Artforum JANUARY 1995 - by Simon Reynolds


In Brian Eno's original definition, "ambient" simply meant "environmental" - it was music as decor, a subliminal accompaniment to everyday life. Later, with Eno's On Land, it was psychogeographic music, an evocation of real or imaginary landscapes. In the last four years, in Britain, Europe, and increasingly America, something called "ambient techno" has evolved out of the postrave phenomenon of chill-out music. A genre unto itself, it is based around albums more than twelve-inch singles, and has its own stellar artists (Pete Namlook, The Irresistible Force, Future Sound Of London, Biosphere, The Orb). Whatever its stylistic debts to Eno, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, et al., this nouveau ambient is closer in spirit to New Age, swaddling the listener in the stresses of urban existence.

Inevitably there's been a reaction against this dozy, cozy pleasance in the form of a sort of ambient noir. On his recent Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, Aphex Twin shifted from the idyllic, Satie-esque naïveté of early tracks like Analogue Bubblebath to clammy, foreboding sound-paintings. Aphex Twin and fellow ambient noir-ists like Seefeel and David Toop & Max Eastley have drifted away from rave and into the vicinity of "isolationism." This term, coined by critic Kevin Martin, describes a loose network of disenchanted refugees from rock (Main, Final, Scorn, Disco Inferno, E.A.R.) and experimental musicians (Zoviet France, Thomas Koner, Jim O'Rourke).

In England recently all of the above, plus another thirteen avant-rock and postrave units, were corralled onto a landmark, internationally ranging compilation, masterminded by Martin and titled Isolationism. It's the fourth in Virgin UK's best-selling series A Short History Of Ambient, which, ironically, has ridden the crest of the chill-out boom - ironically because isolationism breaks with all of ambient's feel-good premises. Isolationism is ice-olationist, offering cold comfort. Instead of pseudopastoral peace, it evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath.

Musically, isolationism still shares many attributes with ambient. First, the emphasis on texture and timbre: many tracks on Isolationism are a fog of numinous drones, generated by effects-processed guitars, samplers, or, in Koner's case, the long decay of gongs. Second, the absence of rhythm: if there's percussion, it's either a metal-on-metal death knell (Null/Plotkin's Lost (Held Under)) or a gamelan-style texture (Paul Schutze's Hallucinations). Third, it adheres to Eno's dictate that ambient music should be uneventful.

Instead of being lulling and reassuring, however, isolationist repetition induces a pregnant unease, an aura of desolation. Where ambient techno is melodious (sometimes recalling program music or the naïveté of a child's music box), isolationism favors musique concrete, dissonance, and microtonality; where ambient's sequencer bass patterns reassure, isolationism's loops tend to be unresolved, creating suspense; in place of ambient's halcyon reverb, isolationism uses an echo that is cavernous and metallic.

Toop, a critic as well as a musician, recently wrote of how certain strands of contemporary music reflect "the sensation of nonspecific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future," and argued that this sensation was the other side of the coin to a sensation of nonspecific bliss. This bliss/dread notion fits with the way isolationism turns ambient inside out, so that the sonic traits (hypnotic loops, amorphous drones) that elsewhere signify a plateau of orgasmic/mystic bliss (in techno) or serenity (in ambient) induce the opposite sensations: slow-burning panic, dissociation, disorientation. With isolationism, the absence of narrative signifies not utopia but entropy, paralysis. But there's still a neurotic jouissance to be gleaned from this music; it's a victory over what Brian Massumi calls "ambient fear," the omnipresent low-level anxiety of the late-twentieth-century mediascape. By immersing yourself in the phobic, you make it your element.

