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Unrecognisable but Intriguing: What is Ambient Music Anyway?

When Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978 with a manifesto that outlined his vision for a new environmental music saying it “must be ignorable as it is interesting,” he made a connection between a musical genre and mode of listening that stretches as far back as Erik Satie’s Furniture Music in the 1920’s and has continued to have far reaching consequences. There have been many modes of listening identified in the last 100 years, some of which include the critique of passive listening identified by Theodor Adorno (1941), the regulatory background music of Muzak, acousmatic listening (Schaeffer 1952), John Cage’s writing’s on silence, Silence (1961), Schafer’s soundscape (1973), Deep Listening (Oliveros 1988), everyday listening (Buxton, Gaver and Bly 1994), forensic listening (Hamdan 2011) and ubiquitous listening (Kassabian 2013) all describe conditions of certain contexts of listening. Whilst Eno does not explicitly reference this dialectic of which he was both a product and contributor in his manifesto, except as a response to Muzak, his desire for an “environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres” managed to find appeal in popular culture as well as a place in academic literature. “I’m pleased that the idea has stuck around so long and keeps sprouting off in all sorts of directions: it comes back round to me like Chinese whispers – unrecognisable but intriguing,” says Eno of the evolution of ambient music in 1996. Now twenty-odd years later, the ubiquitous use of the ambient tag has led to such an aesthetic departure from Eno’s initial offering, that it is hard to pinpoint where the genre ends and the ambient mode of listening begins.

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Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa




© 2012 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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