Music About Everything…And Nothing

OK, I’m about to take a break (with this post, at least) from going on about my new release and post one of those ill-informed, hypothetical, contradictory, rhetorical missives which I’m so good at (!).

For some time now, I’ve been a little aggrieved at having some of my music described as ‘Ambient’ by others, purely on the basis that ‘it’s a bit quiet’ or beatless. I’ve also been guilty in the past of labeling it so when ‘tagging’ my music on websites, or when describing it to others. Not so, any more.

As you may, or may not have realised by now, one of my preoccupations is with the idea of genre. In fact, most of my music tries to question the whole notion of genre, either directly or indirectly; it makes it its theme. Whether it succeeds is questionable, but that’s irrelevant for now.

Let me just put this into some form of context, from a personal point-of-view. Our idea of genre in music helps us delineate music so that we have some idea what to expect when we purchase or listen to it. In fact, it forms our expectations. Many genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres have developed over the past 10 years or so; mainly formed by artists and listeners who have labelled their music in order to personalise it or make it stand out from the ever-growing mass of music we now have access to via digital media.

Now, this could be seen as an overridingly positive thing…..let’s face it, musical language grows and develops just as spoken language does…..the more words we invent to describe things, the more those things get described. However, with this development comes an inherent redundancy. A ‘built-in obsolescence’, if you will. The more words we invent, the more we use, the less meaning they convey. They just become another noise we make and what seems contemporary and meaningful today can become passe and meaningless tomorrow.

Strictly ‘Ambient’ music is a case in point. It often is described as functional; in helping us contemplate, meditate and imagine. Or, in some cases, it acts as a reflector of the physical world around us, using found sounds and collage to generate a ‘picture’. If we’re to get into the whole ‘Death Of The Author’ thing, we are to assume that the listener will generate meaning by listening to the music, bringing his/her past history/tastes/associations/etc into the process. The author has little control over how the music is perceived…intention is irrelevant.

The problem with this is that the producer of the music is taking several things for granted. The main assumption being that the music has little or no universal meaning, it operates on a specific, individual level. However, one can also assume that, in producing music which mimics the physical world or acts as a meditative conduit, the listener is passive. This being the case….where does the meaning actually exist? Both assumptions suggest that meaning, if any, is produced unconsciously.

My issue is this (and we are talking on a purely personal level here, it’s just my opinion folks): I constantly see the effects of passive consumption of art and culture in the schools I teach in….both on students and staff. I do get ‘a bit upset’ by the way we are knowingly pacified by TV, pop music, celebrity, cod-spirituality and the way the visual arts have become obsessed with the ephemeral. And I do tend (however unreasonably) to see a correlation between music described as ‘Ambient’ and this passivity. That’s why I don’t like my music being described as Ambient. Art doesn’t always have to be ‘deep and meaningful’; however, it does need to leave an imprint. As artists/producers/authors, we should always be mindful of that…it should never be about ‘nothing’. Have an intention in your art, not just an intention to make sound; but for it to mean something.

Can of worms duly opened….

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One response to “Music About Everything…And Nothing

  1. Great points! I guess the positive valuation of true ambient music (not the dance music that misappropriates the name) is that it is intended to function (like all music) by generating an experience for the listener, but that the experience is more akin to smelling incense than eating a meal. It creates, or contributes to, an atmosphere, like wallpaper does – but this does not preclude closer listening or treating it as an aesthetic object, although it will then stand or fall on a different set of merits. Mass culture becomes almost ambient by its ubiquity, and its failure to challenge us in any way, but I think that truly ambient music can challenge us to think about the way we listen to all sound. Thought provoking post, thanks 🙂

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