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Ambient music, Satie, Eno and post-lockdown schedule mania

I suppose I (Ellie) should write about how things are opening up - it’s such a strange time for musicians as probably most of us are sitting on loads of music created over the last year, itching to play new songs in front of other humans and get the show on the road, the cat out of the bag, etc. Most bands seem to feel a little like pulled back elastic bands, and as things open up in the next couple of months we will slingshot our projects back out into the ether like ‘ta dah I’m alive here is my music!’ So, in this May journal post, before everything kicks off, I thought I’d just take a little chance to pause and reflect on one of the ways I have been enjoying the slow down of last year - with a new love of ambient music.

Right at the beginning of the first lockdown the three of us set ourselves a challenge to each compose and record a piece of ambient music exactly 10 minutes long.The brief was very simple - it was to be a doorway into a time of reflection, a response to the mass stillness that came with the whole country staying inside and also an effort to pay homage to one of our favourite pieces, ‘Discreet Music’ by Brian Eno.* We each produced these pieces entirely alone, and didn’t show each other until they were finished, which was a very new and strangely isolated process for a band all about collaboration!

While ambient music is a very broad genre, most commonly linked to ethereal sounding electronic pieces (read this article if you want a great introduction to it), the general idea is simply that it is music written to be part of the ‘ambience’ of the environment - or to be ‘as ignorable as it is interesting.’ As a genre it is said to have started in 1975 with Brian Eno and a legendary story involving a broken leg, 18th century harp music and a quiet turntable, although the idea has been traced back as far as 1917 to the French composer Erik Satie** who wrote pieces he described as ‘furniture music’ - created to blend into the environment like just another object in the room.

We have put together a short playlist of some of our favourite ambient pieces, which you can listen to here.

Music that is designed to be unobtrusive and hang in the air seems to bring with it a sense of being at peace with the environment in which it is played, and it also brings the listener into an awareness of the present moment. When stuck in bed listening to harp music at such a volume that it could only just be heard over the sounds of his environment, Brian Eno started to notice “the colour of the lights {and} the sound of the rain.” All at once the room where he was ‘stuck inside’ became itself part of a wider musical conversation. As the world starts to open up and speed up with new and exciting possibilities and distractions, perhaps listening to ambient music can help us get back to that little bit of perspective we gained from slowing down.

So before you book up every weekend on Dice or schedule a pub table every Saturday from now until September - let’s try not to forget the good bits about having to become part of the furniture for a little bit. And let’s tune into the ambience. See you at a show soon!

*Discreet music is an ethereal electronic piece made up of long slow repeating and intertwining synthesiser loops. For the music nerds among you, it was made by Eno taking a warm and gentle EMS synthesiser and sending it through a chain of audio units (an EQ, an echo unit, a tape machine) that affected the sound in random ways, then looping those sounds back into another tape machine, creating sound signals that randomly overlap.

**Interestingly, even though he wasn’t particularly recognised for his genius when he was alive, Satie’s work has been hugely influential throughout music history in lots of different ways. For example, he was also one of the first composers to use the ‘prepared piano’ technique (something we have been exploring more recently).


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