I remember buying Brian Eno's Music for Airports twenty or so years ago. Music for Airports features a simple piano line played for an entire LP side, backed with a simple vocal chant, looped for most of another LP side. Although the idea was not new to Eno, Music for Airports, introduced thousands of kids, including me, to the concept of music-as-sound.
Sometimes very pretentious ideas come wrapped in deceptively simple packages, rather like those schools of eastern thought in which all the mantras amount to "simplify life", but in fact one must absorb an incredible number of very complicated ideas in order to assimilate the thinking. Music-as-sound perhaps qualifies as one of those "deceptively simple" notions. The concept absorbs many different angles of revolt against the way music is formulated and performed in our culture. It is arguble that western musicology suffers from an historic bias againt non-western forms; indeed, some early harmonics researchers somehow suggested that western harmonics were actually somehow biologically in tune with the "natural" way to experience music. The far different harmonic structures of aboriginal western and virtually all eastern musics were by contrast impliedly aberrant. Music as sound conceptually wishes to leave the harmonic and song structures behind altogether. This is not a new idea; Harry Partch's invented scales really sought to do the same thing decades prior to the 60s and 70s ambient artists. But the idea that music would no longer be evaluated as music--but as an experience of sound--offered deceptively simple vistas into allegedly new ways of perceiving and enjoying music. Sound would become a new door through the walls of perception.
For me, though, ambient music appeals in substantial part because ambient leaves behind the entire rock star construct.
Rock music, even in its admirable "indie" form, reminds me rather of that graphic novel The Watchmen, which points out the fascism inherent in comic book "superheroes". There's an inherent ubermensch thing at work when fans worship rock stars, arguably no more insidious but no more admirable than the sorry sight of twentysomethings chasing after politicians or the wealthy for personal power or gratification. Ambient artists don't sell to many people. Those who do buy tend to be less "fans" in the heavy-breathing sense than people who wish to explore sound. An ambient "star" is less a personal idol than a creator of interesting soundscapes. I don't insist, by the way, that "ambience" always mean "dark ambience", which tends to reject traditional melody. I don't mind hearing songs in my ambience. But loosening the pull strings of convention appeals to me.
The idea of breaking free of musical convention appeals to me in particular because I believe that in music, as in so many of the arts, a participatory spark has been lost by the faux tyranny of talent. By this, I do not disparage those who are brilliant at playing instruments; I have (purely metaphorically) worshipped at the idol of a guitar player or saxophonist or singer or two. But music all too often has become the domain of those who do divided from those who watch. Division of tasks according to skill set is an understandable societal trait. But the result of this division is inherently the commodification of the medium, to the disadvantage of all. Musicians of a certain quality expect to earn a living from their music, which is understandable, given the time demands required for instrumental and creative competence. Yet the process of earning a living inherently commodifies music, and renders its practitioners prisoners of supply and demand. This is not a product of capitalism, particularly, because the controlled totalitarian economies, for all their vaunted (censorship filled, arts-killing) "support" of artists, could not generate enough jobs for all the musicians, writers and artists who aspired to earn a living in the arts.
By leaving behind traditional notions of musical "competence" and focusing on sound as sound, the hegemony of musical talent gives way to a democracy of expression. This is not to say that one will regard Bill Nelson's guitar solo on the Live! in the Air Age! version of Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape, perhaps the most satisfying solo in the history of rock, on a par with, say, gurdonark shaking a box of rice in a Pringle's can. One need not leave judgment behind altogether in enjoying music, and a good thing, too. But the idea that traditional structures will no longer be the sole touchstones of what is interesting and worthwile liberates one from the strictures of song, of western harmonics, and of pop convention. As in jazz, in some cases extreme instrumental competence and improvisation may enhance the creation of sound, and is certainly a desirable and wonderful thing. But the idea of ambience nonetheless involves an open-ness which is in some ways egalitarian, and accessible to musician and non-musician alike.
