Needs more ambient

I was recently watching a DVD of a lecture by Will Wright and Brian Eno where Eno talked about what ambient music is, and it started to hit home that this is not going to be an ambient album. In particular he mentions ambient music just sort of flowing, and being a continuous presence in the background, and the experience should be more like watching a river than reading a novel. Well, this music has a lot of build ups, moments of tension and release, it does in fact try to grab your attention at times, and lately since I’ve been adding the drum parts I’ve realized it doesn’t even qualify for ambient under the broader “if it’s beatless, it’s ambient” definition that modern electronic acts have used. So this thing isn’t ambient at all, really. Whoops.

So, if it isn’t ambient, what is it? At this point in the project I’m hesitant to try to throw a label on it, because that would make me more likely to want to remix and re-do a lot of parts so that it sounds more like other music in that genre. And right now, I just want to finish this thing, whatever it is. So for now I am just thinking of it as an album of music that is supposed to sound more like our live performances: continuous, kind of free flowing, spacey, with moments where things lull and others where they build up and peak. One of the things people have told me about our live sets is that they don’t sound the same when you listen to them later. There is definitely something about the experience of hearing music live, for the first time, with your full attention, over a very loud sound system, and possibly not completely sober, that makes a recording of that same music sort of pale in comparison. Maybe this album could paradoxically get us closer to a recording of that live feeling, while being very much a studio recording. It’s a useful goal at least, that most importantly won’t sidetrack me. So, this is no longer an album of “ambient electronic” music, but now a “pseudo-live in the studio” experience. Well, that sounds really pretentious and makes me want to punch myself in the face just for writing it. So how about “music that makes you want to punch yourself in the face”? Now there’s a genre I could sign up for.

Anyway, another thing Eno mentioned in the lecture was that for an ambient musician you constantly struggle with trying to do less. As a composer, you want to keep adding parts, adding complexity, filling in all the holes in the song to keep things interesting. And you become so familiar with the song that you start filling up holes that really don’t need to be filled. So in writing music, the struggle becomes not writing more to make the song better, but using less, using only the most important parts, so it doesn’t become a cluttered unfocused mess. Similar thoughts have been expressed by John Cage, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and many others. Sometimes less is more. A lot of the time, in fact, less is more. Eno accomplishes this by writing his songs at a certain tempo, and then slowing them down when he’s done and releasing the finished version at half the speed it was composed at. I won’t be doing that, but I am trying to be more conscious of leaving spaces, focusing on the key parts, sending others to the background, and making sure there is some ebb to go along with the flow. So when I say this album needs more ambient, what I’m really saying is it needs less.

Part of the lecture is available on Youtube, the whole thing is pretty insightful. The DVD of the full lecture, called Playing With Time, is available on Amazon. Will Wright’s upcoming meta-life simulator Spore, where you control the evolution of life every step from the cellular level up to galactic civilizations, is scheduled for release in September and will use generative music written by Brian Eno.