Switch Off With The New Wave Of Ambient Music

January 2017Words by Mr Timothy Noakes

Sad Alron by Mr Mark Pritchard. Single artwork by Mr Jonathan Zawada

If you’re feeling a bit burnt out by the new year and its attendant celebrations, we have the perfect antidote: a large dose of soothing ambient music. Here’s where you might say “isn’t that just a collection of whale song and nose flutes?” And, yes, ambient – and its older hippy sister, New Age music – has certainly soundtracked a million deep tissue massages. But over the last few years ambient has also started moving – in a blissful, leisurely fashion of course – into brave new directions. The genre that was once synonymous with spiritual crystal healers, organic grocery shops, awkward lift journeys and telephone holding music has been enjoying somewhat of a critical renaissance, with the world’s leading electronic producers turning their hands to creating immersive and largely beat-less soundscapes. But why has ambient become relevant again now?

Much of ambient’s new popularity can be attributed to the rise of mindfulness and the growing desire to switch off from the digital noise that bombards our every waking moment. With the ubiquity of smartphones, we have become accustomed to being switched on all the time. But many people find it hard to actually switch off. Some plump for yoga and spin classes, others use meditation apps. Others escape the constant bad news filter bubble by running or walking. However, for an increasing number of millennials, soul-cleansing salvation comes in the form of synthesised and neo-classical sound baths. It’s easy to see why – the new wave of New Age makes you feel as if you’re in a different world. The densely layered electronic production and intricate samples of today have little in common with the panpipes and lapping waves of yesteryear.

Future-thinking producers have always had a soft spot for ambient music. Messrs Brian Eno and Jon Hassell and Ms Suzanne Ciani were amongst the first musicians to embrace ambient, followed in the 1990s by the likes of Aphex Twin, The Orb, Boards of Canada and Biosphere. Over the past 10 years, artists such as Oneohtrix Point Never, Mr Jon Hopkins, Burial, Actress, Mr Mark Pritchard, Bing & Ruth, CFCF, Deadboy, Fatima Al Qadiri, Lee Bannon and Mr Tim Hecker have all released atmospheric albums that feature extended ambient interludes. Concurrently, musicians such as Mr Nils Frahm, Mr Max Richter, Mr Oliver Coates, Micachu, Ms Laurel Halo and Ms Agnes Obel have merged taut electronics with traditional piano and orchestral scores, and in doing so have opened up classical music to a new generation of club kids.