Mark Prendergrast’s The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance – The Evolution of Sound In the Electronic Age is an enthusiastic and exhaustive tour through a century’s worth of biography of the music’s creators and disseminators.
Included are early-twentieth century fathers Mahler, Satie, Debussy, Ravel; mid-century pioneering electronic composers Varese, Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez; Minimalists Young, Riley, Reich, Glass, Eno; rock psychdelicists the Beatles, Hendrix, the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd; synthesizer giants Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream; and the contemporary electronic music explosion begun by Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder in the late-’70s, followed by House, Techno, and at last, the actual genre of “Ambient” music (as opposed to the much broader “ambience” of every artist in this book) in the ’90s, as exemplified by the KLF, Art of Noise, Aphex Twin, and William Orbit, to name but a very few.
The book is also filled with often trenchant analysis and an almost unerring ear for musical “ambience” wherever it may rear its mellifluous head.
While the book is of great value to musicologists, industry professionals, and very intense music fans, the layman may find its bulk overwhelming, its prose rather humorless – at times wooden – and its structure relentless. I have a deep interest in the subject, discovered an almost telepathic agreement with the author’s musical taste (spending over $400 on recommended CD’s), was charmed by his childlike wonder regarding his favorite selections, and learned a vast amount about the musical history of this century.
But even I, perhaps the author’s ideal reader, found myself longing for the occasional humorous, exciting, or titilating anecdote to enliven the biographical sketches, and wishing profoundly for tighter editing – twice as long isn’t necessarily twice as good.
By this point the alert reader may be asking, “What exactly is ‘ambient’ music anyway?” A reasonable question, and one that, unfortunately, goes unanswered by the author even after 473 pages of text.
Ultimately for me, the book’s virtues overwhelm its flaws, but for many this lack of a clear definition of the book’s subject, and the lack of any firm philosophical underpinning for why this music is important, or why anyone who doesn’t already care about the subject should give a fig, are perhaps mortal blows.
For my own sanity and edification, please indulge a vision of ambient music as distilled from Prendergrast’s book: Conceive of a connection to existence that is at once micro- and macrocosmic: what is you is indistinguishable from what is not you – perhaps all is you – weightless, amorphous, buoyant on an aether zephyr, bandied gently by eddies of scintillating particles about the vastness of time and space. An explosion – or is it implosion – of vision reveals light as just another flavor of energy, one of laughably many. You sway to a pulse in the very fabric of being, a pulse that awakens a celestial symphony of tones, as every jot and tittle sings its song with mathemagical purity – each song utterly selfish, their harmonic blending utterly selfless.
On the other hand, perhaps such effluvium is exacly why the author never attempts a similar definition nor establishes an aesthetic foundation for the music lest he appear somewhat unhinged, or drugged, the latter of which would not be an unreasonable assumption as unreserved drug use (especially hallucinogenics like LSD, mescaline, and Ecstasy), intense spirituality, or both, figure prominently in the life and work of virtually every musician profiled in this book. It is strange indeed to read such a serious and intellectually rigorous a book that takes such an uncritical, downright Pollyannish view of drug use.
Throughout the entire book I was waiting for Prendergrast to say, “Just kidding,” as he gushed about LSD opening the doors of perception for the psychedelic generation of the ’60s, or Ecstasy changing “the course of popular music at the end of the twentieth century, effecting the way it was made, listened to and enjoyed…After the three- or four-hour high, Ecstasy had a slow glowing comedown, perfect for listening to quieter music. Hence Ambient [music] became popular…”
All of this may be true, but even Timothy Leary acknowledged various potential downsides to drug use, including psychosis, disregard for personal hygiene, and death.
The term “ambient music” was coined by one of the book’s heroes Brian Eno in the ’70s as he attempted to “synthesize the work of the primary Minimalist composers and bring it into the mainstream.” Eno variously described the music as “an immersive, environmental experience,” and “music that would take on the hues of the environment just as the color of the light and the sound of the rain,” which is rather subjective but can be reasonably applied to most of the music discussed in the book.
Other commonalities include a “lightness,” a “transcendence,” a “coolness,” and the influence of non-Western trance musics from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Interestingly, the author includes virtually no actual non-Western music in his book, just the Western music it influenced. I have no argument whatsoever with the author’s “Essential 100 Recordings of Twentieth-century Ambience,” an invaluable guide to the music – it is, in fact, perhaps the best definition of ambience extant.