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Fractured ambience

I’ve taken to calling my electronic work “fractured ambient.” I like the phrase, but right now that’s all it is. A phrase.

And I’m deciding whether or not it really works. Looking at history usually helps sort things out.


A (very small) bit of history, plus a definition

Erik Satie is often invoked as the originator of ambient music. Listen to Music D’ameublement, though, and you’ll wonder why. But then listen to the Gymnopedies and it’s pretty obvious. This is serious chill.

Brian Eno coined the term “ambient”. Eno’s concept of ambience is music that can be either actively listened to or used as background, depending on whether the listener chooses to pay attention or not. It’s been a highly influential if not entirely original idea, at best informing the resurgence of electronic ambient via the dance world, at worst being taken to its passive extreme by many creators of “relaxation” music.

If you want a straight up definition, here’s Wikipedia: “…a genre of music that puts an emphasis on tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm. Ambient music is said to evoke an “atmospheric”, “visual”[2] or “unobtrusive” quality.”


A nice description

Here’s how Joshua Rothman in his New Yorker article “The Discreet Charm of Ambient Music” describes the experience of listening to Eno’s “Lux.”

… you’re equally aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing and making: the traffic in the street, your own breathing, the keys on the keyboard, the creaks in the floorboards, the rustle of your clothes when you move. You’re also more in touch with the small inflections in your own moods. Each key change, and each new instrument, with its new timbre, is an opportunity to measure the difference between the feeling of the music and your state of mind. “Lux” is fascinating as music. But it also makes the world more fascinating. It’s a catalyst for consciousness and self-awareness.


Fractured ambience

Fractured ambience subverts this to some extent by introducing noise, environmental sound, and spoken word. So is it still ambient in any conventional sense? Is it – as Wikipedia says – atmospheric, visual, unobtrusive?

It’s definitely atmospheric and visual. Unobtrusive? I’m not so sure.

More than a lot of ambient music, it pulls you towards it (resulting in a less meditative, take-it-or-leave-it type of experience). But it still immerses you in a sonic texture that, as Rothman says, makes you aware of the way that it frames the other sounds you’re hearing.

In my next posts, I’ll look at artists who I think are taking a fractured approach.

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