Book Review: Music Beyond Airports - Appraising Ambient Music


    Let me start out this review by saying something a little different:
    I'm very happy to have the opportunity to recommend a book to you that every single reader here can easily acquire for themselves for free. Yes, you read that right.
    Don't get me wrong here: I am not recommending this book to you because it's inexpensive as a way of atoning for reviews of considerably more expensive volumes I've penned from time to time. Rather, I think it's the kind of book that appears at the right time, full of insight, variety, and analysis on a subject quite a lot of us are interested in. The ease with which we can acquire it means that more of us can read and consider its contents, and perhaps discuss them.
    The proximate cause of the gathering from which this book emerged was the Ambient@40 conference held at Huddersfield University in 2018 that coincided with the 40th anniversary (no, really) of the release of the first of the four Ambient Music releases – Music for Airports. As the title suggests, the essayists at work in this volume aren’t concentrating their attention on the original recording (If you’re interested in that, I’d recommend you seek out John Lysaker's book on the subject which is a part of the Oxford University Press' Keynote series), but instead in how the world (and the whole definition of “ambient music” itself) has changed and developed since that initial release release. The contributing writers are interested in ambient music not so much as a fenced-off genre, but as a developing aesthetic with ideas about appropriation, process, strategy, and influence. The pieces in the volume vary widely in terms of scope, subject, and voice, and – I think – sketch out a lot of useful topics for personal reflection and public discussion.
    There are plenty of books out there – scholarly and more popular – about Brian Eno and the music he created, but a good deal less writing that takes a run at thinking and talking critically about the genre itself. In addition, nearly all of the major books on that subject were written around or shortly after the turn of the millennium. The books I'd pull from my shelf and recommend to a student or a friend as a way to start those conversations – Seth Kim-Cohen’s Against Ambience, Mark Prendergast’s The Ambient Century, Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, and David Toop’s Ocean of Sound are my mainstays here – all provide a solid foundation from which to start, but they are few in number.
    Despite the updates and revisions associated with new editions of each book, they’re also snapshots of a particular time period; Many of the critiques in Against Ambience echoed those leveled against the Minimalist music of the time in ways that may be less provocative now. The possible future David Toop laid out in his Ocean of Sound has, in some ways, turned out very different in Web’s current dispensation, and so on. I’m sure that each of us might have very different updates for the exhaustive listings found in a contemporary volume of The Ambient Century. The crisis of global warming has thrown the thesis of Ecology Without Nature into even sharper relief and impelled us to consider formulations for "Nature" which may lie not only outside or Romantic views of nature, but western cultural forms of thought as well.
    The essays in Music Beyond Airports provides a great place to consider those changes and to move the discussion in new directions more informed by current practice.
    I don't really want to spoil the fun of discovering the breadth and depth of the subject matter covered in the volume, but I would like to give you an admittedly personal short list/taste of what's inside. I expect that every reader will find something of interest to them personally, but these are the bits that got me going....
    • The two most surprising essays in terms of knocking me a little sideways in terms of expectations were and David Toop's Keynote address, which considers narratives about sound and listening whose source is located in a place I would not have looked - literature (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and Margery Kempe, among others) to argue for the notion of ambient music as a state of mind “attuned to inclusivity rather than an industry genre whose aesthetic integrity depends upon withdrawal” (to quote editor Monty Adkins). In the book's final essay, Axel Berndt talks about the technological implementation of ambient music structures within computer game sound. He's thinking here about generative structure, among other things, and lays out a taxonomy of adaptive music techniques that site the notions of process associated with ambient music in a place you might not expect. I expect that his taxonomy will be of considerable interest to those whose work sits somewhere between the realms of ambient music and installation.
    • Critiques and reflections on ambient work by practitioners of the form are also in evidence. Monty Adkins, – whose acousmatic music I long admired, has moved into what – for me – is some of the most interesting ambient work being done – provides a discussion on the reintroduction of Brian Eno's notion of 'doubt and uncertainty' in terms by disrupting the surface prettiness that characterizes much ambient work by means of noise, atmosphere, and fragility. Richard Talbot (Marconi Union) discusses the sense in which ambient work explores the nature and role of space in relation to how listeners inhabit simulated spaces, and the ability to create backgrounds which recontextualize our perceptions of the foreground.
    • Casting their eyes outside of Eno's original recordings, Lisa Colton and Justin Morey examine the role of sampling in early ambient works - Colton provides an interesting gendered analysis of the representation of Hildegarde von Bingen's work in 1990s new age/ambient releases, while Morey looks at the sampled materials in the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds" and their extra-musical implications.
    Here's a listing of the entire contents of the volume. I'm sure there'll be a title here to catch your eye:
    Monty Adkins: Fragility, Noise, And Atmosphere In Ambient Music
    Axel Berndt: Adaptive Game Scoring With Ambient Music
    Lisa Colton: Channelling The Ecstasy Of Hildegard Von Bingen: “O Euchari” Remixed
    Simon Cummings: The Steady State Theory: Recalibrating The Quiddity Of Ambient Music
    Ambrose Field: Space In The Ambience: Is Ambient Music Socially Relevant?
    Ulf Holbrook: A Question Of Background: Sites Of Listening
    Justin Morey: Ambient House: “Little Fluffy Clouds” And The Sampler As Time Machine
    Richard Talbot: Three Manifestations Of Spatiality In Ambient Music
    David Toop: How Much World Do You Want? Ambient Listening And Its Questions Don't pass this one by, folks.
    Music Beyond Airports: Appraising Ambient Music Edited by Monty Adkins and Simon Cummings University of Huddersfield Press, 2019 ISBN: 1862181616