S6:E6 – What Makes Ambient and New Age, Ambient and New Age ?

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In January 1975, a taxi struck Brian Eno as he crossed the street.

It ran over his legs and threw him against a parked car, splitting his head open.

He had been an original member of the arty Rock band Roxy Music but left after their second album.

He then recorded several collaborations, including two albums with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, and was working on his third solo record when the accident left him housebound for over a month.

His friend Judy Nylon – an artist, musician, and half of the Punk duo Snatch – brought him an album of 18th Century harp music.

He listened to it after she left, but the volume was low and one speaker wasn’t working. He was in too much pain to get up and fix it so he left it alone. He heard only the loud parts interspersed with the rain outside.

Hearing it so quietly showed him the value of music as atmosphere. It gave him new ideas about what music could be. He thought about music “designed to occupy the background.” 

In the Postmodernism episode, we talked about John Cage’s 1952 composition “4:33” and its four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

Except: it’s not silence. It’s all the sounds you’d hear in the room.

An audience member might sneeze or shift in their chair. You’d hear the door open and close if anyone comes in late. You’d also hear sounds from outside the room: cars going by, someone laughing in the lobby, a dog barking down the street.

There are always sounds in any location. Even in a barren desert, you can hear the wind. These random noises are called ambient sounds.

And that’s why Eno, after recovering from his injuries, gave the name Ambient to the new genre he was inventing.

It’s music that fills the space but doesn’t call attention to itself. Like the rain and that quiet harp music, it creates an atmosphere without being noticed. You can listen to it closely, or not at all, or anything in the range between the two. 

Ambient, Eno said, “…must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Eno’s fourth solo album, Discreet Music, experimented with ideas that would become Ambient. But it’s his 1978 record Ambient 1: Music for Airports that’s most often cited as the first Ambient recording.

Its minimalist compositions have a sense of tranquility and introspection without forcing themselves into the foreground of the room. That’s a neat balancing act for any composer.

At about the same time, other musicians were making New Age Music.

It’s very similar to Ambient sonically, but its goal is different. New Age doesn’t want to be background music. It wants to be in the foreground, healing your ailments.

A movement in the 1970s put forth the belief that physical health is tied to mental health.

It’s a holistic approach, and there’s some evidence that the right music could actually make you healthier physically. If nothing else, it will put you in a better frame of mind.

That’s the idea behind New Age music. It’s meant to bring you peace and quiet and relaxation.

With soothing melodies and tranquil atmospheres, it’s a source of solace and serenity in an increasingly fast-paced, chaotic, and downright nutso world.

But it’s not Muzak or any other commercial music designed to change behaviors. New Age is influenced by the 1960s’ interest in Eastern spirituality and Western mysticism, and the burgeoning holistic health movement of the 1970s.

It’s a response to the societal upheavals and cultural shifts of those decades, and it tries to provide listeners with a sonic sanctuary:

A place of refuge and renewal in the midst of life’s challenges and uncertainties. New Age seeks to provide relaxation, introspection, and spiritual awakening. 

These are pretty high-minded goals, and easy to satirize as hippie-dippie nonsense for those inclined to do so. Let’s take the high road and ask the obvious question: How does it reach those noble goals?

Musicians in both genres use synthesizers, samplers, field recordings, and other electronic and acoustic instruments to create moods and expansive sound worlds.

There may be no discernible rhythm or melody in Ambient, but both genres focus on textures, soundscapes, and intricate but subtle sonic details.

Minimalist techniques, such as repetition, sustained tones, and gradual changes over time, create a sense of timelessness and space, allowing listeners to enter a state of deep relaxation and contemplation if they so choose.

In the mid-20th Century, the avant-garde of the Classical world were working with minimalism and experimenting with electronics.

Composers like Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley used repetition, drones, and slow evolution in their compositions.

Minimalism showed that popular music doesn’t need an insistent beat or catchy melody to be interesting, or induce a trance, or dissolve completely into the background.

Tony Scott was one of the top clarinetists playing Jazz in the 1940s. The clarinet fell out of favor in the 50s and by 1960 he was living in Asia, touring extensively and learning about Buddhism.

His 1964 album Music For Zen Meditation is considered to be the first New Age album. It’s largely improvised by the trio of Scott on clarinet, Shinichi Yuize on koto and Hōzan Yamamoto on shakuhachi. These two instruments are a zither and a bamboo flute respectively, and both Japanese.

On the Ambient side of the coin, Harold Budd mastered Minimalism and his music plays with the ideas of space, silence, and spirituality. He blends piano-based melodies and atmospherics.

His collaborations with Ambient pioneers like Eno and Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins have yielded great pieces like 1984’s ”The Pearl” and “The Moon and the Melodies” from 1986.

