The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time – Pitchfork

“As ignorable as it is interesting.” That’s the classic definition of ambient music, stated by Brian Eno in 1978 on the sleeve notes to his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. And he should know, since he basically invented the genre three years earlier with his album Discreet Music. But while Eno’s definition of ambient has been cited continuously in the decades since, the sphere of music he first defined has broadened, especially if you judge by how that word is used by listeners. “Ambient” is now used to describe all kinds of music, from tracks you can dance to all the way to harsh noise. For our exploration of the greatest ambient albums, we polled critics for their favorites, with the suggestion that “ambient” meant, in part, music that creates an environment, something like a cloud of sound, be it soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous. We also suggested that our take on ambient music shies away from heavy rhythms and tends more toward “drifting” than “driving,” which meant de-emphasizing ambient house. And we considered the fact that not all albums in a given artist’s catalogue qualify as ambient. Taking into account our writers’ interpretation of those loose guidelines, here’s our list of the 50 best ambient albums.

There are a lot of albums I don’t know on this list. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t classify all of them as ambient (such as Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air). But this is a great list, and I’m going to be exploring some of these.

Source: The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time | Pitchfork

A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music – Pitchfork

I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.

All of our musical experience is based on the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while. So in a way, the apps and the generative music are borrowing from all of the technology that has evolved in connection with recorded music and making a new kind of live, ephemeral, unfixable music. It’s a quite interesting historical moment.

A fascinating interview about ambient music and more.

Source: A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music | Pitchfork

Brian Eno: Reflection review: A chance to experience Eno’s music as he intended it

Brian Eno invented ambient music, starting with his 1975 album Discreet Music. Its 30-minute title track was “generative music.” Eno acted as a clockmaker, creating phrases and melodies that were then played through equalizers, echo units, and tape machines, to create a work that had no fixed direction, but that unfolded with an element of chance.

Over the years, Eno released a number of recordings of generative works—Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, and others—and each of these albums was, in effect, a small section of a potentially unlimited stream of music.

On January 1 of this year, Brian Eno released a new album called Reflection, which repeats this technique […]

In addition to the CD and vinyl releases, there is a “deluxe generative version” of Reflection, released as an app for iOS and Apple TV.

Read the rest of the review at Macworld.

Music and App Review: Reflection by Brian Eno

Eno reflectionWhat better way to ring in the new year than with a new release by Brian Eno. His latest album Reflection is now available. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) And with it comes an app, for iOS and Apple TV, also called Reflection.

Eno created ambient music, starting with his first generative piece Discreet Music in 1975. Over the years, he has released a number of album-length recordings, such as Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, which are hour-long pieces, and Lux, which contains four shorter soundscapes. Reflection is similar to these albums, featuring multiple layers of slow, meandering sounds and melodies. There are also similarities with the 16-minute Ikebukuro, from the 1992 album The Shutov Assembly. Reflection is another beautiful work in this vein, but this release offers much more than others.

Eno describes this new work as follows:

Reflection is the latest work in a long series. It started (as far as record releases are concerned) with Discreet Music in 1975 ( – or did it start with the first Fripp and Eno album in 1973? Or did it start with the first original piece of music I ever made, at Ipswich Art School in 1965 – recordings of a metal lampshade slowed down to half and quarter speed, all overlaid?)

Anyway, it’s the music that I later called ‘Ambient’. I don’t think I understand what that term stands for anymore – it seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows – but I still use it to distinguish it from pieces of music that have fixed duration and rhythmically connected, locked together elements.

The pedigree of this piece includes Thursday Afternoon, Neroli (whose subtitle is Thinking Music IV) and LUX. I’ve made a lot of thinking music, but most of it I’ve kept for myself. Now I notice that people are using some of those earlier records in the way that I use them – as provocative spaces for thinking – so I feel more inclined to make them public.

Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them. I then set the whole system playing and see what it does, adjusting the sounds and the phrases and the rules until I get something I’m happy with. Because those rules are probabilistic ( – often taking the form ‘perform operation x, y percent of the time’) the piece unfolds differently every time it is activated. What you have here is a recording of one of those unfoldings.

Reflection is so called because I find it makes me think back. It makes me think things over. It seems to create a psychological space that encourages internal conversation. And external ones actually – people seem to enjoy it as the background to their conversations. When I make a piece like this most of my time is spent listening to it for long periods – sometimes several whole days – observing what it does to different situations, seeing how it makes me feel. I make my observations and then tweak the rules. Because everything in the pieces is probabilistic and because the probabilities pile up it can take a very long time to get an idea of all the variations that might occur in the piece. One rule might say ‘raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones’ and another might say ‘raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones’. If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes – very rarely – they will both operate on the same note…so something like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. You won’t know which of those 5000 notes it’s going to be. Since there are a lot of these types of operations going on together, on different but parallel data streams, the end result is a complex and unpredictable web.

