Ambient music’s place in the age of overstimulation

Ambient music is enjoying a small moment in the sun, but why? What has changed since the genre first came to fruition in the 1970s?

Musical trends are often directly antithetical to wider society’s. In the late ’60s, counterculture boomed against rigid political structures, so too did punk in the ’70s. Grunge was a reaction to the grandiose absurdity of glam and late ’80s pop, and the explosion of indie music in the ’90s rejected the increasingly homogenous chokehold that a few major players had over the entertainment industry.

In contemporary society we’re more switched on than ever; devices in our pockets link us not only to every other person in the world, but every single piece of recorded media. The world is loud, which is precisely why more and more people are choosing to switch off by listening to environmental, minimal, or ambient music.

ambient music steve hauschildt strands
Image: Cover Art of ‘Strands’ by Steve Hauschildt

To say a overstimulating world equals a need for relaxing pleasures is a simplification; there are more factors at play when it comes to one’s taste in art. To find out exactly what has made ambient music so attractive to modern listeners, we enlisted the opinions of a few key artists in the space.

First I reached out to Alex Albrecht, half of electronic music group Albrecht La’Brooy and the head of Analogue Attic Recordings – one of the few Australian labels putting out ambient music. He believed that contemporary listening habits were in line not only with increased connectivity, but a broader acknowledgement of mental well-being.

“I think we are certainly more aware of personal wellness and overstimulation these days and I’m sure some people actively listen to ambient music with that in mind. I’d like to think so anyway! There’s also a big movement surrounding music to fall asleep to, which is something we have explored a bit recently.”

“The fact that we have access to more music than every before right at our fingertips means it’s easier for people to find something that caters to their immediate mindset.”

Self-care moments are certainly on the rise, but Alex touches on another great point; the popularity of long-form audio media such as podcasts, compilation channels, or live streams. Tens of thousands of Youtube users are tuned into live channels featuring relaxing, downtempo, or ambient music streams as we speak. There’s even an upload of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song stretched out to 38 minutes which has clocked 1.4 million views.

Meanwhile in podcast world, this year Spotify allocated between $400 and $500 million to invest in original podcasts, and the amount of Australians downloading podcasts each month has risen from just under one million in 2014 to 1.6 million in 2018. True, this doesn’t speak to the popularity of ambient music, but the two mediums do serve a similar purpose for many.

I also wanted to ask Alex, being one of the few bastions of the ambient genre in Australia, if he thought our locale had any effect on the music his label puts out.

“A laidback attitude can manifest from the time, space, and access to nature we have in Australia, and if you let it, it can come through in the music.”

Nature certainly plays a large part in what contemporary ambient music has become; the latest Albrecht La’Brooy album being an example. Healesville is decorated by sample of bird trills, tractor noises, and distant voices, the perfect remedy for anyone attempting a mind-escape from the city noise.

It calls to mind a genre closely allied to new age and ambient called ‘environmental music’, which also bloomed in the ’70s with a sound more rooted in natural samples as well as meditative and spiritual practices. Outside of contemporary producers calling back to these gentler sonics, a new market has also allowed for historical releases such as the wonderful Kankyō Ongaku to become one of 2019’s most talked about reissues.

The liner notes of Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music For Airports (many name this as the moment the term ‘ambient’ was coined, but that’s up for debate) decreed that “ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular, it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

In other words, it’s background music. Technically any music can be background music if you listen to it in the background – but in ambient music’s case, often it’s the artist’s intent that you withhold your full attention. More than that, in speaking to a number of composers it has become clear that not only is it therapeutic for listeners, but for those who make it as well.

On his motivations to make this kind of music, Alex Albrecht shared:

“The conduciveness to improvisation and musical conversation, as well as the gentle nature, makes it a therapeutic way to make music.”

For Steve Hauschildt, a fantastic electronic producer based out of Chicago and signed to Ghostly International, the motivation to make this kind of music is more ephemeral.

“I’m not usually trying to implicitly adhere to the rules and expectations of a genre when I’m in the studio, so if it evokes those qualities of ambient music it’s happening purely on a subliminal level.”

“However, I think there’s something to be said about emphasising the practice of listening and this is intrinsic to ambient music in much more concrete ways than popular music for example. My motivation comes from an innate desire to express the ineffable via sound.”

Hauschildt’s recordings aren’t purely ambient; releases such as 2013’s S/H or Where All Is Fled contain moments of thumping percussion or attention-demanding synth swells. His softer compositions are part of an output which covers a wider sonic scope – and interestingly, he saw ambient’s recent popularity differently to Albrecht.

“There is some degree of correlation between overstimulation and listening to very slow and repetitive music. It’s difficult for me or anyone to quantify popularity with regards to the idea of genre within music as it’s a relative idea very much reliant on context. No ambient artist will ever reach the same sort of appeal or commercial success as Billie Eilish for obvious reasons. There are levels of popularity and it’s important to delineate between major and independent labels even though the lines have been blurred.”

“Fundamentally, the construct of popularity is counter-intuitive to music which seeks to be unobtrusive. But it doesn’t mean that success or relative popularity doesn’t exist within that small niche that we happen to be aware of – just on a different scale. We are definitely seeing a blowback against the fact that we are spending a lot of time on our phones and computers so I’m sure some of this seeps into the musical domain.”

Where these two musicians’ opinions synced back up was in terms of delivery of sound; how the absurdly easy way we consume music right now relates to the rise in popularity of certain listening experiences.

“I don’t think the purpose [of ambient music] has changed much since its inception. The change has more to do with how it’s delivered to and heard by the audience. Honestly I think that the distillation of ambient into ‘background music’ or ‘wallpaper music’ is quite functionally congruent with people putting on algorithmic playlists and not always thinking about what to play.”

“Outside of this, the increasing accessibility and affordability of recording equipment and electronic instruments over the last forty years has also greatly democratised the ability to make ambient music which has shifted and fractured it in mostly positive ways.”

Music streaming has changed many things, one criticism it often faces being that listeners are identifying with artists less and less. Songs become meaningless stops on a 129-track playlist, and often the very names of the artists who create these beautiful, catchy, and often hugely popular songs go completely unremembered.

But isn’t that the point of this so-called background music? To morph into a state unrecognised, but to still provide a listener with the pleasure or relaxing feeling they’re seeking? Invisibility brought on by the ‘playlist effect’ really isn’t that different from Brian Eno or Aphex Twin titling the songs on their ambient albums with simple numbers or gibberish.

What has become clear is that the purpose of ambient music never changed, just as Hauschildt says. Rather the need for it has increased.

If this truly is the age of information and overstimulation, it’s no surprise that more and more listeners are yearning for something quieter, something relaxing, or something that evokes the feeling of being amongst nature. It may never be popular to the mainstream world at large – but to a growing niche of humans just searching for a moment’s quiet? Why not.