There are times when I wonder just what the hell 'fellow' critics use for dictionaries or if they read anything other than their own drivel. The term 'ambient' is a case in point. Any moment now, I'm expecting that some idiot writer is going to receive a CD of Metallica performing instrumentals of King Crimson's chaos songs on chainsaws and jackhammers as mixed by Merzbow, calling it 'ambient' just because the group tongue-in-cheekily said so because it included no singing anywhere (somehow, I just don't see John Wetton going in the direction of Master of Puppets). I'm pretty damned confident said typewriter jockey will fall for it. Sigh!
You'll hear many many origin stories about that modern mode, ambient, so let me tell you the real deal: it actually started with Satie's 'furniture music'. That's right, the classicalist Rosicrucian wunderkind who, like Nick Drake, is vastly more popular now than ever either was in their own lifetimes. When you're ahead of the curve, that's what happens, you get ignored. Satie's interest as a composer was not as a writer of notes per se but as a 'phonometrician', another word he invented to convey the sense of 'measuring sounds'. His coining of the term 'furniture music', originally 'furnishing music', was in order to denote that, when put a certain way, sound "completes one's property". In fact, it is property as such, that's why true ambient music is mostly quiet, still, even while moving. It's what a thing is, not what it does. Eno carried the mode forward, once synths had been invented (though he and Gavin Bryars, I suspect, would have done so anyway had the keyboards not been wrought), with On Land as perhaps the most concrete example despite his Obscure label productions and work with Fripp otherwise (one hesitates mightily to label Swastika Girls as 'furnishings music').
In Brian's own words, "ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting". In other words: it must be sonic furniture. Therein, ladies, gents, and proglodytes (progcrits) lies the lineage, and thus we can safely regard Marconi Union's Weightless as true ambient music without some idiot interpolating Tortoise or similar. The original 8-minute song, however, was done in collaboration with the British Academy of Sound Therapy and accomplished the highly unusual feat of a 65% reduction in overall anxiety in test subjects, thus earning the group a slot in Time magazine's list of Inventors Of The Year (2011), the 11th slot out of 50 in fact.
Ambient music and space music, both of which create environments, segments of environments, or components within environments have much in common, and Marconi Union's Weightless has much that resonates with both styles. The fundament piece, here extended into 6 movements, was so attractive that it collected 12 million views of the various videos and racked up 55,000 downloads on iTunes alone. In its own way, Weightless has commonalities with The Necks' Sex in terms of repeating patterns, highly defined parameters, relaxation effects, mental quietude paradoxically stimulating pacified contemplations, and so on. Whereas Sex was much more fundamentally furniture music—less elaborate, unburdened by spatial volume, and as though a byproduct of Traffic's Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (that is to say: much more confined and conceptually limited)—Weightless creates not only a presence that shifts and sparkles but a variety of related imageries.
In fact, its effect can be rather amazing. A buddy was traipsing through the house while visiting on vacation and, upon hearing the music, immediately sat down, closed his eyes, sighed, and remarked "Man, what is that? I could just fold up and meditate to it!" Precisely.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles