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27 September, 2016

Devil’s Advocate: Ambient Music

B&W Mood

Is ambient music too easy? Is it a con? I’ve found myself wondering this today, in the wake of Pitchfork’s 50 Best Ambient Albums post of yesterday. It’s a genre I know and love. I’ve worked in ambient music for years, but Pitchfork’s article made me think.

Is ambient music an easy option? Is working in the genre the musical equivalent of an Instagram filter – something that lifts the mediocre and adds unwarranted depth? The very nature of the genre itself seems to add gravitas and depth to the music that would certainly not be there in a happy hardcore or Eurotrance track.

It is certainly very possible to get very good sounding results with minimal effort using programmes such as PaulStretch or granular synthesis app Borderlands. Load up the Crazy Frog greatest hits, whack it through those and you’ve got a minimal ambient tune of your own!

poldark

It reminds me that in an average episode of Poldark, you get about 15 minutes of wistful, longing shots of lead characters staring from cliff tops out beyond the horizon. Whilst this conveys unspoken depths about characters and their emotions, it’s also really easy to film. You plonk your actor in costume on top of a cliff, tell them to look at the sea, hope they don’t scratch their arse, apply your colour correction in AfterEffects, bish-bosh, the job’s a good ‘un.

So, does ambient music fall into this criteria? I’m sure some of it does, human nature being what it is. Is it possible to convey a similar depth of emotion through other electronic music genres? Of course it is, but is it harder to do so than in ambient music? I don’t really know the answer to these questions, but good ambient music must – and does – rise above this in-built, unearned depth.

This is a genre I love, and when it is done well it really does transport the listener to another place. Artists such as Loscil, Bvdub and the wonderful new Owlbinos of Northfields release are astonishing records capable of transporting the listener into wonderful new lands of their own thoughts.