Toop & Max Eastley's Burial Rites (Phosphorescent) is one of the best tracks on Isolationism. Other isolationist artists withdraw from a paranoiac reality into a kind of sanctuary of sound. Unlike ambient techno (which models itself on that pseudowomb the flotation tank), isolationism's idea of utopia is empty space. If this music evokes mind's-eye images of unpopulated expanses, it's because it's purged of all the normal signifiers of "humanity" or "sociability" in pop (vocals, lyrics, a funky beat). Koner has recorded a series of albums inspired by Antarctica, while other isolationist pieces induce reveries of deserts, tundra, subterranean grottoes, postapocalyptic wastelands, or virgin planets. Typically, the music suggests extremes of climate or temperature - Zoviet France's Daisy Gun conjures up the polar twilight in Siberia, Total's Six is as astigmatic to the ears as staring into a blast furnace is for the eyes. The common denominator is inclement environments, hostile to human life.

What is the appeal of these morbid reveries, so different from the oceanic surge of "intimate immensity" that you get from cosmic rock or ambient techno? John Carey has diagnosed the tendency of Modernist writers to fantasize about world destruction or mass annihilation as a response to a verminously overpopulated planet. [1] The empty landscape/soundscape seems connected to a heightened, fortified sense of individuality; it relieves the perennial avant-gardist anxiety about disappearing in the morass of the masses, about the purity of art succumbing to the mush and pap of an abject popular culture. In another sense, the isolationist impulse, and its accompanying "face the future, brave the unknown!" rhetoric, may be a redirection, into inner space, of perennial male longings for the frontier, for a harsh, bracing wilderness fit for a rugged masculinity, and far from the soft options of domesticity.

If rave and rock culture are about creating some sort of community in the face of atomization, isolationism, with its fetish for asocial spaces, is a renunciation of that wishful solidarity. This is music that embodies and embraces the "death of the social," music impelled by a near-monastic impulse to flee pop culture's noisy hyper-activity for a rigorous esthetic of silence and sensory deprivation. At its ultimate degree, this impulse becomes a kind of estheticized death wish. Perhaps the rock precedent for isolationism is Nico's The Marble Index, of 1969, on which the Ice Queen's nihilist hymns are framed in John Cale's vistas of vitrified sound. Nico seems possessed by Freud's nirvana drive, a longing to revert to an inanimate, inorganic state, free of the irritation of fleshly, animal desire. Devoid of R&B's hot-blooded vitality, The Marble Index is one of the whitest albums ever.

Wide-ranging though it is, Isolationism also seems a bit Caucasian. Stretched just a little bit farther, it could encompass strains of modern black music with an aura of desolation and entropy, albeit reached via a different route: blues, dub reggae, and blunted rap. A burgeoning British genre of "ambient hip-hop" includes artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow, and above all Tricky (just check the titles of his brilliant singles Aftermath (Hip Hop Blues) and Ponderosa). And there's London's jungle scene, drawing on hip-hop, techno, and raga for a sound and mood more like dub reggae gone ballistic. Jungle's hyperkinetic drum 'n' bass is designed, like dub, for ganja smokers.

But devoid of Rastafarianism's utopian hope, jungle's apocalypse is faithless: dread without Zion. One strand of jungle, "dark/ambient," combines treacherous break-beats and minefield bass with soothing heavenly textures: a mishmash that expresses, nonverbally, its audience's divided impulses - to lose themselves in amnesiac bliss and to stay vigilant, to flee and to face down "inner city pressure."

Every manifestation of life is accompanied by noise. Noise is thus familiar to our ear and has the power of immediately recalling life itself. - Luigi Russolo, Arte dei rumori (The Art Of Noises), 1913

Gimme two records and I'll make you a universe. - DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, 1994

In 1914, the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo reconstructed entire soundscapes - sounds of war, sounds of the dense urban environment - to create The Awakening Of The City, an attempt to represent the urban landscape from the sounds it generated. A journalist wrote of the piece,

