network” (2010)
I can’t make an ambient list without mentioning a film score. Some of the most memorable parts of movies are their scores and soundtracks.
It’s hard to believe that a movie about the inception of Facebook was as gripping and tense as it was, but the real tension is found in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. The score plays out like an album due to Reznor’s history as the mind behind Nine Inch Nails, but this makes it listenable on its own, as well as a perfect soundscape for the film.
One moment it’s subdued with manic foreshadowing lying underneath and the next it’s pulsing like a club banger with cacophony looming overhead. The movie would not be the same without it. It also displayed that film scores can be whatever they want to be, and many films have taken this electronic direction since.
Featured Illustration: Austin Banzon
Source: North Texas Daily