Stars of the Lid, an Ambient duo consisting of Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, is known for their immersive soundscapes and orchestral arrangements.

Their albums, including “The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid” from 2001 and “And Their Refinement of the Decline” from 2007, have grandeur, beauty and serenity.

While primarily known for his 1990s work in Electronic music, Aphex Twin – nee Richard D. James – has also explored Ambient territory with albums like “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” and “Selected Ambient Works Volume II.” 

His Ambient compositions blend intricate rhythms, haunting melodies, and surreal, otherworldly, soundscapes.

On the New Age side of things, Japanese composer and multi-instrumentalist Kitarō is a pioneer of Electronic and Ambient music, but his exploration of nature, spirituality, and the human experience put him firmly in New Age territory.

His albums, including KojikiDream, and the Silk Road soundtracks, have earned him international acclaim and his 1999 album Thinking Of You won the Grammy for Best New Age Album.

Greek composer and keyboardist Yanni is known for his epic orchestral compositions and live performances.

As well as his glorious mustache.

His albums, such as Live at the Acropolis and In My Time, blend elements of Classical, World, and New Age music.

Singer-songwriter Enya is one of the most successful and influential New Age artists of all time.

She’s the second highest-selling musician from Ireland, after U2.

Known for her ethereal vocals, dense orchestration, and cinematic production, Enya has released a series of critically acclaimed albums, including WatermarkShepherd Moons, and A Day Without Rain, which have sold millions of copies worldwide. Her single “Orinoco Flow” hit #1 on multiple charts around the world.

In 1975, the same year that Eno was hit by the taxi, guitarist William Ackerman dropped out of college. He began selling his music on cassette and eventually started a label called Windham Hill.

Going the non-traditional route, Windham Hill sold more tapes and CDs in cafes, bookstores, and gift shops than in record stores.

While they signed Jazz and Classical artists who shared their ethos of mellow, soothing music, Windham Hill became known as a New Age label and became so popular that the German media conglomerate BMG bought them out in the mid-90s.

As the Ambient genre evolved, several subgenres developed:

  • Dark Ambient uses themes of melancholy, mystery, and the supernatural.

Characterized by eerie drones, ominous textures, and atmospheric effects, Dark Ambient artists like Lustmord, Raison d’être, and Atrium Carceri create sonic landscapes that evoke feelings of unease and dread. It works well in horror movies and creepy video games.

  • Dreampunk is a recent subgenre.

It combines Ambient modes and ideals with contemporary recording techniques and is more likely to have drum parts. Groups like 2814 and Origami Girl produce soundtrack-like, quixotic, tracks that are dark but not gloomy like Dark Ambient.

  • Environmental Ambient uses field recordings, found sounds, and natural elements.

Artists like Francisco López, and Bernie Krause use their recordings of the natural world to simultaneously make beautiful music and raise awareness of environmental issues.

New Age subgenres include:

  • Celtic New Age, which blends the melodies and mystical traditions of Celtic music with the ambiance and spiritual themes of New Age.

Artists like Loreena McKennitt, Clannad, and Secret Garden infuse their music with elements of Celtic folklore, mythology, and spirituality.

  • Spa and Relaxation music is specifically designed to create a tranquil and rejuvenating environment for wellness practices, massage therapy, and holistic healing.

Artists like Liquid Mind, Aeoliah, and Karunesh craft soothing melodies, gentle rhythms, and serene atmospheres that promote relaxation, stress reduction, and emotional balance.

And then, there’s the best of both worlds:

Ambient New Age music combines the atmospheric textures and ethereal qualities of Ambient with the melodic sensibility and introspective themes of New Age.

Artists like Deuter, Constance Demby, and Steve Roach create soundscapes that evoke feelings of peace, tranquility, and inner stillness.

Proponents of Ambient and New Age music believe they have therapeutic effects on the mind, body, and spirit. Some studies do in fact show that Ambient music can reduce stress, ease relaxation, and enhance mood.

It can be a tool for meditation, mindfulness, and holistic healing. Anything that can help lead to spiritual awakening is a good thing.

New Age and Ambient are similar genres with different intentions.

The best of each can call up emotions, memories, and imaginary landscapes through sound.

Whether it’s conjuring up the serenity of a forest, the vastness of outer space, or the intimacy of a quiet night, one tries – and sometimes succeeds to transport listeners to otherworldly realms and encourages introspection and self-discovery.

And the other is happy to be aural wallpaper.

Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

  • Ambient:

2/1
Brian Eno

1978

Juno
Harold Budd

1978

Schottkey 7th Path
Aphex Twin
1992

Requiem for Dying Mothers, Part 1
Stars of the Lid
2001

Into Stressa
Robin Guthrie
2003

Entrance
Atrium Carceri

2003

Untitled #373
Francisco Lopez
2019

  • New Age:

Is All Not One?
Tony Scott
1964

Silk Road
Kitarō
1980

Thanksgiving
George Winston
1982

Celestial Soda Pop
Ray Lynch
1984

Darrow’s Barn
William Ackerman
1987

Orinoco Flow
Enya

1988

Marco Polo
Loreena McKennitt
1997

Aves Trance
Constance Demby
2004

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Bill Bois

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rollerboogie
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April 26, 2024 7:28 am

My older brother Mike was a huge fan of tons of New Age artists in the 80s and turned me on to a few of them. Two images sum up that era and genre to me-

  1. Enya singing in the made-up language of Loxian
  2. this man-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHstq7VMWYs

rollerboogie
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April 26, 2024 7:46 am

A couple more thoughts- In the late 70s, when I was in junior high, I stayed over at a kid’s house who was really into Kitaro and played me one of his albums. I thought it was weird. Turns out the kid was just ahead of his time, as was Kitaro.

I remember watching a live performance on PBS of Yanni at the Acropolis, where he was directing a huge ensemble with this meditative, otherworldly gaze. I thought the music was so basic it could barely qualify as music and that he was a scam artist. Later, I heard someone say on the radio that he was originally a rock and roller from Minneapolis that reinvented himself as this sexy, European mystical new ager. It wasn’t exactly true, as he was born and raised in Greece and moved to the U.S. to attend the University of Minnesota, but nonetheless, I never could buy into the whole Yanni thing.

Last edited 2 months ago by rollerboogie
LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2024 8:46 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

When I think back to when my mother got remarried while I was in college, thoughts of going to their house during those first few years (early 90s) always makes me think of Yanni, because they were gaga over him. I really can dig instrumental music, but his never clicked with me.

I probably never gave it much of a chance, though. There are undoubtedly some Yanni tracks that I would probably like.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 26, 2024 7:48 am

I think the New Age/Ambient divide is a lot like the Prog Rock/Art Rock divide, and also the early Synth Pop/Industrial divide.

In that:

the perceived difference is mainly about “eagerness to please” vs “eagerness to experiment”
The difference seems obvious when considering some choice representative examples, but often breaks down the more you get into either
many artists of either side have produced at least a few works that fall in line with the other side
important artists from one side have often collaborated with artists from the other
For New Age/Ambient, the principal difference seems to lay in how the audience tends to engage with the music, rather than the music per se.

New Age fans tend to want a comforting escape from the hustle and bustle of life, a way to relax. Ambient fans want thoughtful quietude. Both might want an interesting stimulus to use while stoned.

Ambient 1 sounds great in an altered state. Things do get darker in the latter half of the work, though. So like Eno himself during the track’s creation, you’ll likely be contemplating death in your sonic journey of introspection. That’s the best kind of therapy though.

For what it’s worth, I noticed that the people who frequented Tower’s new age section always seemed kinda high strung.

Was it really working??

Last edited 2 months ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Phylum of Alexandria
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April 26, 2024 9:17 am
Reply to  Virgindog

You’re not the only one. I think Ray Lynch was hoping she’d jump in.

mt58
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April 26, 2024 9:25 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Hmm…

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 26, 2024 9:55 am
Reply to  mt58

Don’t forget to incorporate some samples of “4’33” and “Two Minute Silence.”

mt58
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April 26, 2024 11:02 am

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2024 8:48 am
Reply to  mt58

Ha!

Pauly Steyreen
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April 26, 2024 12:05 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I totally heard that too… I was singing the lyrics, then the chorus didn’t kick in.

Pauly Steyreen
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April 26, 2024 12:04 pm

…cheaper than therapy.

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2024 8:48 am

“eagerness to please” vs “eagerness to experiment”. I really like that differentiation.



JJ Live At Leeds
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April 26, 2024 9:43 am

Ah Enya, 12 year old me found her quite alluring when she seemingly appeared out of nowhere with Orinoco Flow in 1988. There was nothing else in the charts like it. Turns out she’d had a long road to success. She was a member of Clannad in the early 80s, who were made up of her brothers, sister and uncles. As the youngest member and more of a hired hand she left to go her own way.

Sometimes with ambient I find there’s nothing for me to hold onto and it passes me by but there’s plenty of Eno and those early Aphex Twin ambient works that I love. Though I do also really like Eno’s early albums that are more recognisably rock/pop and feature him singing.

By coincidence I’ve submitted my selection of 90s novelties from the UK charts and have included an Aphex Twin track that is definitely not ambient.