The oft-told joke about ambient music is that almost anyone with minimal recording equipment and a soft synth can make good ambient, but only a few really gifted people can make truly bad ambient. This refers to the fact that ambient music, like any genre, has affectations which distract from its core intention. Song and album titles have a way, for example, of taking on new age themes, as if any atmospheric sound must be titled "Lords of the Darkling Fields" or "whale murmurs". The types of artists who used to draw wizards on Uriah Heep albums sometimes seem to have transmigrated into the souls of some ambient artists' CD jewel case inserts. If jazz is the music of the nightclub, and chamber music is the music of the salon, then arguably ambient is the music of the college planetarium laser show, and the "which one's Pink?" and Moog-ish Tangerine Dream mythos are never far from mind. Ambient music as a marketing device is just as full of silliness as any branch of rock, because it learned its own limited marketing chops from the silliest (and perhaps my favorite) branch of music, progressive rock. I don't post ambience as some "better path", which solves the problems of godling worship and affectation endemic to rock and punk.
But I'm repeatedly drawn back to the idea that listening to sound as sound--being washed away by streams of noise--creates a listening experience different from, and in many ways wonderfully complementary of, traditional music. The fact that technology makes it possible for almost anyone with twenty or so hours to burn to make this music is part of the charm. Heaven knows that even yet, music is not easy to make. My July recording session with Scott_M, which is even now being converted into a CD for distribution called Vibrating Electric Fields featuring Scott and I alteranting on "lead electric football field" (as well as a host of kazoo-type and other instruments), convinced me that among the many skills that gurdonark does not have, making music is solidly among them. But I'm deeply drawn to the idea that the making of listenable sound is a universal skill, and the ability to hear sound as sound rather than as musical convention is a facility worth cultivating.
The forays into this in European modernist music and the more recent (and populist) industrial music have proven to be a limited set of explorations suited to a limited set of tastes. Perhaps it is only a rarified set of folks, someday destined to be parodied in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, who will ever enjoy music </i>which is liberated from being</i> music. But I find this music speaks to me.
Last night I played in the first live chess tournament I've played in for many years. I finally left the Internet Chess Club and jaunted into the reaches of the (quite wonderful) Dallas Chess Club for a three round "swiss system" tournament at the quick chess time control in which each player must play all the moves in the game in 25 minutes. I did quite well, given the rust, scoring 2.0 out of 3.0 points, using my eccentric Small Center System opening. Even my loss, in a fascinatingly sharp middlegame, was a tonic, a participation in something exhilarating and available. The tournament had roughly a dozen players, ranging from a 2000 rating (expert level) to my own 1733 (B class) down to a 900 class (which is something like E or F--I can never remember the lower classes, since they added F, G, H, and I to the old A through E system). All players got to play 3 rounds, win, lose or draw. Pairings in a "swiss system" pair winners against winners, losers against losers, and so forth, to keep everyone playing folks with similar results. The 900 player, though not a winner (in this instance, a 6 year old boy who, in the way of these things, may well be a 2000 before I am), was a participant and an honored part of the process. When he lost, people shook his hand and said "good game". The tournament director, who is an officer of the club, even directed me to another place where people play blitz chess, so that I can try to mine this resource for my own incipient club. Although the expert was attending college on a chess scholarship, while most of us are the equivalent of golf duffers (the chess term is actually the unceremonious "patzer", or the demeaning "fish"), the entire experience was one of participation over all.
I like church hymns because the whole congregation sings. I like ambient music because it offers the possibility of universal participation. Without meaning, quite, to sound as though I've put on bell bottoms and developed a desire to teach the world to sing, I have come to believe that participation of all is critical to the arts, and that the role of passive listener, like the role of passive sports fan, is inherently limiting. It's not that "everyone can pay a fiddle" (though all can, in point of fact, play a kazoo or autoharp). It's that instrumental competence, in a world freed of rigid song structures, can be put to inventive uses, and those without instrumental competence can still play when music is the creation of ambient sound.
I'm not on a crusade, but I am aware of the limitations of music, and the ineffable beauty of sound.