The beauty of synthetic ambient music

In the opening lecture of Craig Write’s Listening to Music course at Yale, he mentions a popular reason for listening to classical music: its capacity to envision a better world. Everyday life may be plagued by politics, porn addiction and popular culture, but if you listen to the right music, you can be privy to a world free of these taunting voices.

This reminded me of brilliant documentary about a middle aged Canadian metal band who had their 15 minutes of fame in the 80s and then faded into obscurity. About halfway in, the quiet bandmember reveals his paintings, and discusses how he likes to depict scenes empty of people. Scenes that are calming in their lack of human complication. This made immediate sense to me; as a teenager I was blessed by my family’s two springer spaniels and close proximity to a climbable hill, and I attribute my – relative – calm to the habit of escaping there after school. I could look over my shitty suburban town with a distance that obliterated all human voices other than those in my headphones.

In the last year I’ve enjoyed records whose use of the human voice inverts gaze directly onto its creator. I’m sick of interchangeable Simon Cowellian singers, I want records that push the human voice into other places, records like Mark Pritchard’s Beautiful People, Connie Constance’s Answer and most of the tracks on Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino’s 2016 lps. They force the listener to picture a face moulded into limp relaxation, taut fear or sweat-drenched euphoria. I listen to music for the same reason I study Anthropology and studied Philosophy; I’m fascinated by people, and no other artform allows such intense scrutiny.

This effect is explained by Roland Barthes’ The Grain of the Voice, which describes the union between the bodies of a listener and a performer, how a great voice can transport its owner out of speakers and into minds. The grain of a great song is the tangible, extra-sonic presence communicated by a track, ‘as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings’. Such music doesn’t float free of its source, it carries it alongside; the grain of a Nirvana track may be the drums battered to melting point by Dave Grohl, violently shaking the world around them. I like a novel with good imagery, but a book’s text has never been able to cause the same involuntary visions as music can for me.

But there’s the catch; involuntary. Sometimes music can offer escape by revealing a better world painted by honest human expression. But sometimes this isn’t enough. Sometimes I want to escape people, their loves and fears and desires, their wincing faces and taught knuckles and swollen lungs. Like Anvil’s drummer, I want to escape to a quiet world without the interruption of inter-dimensional travellers.

This escape is afforded by the best synthetic music, music that is directly programmed rather than performed. It does not evoke images of a human mouth or human hands manipulating instruments; there are no echoes because the music originates in binary code, not vibration. The term ‘ambient music’ refers to genre’s capacity to slot into the listener’s surroundings, and I think that synthetic music’s failure to communicate a clear ‘grain’ explains why it is so well-suited to the job. When I’ve found myself in a state of stressful heightened awareness, the hardest thing to deal with has been other people; what impact am I having on them, do they pose a threat to me, do they expect something from me, etc. Music with a grain makes one aware of human presence, and this can carry with it the implicit strains of contact. Even if you can overcome the irrational concern for someone who isn’t physically there, reminders of real relationships can still carry stress. Sometimes you want to be enjoy the calming effects of music whilst still feeling alone. Synthetic ambient music achieves this by ticking both of my first two paragraphs’ boxes, opening a world that is ‘better’ in its harmonious beauty, and ‘quiet’ in its lack of a human grain.

That’s not to say that synthetic music isn’t expressive. Huerco S’s gorgeous lp For Those Who Have Never… carries the languid mood of its creator; its creative process offered him meditation and often induced him to drifted into sleep, something he remembers fondly. When recording Low, a record whose second half drifts into abstract ambience, David Bowie was inspired by the German Brucke art movement. Its expressionist painters used landscapes as ‘a vehicle to communicate the inner state’, depicting hills and fields in a way that said nothing about hills and fields, using a separate object to describe the subject. The important aspect of this kind of deeply abstract, expressionist art was that it did not directly force the subject upon the viewer. One would have to scrutinise the artwork in order to find human echoes. If this wasn’t what you wanted, you could simply gaze into this odd, quiet world.