Ambient Music as Popular Genre: Historiography, Interpretation, Critique.

Szabo, Victor, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Maus, Fred, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Coffey, Edward, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Gordon, Bonnie, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Puri, Michael, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia

In September 1978, Brian Eno coined the term “Ambient music” to describe a type of audio recording designed to create atmosphere. Ambient music, he proposed, should foster calm while registering doubt, and accommodate various different levels of listening attention. Since Eno’s proposal, Ambient music has become a genre of drone- and loop-based electronic music within the popular music market.

This dissertation examines several key recordings in the formation of the Ambient genre of popular music, with focus on releases from the U.S. and England between the late 1960s and early 1990s. Through music analyses of these recordings, as well as media analyses of their promotional rhetoric, this dissertation traces the sonic tropes and social practices discursively organized by the “Ambient” label. It describes how Ambient music serves users as a means of relaxing, regulating mood, and fostering an atmosphere or sense of place. Unlike most extant accounts of the genre, it also explores how Ambient recordings reflect aesthetically upon their instrumentality through musical techniques, metaphors, and moods. A survey of approximately one-hundred Ambient listeners rounds out the study, illuminating from a diachronic perspective how reception practices relate to the production and interpretation of Ambient recordings.

Chapters 1 and 3 examine two proto-Ambient recordings from the Environments series of LPs (Atlantic, 1969–78), released by Syntonic Research, Inc. These analyses elucidate the aesthetics and technological uses that have since consolidated Ambient music as a genre, with special focus on shifting attitudes toward consumer technology in the Western environmental and countercultural movements. Chapter 2 compares and contrasts Environments with recordings from the concurrently emerging Acoustic Ecology movement.

Chapters 4 and 5 investigate various artistic and conceptual practices that
informed Brian Eno’s conception of Ambient music. Chapter 4 identifies precedents for Eno’s concept in the experimental avant-garde practices of Erik Satie, John Cage, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich. Chapter 5 analyzes the title recording on Eno’s Discreet Music album (Obscure, 1975), placing its production in the context to 1960s and ‘70s English experimentalism, as well as the research field of cybernetics. It concludes with a media analysis of the record as a consumer product, illustrating how the elimination of authorial intention in experimental composition and cybernetics translates into popular art.

Chapters 6 and 7 outline Ambient music’s explicit emergence as a term in the popular music market. Chapter 6 examines Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (Editions E.G., 1978) through a comparative analysis with The Black Dog’s Music for Real Airports (Soma Quality Recordings, 2010), illuminating the relevance of Ambient music’s contexts of consumption to interpretation. It concludes with a brief reading of Eno’s On Land (Editions E.G., 1982), which cemented Ambient music’s significance within private, individualized reception. Chapter 7 concludes the study with an overview of various recordings by The Orb, KLF, Mixmaster Morris, and Pete Namlook in the “ambient house” subgenre of electronic dance music, illustrating their connections with the aesthetic themes and promotional discourses of earlier Ambient recordings.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
ambient music, genre, popular music recordings, minimalism, counterculture, experimentalism, experimental music, electronic music, avant-garde, electronica, taste, acoustic ecology, new age, Brian Eno, automation, drone, loops, music technology, music in everyday life, sound studies, transportation, psychedelic music, ambience, atmosphere
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