My taste in music changes according to whom I want to impress. When I enter uncharted territory (i.e. meet new people) I like Coldplay – they’re alternative enough to be cool, but mainstream enough to be relatable. Intellectual snobs think my favourite track is Saint-Saën’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, and as to what I tell the quirky shop assistant in Fitzroy, Melbourne – well in that situation I am an avid Starfuckers fan.
Yes, I dabble across music genres. You may accuse me of cowardice – what is music for me after all, but a shield I hold up against the barbs of social scrutiny? However, this flexibility means that I’m willing to try almost anything: I’ve trawled through Mathcore, Chiptune and even Gregorian chant. While all of these genres merit further examination, this article is about something a little less esoteric – Abstract Ambient music.
As a classically trained pianist, I had to adhere to rigid lists of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic rules (no parallel octaves or fifths, leading note must rise to the tonic). Imagine how excited I was the first time I heard Debussy – dissonance! Chromaticism! – yet even his music was controlled, to some extent, by rules of composition. Abstract Ambience is thus the sword of subversion I wield against the dictatorship of classical composition:
Fuck you! It says to melody, lyrics and all those other annoying accoutrements.
Come hither! It whispers to natural acoustics, enhanced environmental sounds and noise texture.
Before I proceed any further, it’s important to note that Abstract Ambient musicis not merely sounds of melancholic whales, Amazonian rainforests or anything that comes up when you type “sleep sounds” into YouTube. Rather, Ambient Music is defined (by musician, producer and musicologist Brian Eno in 1978) as “the unique qualities of listening to the music within the liner notes .”It aims to create a vortex of noise in which you can immerse yourself, but you can also extract yourself from it, if need be. It’s a loom of sound – and it is your prerogative to weave in and out of the noises to match your whimsy.
For example, I’m listening to Soniferous’ The Portal as I’m writing this. I hear footsteps crunching through the undergrowth, water droplets and intermittent owl hoots – all at once, but disparately as well, if I choose. But wait! – the sound of the dripping water becomes blurred, turning into sonic echoes and morphing into the electronic drone that I suddenly realise had been present since the start of the piece. The textures become increasingly more electronic, but I could still easily draw comparisons between the sounds I hear and noises in nature. If I shut my eyes, I experience synesthesia – I hear the music, but I feel it. This is what I imagine it is like to meditate in a jungle after a tablespoonful of mescaline.
But maybe Ambient Music itself should be your drug of choice – music was, after all, used as a form of non-invasive and non-pharmaceutical therapy during World War II to treat neurologic disorders; it can be, and still is, used as a “holistic healing intervention”, according to the American Music Therapy Association. Sounds like taking marijuana – but legal.
However, if you’re a purist who likes to listen to unadulterated ambient noises, I point you in the direction of John Cage’s 4’33”.