Music Beyond Airports: Appraising Ambient Music
Edited by Monty Adkins and Simon Cummings
Book Review by Scott Miller
A quick search for music identified as “ambient” in your favorite streaming music service will result in a long and diverse collection of works, and perhaps not even include Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, the album that launched the use of the term as a musical bin label, if not genre. Music Beyond Airports: Appraising Ambient Music, edited by Monty Adkins and Simon Cummings, is a collection of essays developed from “papers given at the Ambient@40 International Conference held in February 2018 at the University of Huddersfield. The original premise of the conference was not merely to celebrate Eno’s work and the landmark release of Music for Airports in 1978, but to consider the development of the genre, how it has permeated our wider musical culture, and what the role of such music is today given the societal changes that have occurred since the release of that album.”
I was excited to read these essays, particularly for having been unable to attend the conference myself. I could not agree more with Monty Adkins, who points out in his essay that “there has been little critical reflection on the state of ambient music today.” This book brings together a wonderful collection of different ideas AND cites a diverse repertoire of musics whose connections may seem tenuous on the surface. It is a long overdue book that helps us understand how disparate threads of “ambient” artistic and philosophical inquiry—dating back long before Music for Airports—seem to be intersecting today in many interesting ways.
There are a lot of ideas in this book, each worthy of greater exploration. One feature of the collection is that it serves as a locus for contemporary notions of public and private space, environments both real and virtual, and the role of the listener. Many essays highlight how Eno’s “ignoresting” so often seems to be misunderstood as a call to not actively listen to music. Several address this from a philosophical perspective. David Toop draws on the work of François Jullien and Byung-Chul Han to confront the easy, corporate definition of “Ambient” as a bin describing the surface gestures of music marketed for a function. He repositions the definition from the perspective of the listener, as a “state of mind attuned to inclusivity rather than an industry genre whose aesthetic integrity depends upon withdrawal.” Justin Morey analyzes the use of technology in “Little Fluffy Clouds” to consider the listener’s contribution to musical meaning, drawing on Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Philip Tagg, and E. H. Gombrich in support of this idea. And I was pleasantly surprised to see Richard Talbot cite the work of Nelson Goodman in his essay on spatiality in ambient music, and its “particular ways of creating imagined, embodied and representational space.”
How to define, or recognize ambient music when one hears it, is considered in multiple essays. Simon Cummings proposes the idea of “the steady state as the essential, objective, universal component – the quiddity – of ambient music, as encapsulated in Brian Eno’s ‘ignoresting’ dichotomy” and that “ambient is best defined by its organisation.” This idea of the steady state resonates strongly with me for its flexibility and inclusiveness, inviting musical comparisons that might otherwise be overlooked. Ambient is redefined by Ambrose Field in order to consider what Ambient Music might mean or be in contemporary society, when notions of what constitutes the ambient environment in our information-saturated, everyday existence, is considerably different than that of the 1970s.
For those interested in possible approaches to creating, I encountered inspiring ideas in most of the essays. Monty Adkins offers the concept of fragility in sound, “a state of tension in which the sound’s ‘failure’ is offset by its continued temporal movement forwards. Within this there is a sense of both beauty and danger. The beauty is of something prone to failure that needs attention, and the danger is of it ceasing to function musically.” This description alone makes me want to hear the music he’s referring to. From both an analytical and compositional perspective, Axel Berndt provides a tremendously useful “taxonomy of adaptive music techniques.” This essay includes specific examples that serve as an excellent starting point for analyzing or experimenting with ambient environments in video gaming.
I highly recommend this book for the excellence of its content and for its contemporary relevance. Based on this collection of essays, I sincerely hope we can look forward to an Ambient@45 International Conference.
You can download the OA Version at https://unipress.hud.ac.uk/plugins/books/19/
Scott L. Miller, October 2019