At first a quiet even murmur was heard. The great city was asleep... Presently, a faraway noise rapidly grow into a mighty roar. I fancier it must have been the roar of the huge printing machines of the newspapers... I was right, as a few seconds later hundreds of vans and motor lorries seemed to he hurrying towards the station, summoned by the shrill whistling of the locomotives. Later, the trains were heard, speeding boisterously away; then a flood of water seemed to wash the town, children crying and girls laughing under the refreshing shower. A multitude of doors was next heard to open and shut with a bang, and a procession of receding footsteps intimated that the great army of bread-winners was going to work. Finally, all the noises of the street and factory merged into a gigantic roar, and the music ceased. I awoke as though from a dream and applauded. [2]

The template of the human environment that Russolo used for his virtual landscape has today become a telemetry of projections made concrete through electronic devices. Still, living in New York today one has that same sense of being carried away by the sounds that everyday life - and its simulations - generates. The streets, the density, the immersion in the ebb and flow of the tides of the urban landscape, are the informing characteristics of New York City ambient.

The New York ambient scene is smaller and more experimental than its British counterpart. People congregate in living rooms, exchange mix tapes, and flock in the small lounges where the music is played. These parties often change location: three of New York's first well-known ambient parties, Lalandia, The Abstract Lounge, and The Electric Lounge Machine, have mutated into successors that are still going on. Parties like Molecular in the East Village, Chiaroscuro in the meat-packing district, and FFWD on the Lower East Side are not so much social gatherings as sites for conceptual sound art.

At Chiaroscuro you enter a room bathed in lavender light, a sidereal illumination that caresses your eyes and displaces your sense of temporal continuity. Cool fluid tones swirl through the space among the listeners, who are dispersed in a pattern that allows everyone their own space. The image of the room is flow: the world blurring, smearing upward with the transient sounds of the performance. Liquid sound filters over your body as your gaze roves through the room's disjointed architecture of human projections. With interstellar space as its referent, the music, abstract radiant wind given motion by the turntables and tone banks, floods the room in a current of kinaesthetic symbols of sound and sentiment.

Amorphous and decentered, ambient almost perfectly fits Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's view of music as a form that "has always sent out lines of flight, like so many 'transformational multiplicities', even overturning the very codes that structure or arborify it." Like the rhizome, music "is a stranger to any idea of genetic axis or deep structure." [3] Ambient, like the rhizome, is characterized by a sort of incidental drift. And like a map, it "is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification." [4]

In earlier music, ambient most obviously recalls the French musique concrete and the German elektronische musik movements of the mid-century. But there are other forerunners - the chants and koans of Tibetan monks, or the intensely repetitive music of Joujouka, in Morocco. Musics linked to ambient in spirit if not in form focus on peripheral reception by an audience - music like Kurt Weill's Gebraucbmusik (utility music) and Eric Satie's musique d'ameublement (furniture music), which use sound as environment. All these musics deal with both interior space and the locale in which the musical experience takes place. In ambient, sound becomes an extension of a neurolinguistic relationship between humans and the environment. There is no escape from that environment's sounds: breathing, car alarms, passing traffic, heartbeats, alarm-clock bleeps, footsteps, conversation on a busy street-corner, fax machines, radios, television sets, the rumble of subways, the cry of birds. Like Russolo's noise-generating devices, ambient music attempts to merge interior thought with the environment enveloping it.

I came to ambient music as a hip-hop and dance-hall-reggae DJ. I took my working name "Spooky" from the fact, humorous as it seemed, that this disembodied music that I loved - hip-hop, dance-hall, techno, ambient, future-jazz, space-dub - was itself a syntactic space reflecting the world I knew, because this strange "beatless" music seemed to embody the central talismans of consensual reality. Its displaced sounds represented the space between dreams to me. I took the latter part of my name, "The Subliminal Kid", from the character in William Burroughs' Nova Express who interacts with reality by manipulating tape loops, hoping that if the association lines that hold the past and present together are ruptured, the future will leak through.

