We usually don’t notice environmental sounds until they’re no longer there. You’re probably familiar with the awkward shuffle that happens at record stores between albums on the speakers, or the silence that’s sharpened when central air conditioning stops humming.
Composer Erik Satie was one of the first to suggest that music could be created specifically to exist in the background. He dubbed his early experiments “furniture music,” since these pieces were intended to complement a room much like a table or a chair. John Cage, and eventually Brian Eno, revived this idea later in the 20th century, introducing music that can be consumed at all “levels of listening attention.”
In a previous post, I discussed new age music as a genre. But there are many sounds and possibilities within the larger, amorphous genre of ambient music. To dig deeper into some of these forms, I sat down with fellow New Age and Ambient Curator Andee Connors. Andee also handles metal and punk at Pandora, and is a former co-owner of San Francisco’s Aquarius Records and creator of the label Tumult Records. We talked about what ambient music means to him, as well as advice for newcomers who are just beginning to explore it.
Lee Robinson: What is ambient music to you?
Andee Connors: For me, the definition of ambient includes noise, field recordings — anything that is sort of drift-y, abstract, psychedelic, even stuff that is heavy and drone-y. For me personally, it’s anything that puts me in a different headspace. It transports you and puts you in a tranced-out, meditative mindset. That music can do that I think is really powerful.
Is there a difference between new age and ambient music?
I think ambient, while now technically a genre, is fundamentally a sonic descriptor, whereas new age, I’m sure, was coined by some record label or radio station to classify this kind of relaxing, pseudo-spiritual, hippie chillout music. Especially coming from my background of punk, rock and metal and owning a record store, ambient is much more broad. I also ran a record label and I put out several records that I would consider ambient that might not seem ambient to others.
How were you first introduced to ambient?
Like most people my age, I was first introduced to new age by my parents. I was growing up in ’70s, ’80s California, and I remember specifically that my parents had Ray Lynch’s Deep Breakfast and George Winston’s All the Seasons of George Winston always on their music shelf. And I don’t think I liked that, because obviously you don’t like what your parents like.
When I started doing college radio, I was exposed to more psychedelic music. And I think for me, that was the gateway to everything. I never used to like reggae until I heard dub music. So I think probably in college was around the time I also discovered bands like Spaceman 3 making what was essentially drone-y ambient music, but at the time was just a subset of rock music. Then I got my store, Aquarius Records, and at that point I was fully enmeshed in weird music and became obsessed with drone-based music. I think I love drone music more than anything, and it seems to be in almost all of the music I like. I find it powerful and emotionally impactful.
Was there a particular album or experience that broke ambient open for you?
I remember being on tour in my twenties. I discovered I had really bad tinnitus. I had never worn ear plugs and had been playing in bands for years. At that point, I started falling asleep to music, which I still do. And obviously for sleeping, ambient music and drone music is very hypnotic.
Where do you find yourself listening to this music most?
At home, my listening is predominately for reading, working, sleeping. I have a whole separate stack of records in my bedroom that are specifically “sleep records” or “reading records.” I was just recently listening to that Coil record Time Machines, which is basically all really simple synth drone with a lot of overtones. I’ve been listening to that every night for the past month.
If someone is looking to get into ambient music, where would you start them?
I would say the barrier to entry for ambient music is extremely low. You can enjoy it on so many different levels. You can put headphones on and get lost in layered guitars, or you can just play it in the background while you are cooking or reading. As long as the sounds are relatively consistent, I think any of the playlists on Pandora work well, especially our Cosmic New Age playlist.
What is the best way to get your hands on ambient music? Do you have a go-to section or record store ritual when you’re looking for it?
I’m a huge review-reader. That is probably my biggest ritual. There are also certain labels that I will buy pretty much anything they put out — labels like Kranky, Chain Reaction, Kompakt. I’m biased, but definitely go to your local record store.
It can be intimidating for people that don’t buy a lot of music in stores to find the music they’re looking for. I even struggle with this in some cases. Where should they look?
I think the experimental section is where you will find most of the compelling ambient stuff. At Aquarius, we had so much stuff that we had to count on people asking for recommendations.
So maybe the answer is talking to the person working at the record store?
My favorite thing when I worked in a record store was when people would come to me and say, “I like this stuff. What do you recommend?” I personally love going into a store and saying, “Tell me what you’re into.”
The cool thing about Pandora, in this context, is if you start a station with one of these ambient bands, you can then find other gems to go out and pursue.
Is there an era or scene of ambient that you particularly love or have nostalgia for?
I think you and I both have a thing for late-’70s new age where it was all cults and hippies and crystals and flutes, harps, zithers and communes. Part of me feels like new age got to be really commodified, like everything, but for some reason, even though it probably existed then, it feels way purer to me, almost to the point of being sappy. But I think that earnestness outshines any of the other stuff. And a lot of those records, especially the private press ones, were just some crazy guy on a houseboat, and he wanted to communicate with an ocean goddess. I love that.
When I listen to slower, more cinematic ambient music, I like to imagine a landscape or environment that I’m immersed in — say, a desert canyon at sunset. Do you create your ideal scenery when listening?
I don’t know if I visualize stuff, but I do love listening to that stuff when I’m on tour, so I will throw on something darker and wander around rainy Berlin at midnight. Any old, foreign city with castles is ideal.
I love the contrast between our ideal sceneries, but I think that perfectly demonstrates the range of ambient music.
For here, I have a big bean bag chair that I love to sit in. I throw on one of those lights that makes the ceiling look like water.
Okay, obligatory last question: three desert island ambient albums. Go!
Can I give you desert island artists?