Styles & Forms | Ambient | Electronic

Ambient music has existed since the late-nineteenth century. Although Brian Eno was the first artist to use the term ‘ambient’ to describe his music on his 1978 album, Music For Airports, composers like Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, with their notion of composing pieces to complement listening surroundings, broke with musical conventions and expectations.

Frenchmen Erik Satie and Claude Debussy are often called the ‘fathers of modern music’, and it’s no idle claim. While Satie was writing musical pieces at the end of the nineteenth century that were based on the concept of setting a mood, his most significant works were composed around 1920. These were a series of pieces he called ‘furniture music’, which Satie wanted both to be part of and include the surrounding noises. ‘Furniture music’ laid the basis for what Brian Eno achieved with ambient music half a century later.

Similarly, Debussy’s experiments with tone, texture and harmony in his orchestral works at the end of the nineteenth century and his early twentieth century piano music would also play an important role in influencing the way composers – and later on, electronic producers – approached the composition of mood or ambient music.

Early Trendsetters

By the middle of the twentieth century, experimental composer John Cage questioned accepted notions of percussion, tone and texture with ‘4’ 33” ’. As its title suggested, the piece was exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds long and consisted of silence. Cage’s message was clear: any musical expression, silence included, was valid. Cage was followed by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose tape-based audio collages laid the basis for modern-day sampling, and the acknowledged founders of minimalism: Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

By the late-1960s this freethinking approach, combined with a growing drug culture, had also produced some of rock’s most adventurous forays as bands like Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream soundtracked rock music’s first tentative flirtations with electronic sounds. Works like Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, released the same year man first walked on the moon, mapped out this new fusion, dubbed space rock. It heralded the beginning of synthesized sound’s growing influence on contemporary music. It was only a matter of time before an artist made use of the technology in a mainstream manner, and Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album, Tubular Bells, which did just that, was a huge success, selling millions worldwide.

Increased access to electronic equipment during the 1970s and 1980s allowed Brian Eno to fulfil his goal of making music that cultivated relaxation and ‘space to think’. The advent of this technology also allowed German act Kraftwerk to pioneer their synth-based sound, a development that in turn influenced a whole range of 1980s synth producers, including Trevor Horn, Art Of Noise, The Human League and Ultravox.

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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