The first time I really got ambient and is still the most beautiful piece of music I know even though there’s barely anything happening is this one:
https://youtu.be/OlaTeXX3uH8?feature=shared

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 26, 2024 9:57 am

“Cliffs” has been my phone ringtone for quite a while.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 26, 2024 10:00 am

I know it violates Eno’s whole conception of ambient music,* but this sounds fantastic when blasted on a good speaker system:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfErixxrKdI

*of course, Eno also thoroughly appreciates mischief and rule breaking

blu_cheez
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April 26, 2024 5:59 pm

This is one of the (maybe?) ten greatest pieces of music that humans have had the good fortune to ever hear.

rollerboogie
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April 26, 2024 11:24 am

Orinoco Flow has always sounded like a medical condition to me. Just riffing, here.

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2024 8:51 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

“Ask your doctor if our Enoxycillin is right for your Orinoco Flow symptoms.”

Pauly Steyreen
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April 26, 2024 11:36 am

I absolutely adored Enya through the Watermark and Shepherd Moons era. I still say “Orinoco Flow” is just a mid-tier Enya track, she has better even stuff if you dig a bit. (Maybe it also depends on what you want or expect from Enya, which can be a complicated question now that I think about it…)

Also stoked to see Ray Lynch represented here. My high school physics teacher had this setup:

  1. cardboard tube placed in front of a boombox speaker
  2. saran wrap over the far end of the tube with a small triangular mirror glued to the wrap
  3. laser pointed at the mirror

When you would play music on the boombox, the reflection of the laser off the mirror on the opposite wall would create sort of a warbling circular pattern. My teacher got the best results with songs from Ray Lynch’s No Blue Thing album — clear and crisp bass notes that made the laser dance.

cappiethedog
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April 26, 2024 4:32 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Arguably, Enya is just as visionary as solo mid-to-late period Bjork.

blu_cheez
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April 26, 2024 6:01 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Enya’s first self-titled album (later released as “The Celts”) is the best Enya, though I love all her stuff.

Pauly Steyreen
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April 26, 2024 11:57 am

For whatever reason, hearing “Celestial Soda Pop” made me have a strong urge to listen to “Peaches en Regalia” immediately thereafter.

https://youtu.be/FoYdeEDdtK4?si=9u8H8QeW8Lu3EsA9

lovethisconcept
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April 26, 2024 1:26 pm

My introduction to Loreena McKennit was this song. One of the Sirius XM DJ’s played it on his show, and I had to track it down.

https://youtu.be/eUTci9UbxNU?si=C3zmYR7olGlgMelb

Another one that he played was this song. Not sure where it fits into a genre, but I love it. It’s kind of new age, but with Ritchie Blackmore on guitar.
https://youtu.be/RsQgcNI8Xqg?si=nCUUKfTguqTP1_Da

Last edited 2 months ago by lovethisconcept
blu_cheez
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April 26, 2024 5:57 pm

OK… now we’re talking….

In 1998, Bang On a Can All-Stars re-recorded “Music For Airports” (super cool album, BTW – brings some nice variation to the original recording) and toured it in 2000 (maybe 2001) – I happily bought a ticket, but was wondering how one goes to a club with no seats to listen to this concert.

My solution was to bring the book I was reading, and see if the concert worked better if I was only half watching it.

Turns out (pre social media) that this is what about 75% of the audience also did, and the show was a combination of watching the performance and digging into a good book with the music in the background. I think Eno would have been proud.

LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2024 9:03 am

The takeaway that resonates strongest with me here is noticing music that isn’t meant to be noticed. It’s a different purpose for music that album-tour-sales/chart success, but its every bit as legitimate as music.

I have learned that just because you have ambient/new age title (much of which I like), doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy it all the same. I find some of it incredibly boring and not beautiful at all. But every once in a while a song/style will really click with me. I guess that’s true of all music.

No mention of Mannheim Steamroller. I know everyone associates them with cheesy Christmas music (for good reason), but their first 3 “Fresh Aire” albums were appealingly experimental combinations of classical and synthesized music (with outstanding recording production). There are some songs on those albums that definitely push into this ‘new age’ territory, so that’s where they were often categorized, though they didn’t quite fit the mold. I would recommend to anyone 1979’s Fresh Aire III, which is fantastic start to finish.

Mrs. Crawford will sometimes play ambient music in her high school classroom during her tests/classwork, and some of the kids comment that they really appreciate it. Here’s one that she played on about an hour loop while I helped her after school and I love it. It’s one of my most played songs of the last 10 years.

It’s Ferenc Hegedus/OCB Relax “Adele”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYQ7PlzbyGE

rollerboogie
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April 27, 2024 11:13 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

My brother made me a cassette of Mannheim Steamroller and I remember liking it at the time. They were definitely on the ground floor of all this.

Last edited 2 months ago by rollerboogie
LinkCrawford
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April 27, 2024 9:05 am

Great addition to your legendary genre series, Vdog!

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