A deep sense of fragmentation occurs in the mind of a DJ. When I came to DJing, my surroundings - an amazingly dense spectrum of imagery based on a value system grounded in late capitalism - seemed already to have constructed so many of my aspirations and desires for me; I felt like my nerves extended to all of these images, sounds, other people - that all of them were extensions of myself, just as I was an extension of them. Someone, somewhere, wrote, "In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion. The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by the loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things... [by] overexposure to the transparency of the world." [5] By creating an and logical structure of sounds based on collage, with myself as the only common denominator, the sounds come to represent me.

To me, ambient's aimless, hypnotic quality mirrors the multivalent and heterogenous process of memory. The Russian Futurist Velemir Khlebnikov believed in a "beyondsense", a universal language at the core of human expression: "The firestorm of our minds revolves around the idea of a communal beyonsense language and achieves the atomization of words into units of thought contained in an envelope of sounds." [6] Where Russolo invoked the image of the city without the substance of the city, the sounds of ambient bring forth an intangible, liminal series of unconnected thoughts, an emotional sculpture. This is what Khlebnikov anticipated. The sounds and their unfolding in time gain what facticity they have by endlessly cross-referenced webs of thought held together only by the memories they invoke.

To construct ambient sound, the ambient artist uses both electronic tones and samples of existing music and sounds. In ambient's alternate sonic reality, the barriers between the world of ideas and everyday contemporary reality dissolve. In its clubs and lounges, the music becomes part of the collective consciousness of the people gathered. It links them just like the murmur of the city streets. Disembodied yet derived from the corporate forms of electronics (loudspeakers and such), ambient mirrors wireless, diaphanous modes of human communication - the free-form interplay of words. Most Western music, even in improvisatory forms like jazz, has focused on the interplay of a performer with a previously created text, the final product being consumed by an appreciative audience. Ambient merges the roles of performer, composer, and listener.

Ambient is kinesthetic. It creates an implosion of consciousness while at the same time it grounds consciousness with the immediacy of the body. Dance becomes internalized, moving at the speed of thought. Whenever I DJ an ambient party, I have a feeling without parallel in the other forms of music that I spin - a sense of disconnectedness, which floats out and away to form a loop between me and those present, and binds us with the music in a fleeting dance of moments suspended in the tones that constitute our dialogue.

The common denominator of all ambient musics is a sense of openness: ambient is the open text of modern music culture. There are no barriers in this music, which can contain almost any tone, from the harshest guitar feedback to the smoothest rustle of water. The silences between the notes become broad and inclusive, creating a code of neurolinguistic experience. Though ambient may suggest the music of many past cultures' religious ceremonies, at the same time it has a contemporary, decentered identity - which is what allows all these elements to coexist in the same structure. Transforming tones into a text that is no longer sequential in the traditional sense, ambient is like a holophonic equivalent of the world, a space created by the music of a time where "all-at-onceness" has become the standard to which electronic information cleaves.

Ambient music seems to me a sort of electronic palimpsest in which languages fall and rise and falter over time. Its motifs generate their own opposition in the accumulated text of the songs; their elements triumph or fall, but are never wholly lost. The vernacular of these tone poems could encompass the world. The music shows an energy and dynamism in the heart of change. It demonstrates a world where possibility dominates consistency of vision, and both benefit. When I fell into the temporal vortex to which this musical palindrome had led me, it was spooky: I had heard the musical equivalent of cultural entropy. It was far from what I had expected: I had made space to become space, and that was all that mattered. As Luigi Russolo wrote in The Art Of Noises, "Let us go!"


1 John Carey, The Intellectuals And The Masses: Pride And Prejudice Among The Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939, London: Faber & Faber, 1992.

2 Luigi Russolo, The Art Of Noises, 1913, reprint ed. New York: Pendragon Press, 1986, pp. 4-5.

3 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism And Schizophrenia, 1980, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp. 11-12.

4 Ibid., p. 12.

5 Jean Baudrillard, quoted in the Critical Arts Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1994, p. 70.

6 Velemir Khlebnikov, The King of Time, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 151.