During the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how ambient music has the ability create a perceived space, and can make time feel malleable, too. The first ambient song I ever listened to on repeat was “#3” on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In high school I would listen to it while driving or falling asleep—it seemed to stretch on for so long. Whether this was because I had it on repeat, or because the song itself can seemingly hold so much time, I’m not sure. While the idea of sound creating a felt space is not new, it seemed to create an emptiness in my mind as well, a space for my thoughts to fill. Ambient music, by its own root etymology of ambire, means “going round”, and seems to form moods and spaces through repetition of form or sound—but to me it also seems to form a going round of mind and heart; a space for reflection.
In “The 16 Best Ambient Albums of 2020” from Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne says: “in a year in which many of us found ourselves staring at the walls for long periods of time, the notion of “wallpaper music” no longer seemed quite so trivial. More than any other genre, ambient frequently offers a kind of emotional blank slate, and its very featurelessness suits listeners in search of wildly divergent things: solace, transport, or even simple numbness.”
Listening to ambient music this year has felt different than it has previously. As we’ve been confined indoors more often, there is this feeling that I am not able to move around with the same amount of freedom as before. This lack of movement from place to place has made my world much smaller and self-contained. In many ways it’s been a warm turning inwards to be with my wife and son more—but also a time of challenging introspection. Ambient music has created a seemingly endless space within which to think and reflect, even amongst a certain confinement: a time of “staring at walls” if you will. I think there’s a strong connection between the sound we experience and the space we perceive. This isn’t necessarily visual space, as much as felt space, an aural environment of sorts.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says that “our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word […] the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamers, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Many of us have felt physically confined during this pandemic. Between global lockdowns, anxiety of being in public spaces, or other reasons for not going out, we have stayed in. And while this can feel like a burden, I think Bachelard might view it as an opportunity. Our home can be seen as a space for daydreaming, a small cosmos within which to consider the larger cosmos. It’s a safe place to return to.
I wish I was
Home where my thought's escapin'
Home where my music's playin'
—Simon & Garfunkel
Ambient music has provided a similar type of home base for reflection and daydreaming during this season. It also has this strange ability to mend our perception of time. Keith Whitman, while reviewing the “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” stated: “the appeal of ambient is ever apparent; much like a science project, when executed perfectly, the outcome yields the desired results: time becomes elastic, malleable.” While ambient music can create space, it has a dual nature that can certainly remove us from the space or time we inhabit as well.
One of my favorite albums this year is from Roberto Carlos Lange (who often performs as Helado Negro), and Kristi Sword. Kite Symphony, Four Variations is a multimedia project spanning music, performance, and visual art, and was initiated under Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas. “The artists are creating a new, non-linear, and impressionistic style film and live score, as well as a new body of sculptural work that explore the landscape of West Texas through wind, sound, and light.” Marfa Texas is the epitome of a southwestern sky: an expansive, open space filled with light and air. Listening to Four Variations, one can’t help but imagine the Texas sky dappled with clouds. The visuals and performance aspects in this piece are ephemeral, just like the wind itself. At one point, we hear a bee buzzing near the microphone, as if we were laying in the grass watching the clouds.
Maybe it’s just because Ohio is quite gloomy this time of year, but imagining a crisp, blue sky speckled with clouds, and feeling the wind and heat from the sun is refreshing. Either way, this piece from Lange and Sword demonstrates the ability of ambient music to create space, to shelter and foster imagination, and perhaps bring forward a grace-filled, healing moment of reflect. Even if brief, these moments can sometimes carry us forward for a long time.