Music without words: A different way of listening

Wallace Williams is a local ambient musician indebted to the legacies of past ambient artists (Photo courtesy of Wallace Williams)


For many people, what ambient music is is a mystery. For others, it’s a way of life.

To understand what ambient music is, it’s important to start with minimalist composer Erik Satie. Satie was famous for his sparse compositions (which were only sparse because Satie admitted to not being exceptionally proficient at the piano, and instead composed to his playing style), and coined the term “furniture music” in the late 1800s for a select few pieces, meaning that the music itself was not the focus of the performance, and instead was just background noise.

This way of thinking was unheard of at the time, and Satie’s furniture music pieces went on to develop a cult following among other minimalist and avant-garde composers, such as John Cage, famous for his pieces involving chance including 4’33”, a composition that at first glance is just four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, but is meant to open both the performer and the audience to the natural sound around them and the chance involved with witnessing it.

It was from this furniture music that the concept of modern ambient music was born. The term ambient music was coined by English musician Brian Eno, who said that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting”. For Eno, the idea came to him while bedridden and unable to change the volume on his radio. Being forced to listen to the music at a much lower volume, Eno found he was straining to hear and in many ways, the music was becoming sonic wallpaper.

After this experience, Eno recorded and released Discreet Music in 1975, not yet having used the term “ambient” to describe the music. But in retrospect, the album has many qualities found on Eno’s 1978 release Music for Airports, which is considered by many to be the first proper ambient album: repetitive, almost circular movements that rely heavily on the use of space, the “ambience”. In the decades since the release of Music for Airports, ambient music has undergone many evolutions, and now the possibilities for just what exactly “ambient music” is are nearly endless. Artists from all around the world blend their own styles with the ideas that created the culture of ambient music in the 1980s to the present, creating fresh takes on the genre that only reinforces its malleability.

Wallace Williams, an ambient musician from Mississauga, has a very traditional relationship with ambient music.

“To me, ambient music is music that is as interesting as it is uninteresting, and what I mean by that is that its not ambient music’s job to grab your attention, with the purpose of having you focus in on it, even though ambient music can lead to someone focusing in on it, to listen for things that they wouldn’t hear just in passing.

“Ambient music can exist without your attention to it. It is an environment, it is an ambience, and an environment breathes life and lives even without you being in it or paying attention to it,” he says, speaking from his basement studio where most of his work is composed.

Williams’ music is very much indebted to Eno’s style of ambient; a traditionalist but not closed minded, if you will. He enjoys the freedom the ambient label has given him, saying that “playing music in an improvised fashion, which is what I usually do, and seeing where it goes and not knowing where it’s going to go, and being on that kind of path, especially with other musicians, that’s where the magic really happens. When you’re collaborating, especially in an improvised setting, you can go places that you wouldn’t expect to have gone, but then when you get there it’s very satisfying.”

He hopes that he can share the experience he’s had with ambient music with others.

“I think a big aspiration for me is to be able to do what I do, which is make ambient music, but in a way where more and more people can be very much affected by it in the way I’ve been affected by it, because I think the experience of it is so, it takes you out of yourself, it’s such a unique strange wonderful experience, and I want to share that experience with other people and I wanna give that experience to as many people as possible,” he says, noting again the sheer power that witnessing sound can provide.

It’s arguable that the style goes back even further than Satie’s work, and it was only through Eno qualifying the music with a word that its concepts were solidified. Religious composers in the 15th century such as Jacob Obrecht explored the use of space (through the contrast between voice and silence), something that has become a staple of ambient music over the years.

Not every ambient musician approaches their work from an entirely classical perspective. VV, a multi-genre composer from Toronto, might make ambient music but it doesn’t dominate his ethos in the same way it does Williams. When asked what inspires him, he responded with “boiler, darkroom, saudade/tezeta, “It’s just the house settling”, Urban Scraping, refrigerator,” a medley of words that evoke various feelings but ultimately provide a more abstracted viewpoint of VV’s mindset.

His music is extremely fluid, moving from point to point in an organic fashion, in a way that recalls both Impressionism and the feeling of being in stasis. “You can float or you can sink, too,” he said over email when asked his favourite thing about ambient music. His music is just one of many modern examples of ambient music that is in many ways familiar but also personal and new.

So where does all of this leave ambient music today? Above all else, ambient music has at its core a flexibility that many other music genres do not. In recent years the label has come to mean many things, a lot of them different from the music  Eno was making in the late ‘70s. Whereas artists like Wallace Williams may draw inspiration  from Eno’s music, artists like VV and others pluck inspiration from a variety of different sources, many of them not ambient at all. This is all an indication of musicians in the electronic world seeking more and more to broaden their viewpoints about music in terms of composition, feeling, and ideology, leading to forward thinking music that acknowledges the past but pushes forward to the future regardless.