Perhaps you can divide artists into two categories: farmers and cowboys. The farmers settle a piece of land and cultivate it carefully, finding more and more value in it. The cowboys look for new places and are excited by the sheer fact of discovery, and the freedom of being somewhere that not many people have been before. I used to think I was temperamentally more cowboy than farmer… but the fact that the series to which this piece belongs has been running now for over 4 decades makes me think that there’s quite a big bit of farmer in me.

Reflection appThe album is a 54-minute version of the piece, and is vintage Eno. If you like this type of music, you’ll be delighted to have yet another long ambient work. But the iOS and Apple TV app, developed by Peter Chilvers, is quite special. It lets you play an endless river of music, revolving around the themes and melodies in this work. Eno says:

“REFLECTION is the most recent of my Ambient experiments and represents the most sophisticated of them so far. My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time – ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings – whether vinyl, cassette or CD – are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them. So in the past I was limited to making the systems which make the music, but then recording 30 minutes or an hour and releasing that. REFLECTION in its album form – on vinyl or CD – is like this. But the app by which REFLECTION is produced is not restricted: it creates an endless and endlessly changing version of the piece of music.

The creation of a piece of music like this falls into three stages: the first is the selection of sonic materials and a musical mode – a constellation of musical relationships. These are then patterned and explored by a system of algorithms which vary and permutate the initial elements I feed into them, resulting in a constantly morphing stream (or river) of music. The third stage is listening. Once I have the system up and running I spend a long time – many days and weeks in fact – seeing what it does and fine-tuning the materials and sets of rules that run the algorithms. It’s a lot like gardening: you plant the seeds and then you keep tending to them until you get a garden you like.”

Listening to the music from the app is interesting. With an album like Discreet Music, which I’ve been listening to for 40 years, you become familiar with the music, even if it was generated in a random manner. And with the CD of Reflection, if you listen to it often enough, you’ll remember the bits where different melodies and sounds come in. But I’ve been listening to the app for a couple of hours, and it’s as though I’m hearing a series of variations on a theme, or a long improvisation. In a way, you lose something, because you don’t have those landmarks along the way that you do with a fixed recording. But you hear the sounds and themes morph over time, and discover a different way of listening. The music becomes more alive, more real than something that is fixed in time.

The visuals also change, very slowly. If you’re familiar with Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings, you have an idea of the type of changes you’ll see. I don’t know how many patterns there are; for now, I’m only seeing changing colors. (And when I first used the app, the changes were much slower. I quit it and relaunched it, and it’s working correctly.)

You may be a bit thrown by the high price of the app: at $40, it’s one of the more expensive iOS apps I’ve seen, other than some productivity apps. But it’s a fount of music that endlessly permeates, offering a much more expansive version of the work that’s been frozen on record. If you’re a fan of Brian Eno’s work, you’ll probably want to get this app.

A note for users of the iOS app. I stream music to AirPlay devices, and when I launched the app, and swiped up to display Control Center, the only option for AirPlay Mirroring was my Apple TV. This is because the app also has visuals that display on that device if you stream it. Swipe to the right to get to the music player, and you’ll be able to select other devices, such as amplifiers or speakers.

Download Moby’s Free “Long Ambient” Music

Long ambient mobyMoby has released four hours of free ambient music he composed for sleeping and relaxing. On his website, he says:

over the last couple of years i’ve been making really really really quiet music to listen to when i do yoga or sleep or meditate or panic. i ended up with 4 hours of music and have decided to give it away.

it’s really quiet: no drums, no vocals, just very slow calm pretty chords and sounds and things for sleeping and yoga and etc. and feel free to share it or give it away or whatever, it’s not protected or anything, or at least it shouldn’t be.

This music is similar in tone to Max Richter’s Sleep. It’s simple, undemanding music that you can play in the background, or use to relax.

Download the music from Moby’s website. Or use the links on the site to stream it on Apple Music, Spotify, and other services.

Music Review: Max Richter’s Eight-Hour Sleep

Richter sleepMax Richter has released a new work called Sleep, and it’s available in two versions. The first is a one-hour version that you can get on CD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), or stream on Apple Music, and the second is the full 8-hour, 24-minute version, which is only available by download from the iTunes Store for $35. The one-hour versions consists of excerpts from the longer version; it’s not just tracks from the eight-hour version, and each track on the short version has a name that’s not in the long version.

As I mentioned last week, when I wrote about the availability of this work by download, I’m quite enamored of long musical works. I’ve listened to all of Sleep over the weekend, in a variety of situations: while working, when reading, and when lying in bed just relaxing. (I have not, however, listened to it when sleeping.)

While Sleep is on the Deutsche Grammophon record label – a classical label with a long history – it’s certainly not classical music. It’s an attractive ambient composition for piano, strings, electronics, and vocals. It’s not the Brian Eno kind of ambient music, which is often generative, or created using randomness, but which has more texture and depth. And it’s not the new age tripe that you hear on the speakers in health food stores.

The 31 tracks of Sleep range from melodic cello melodies over a subtle background to slowly evolving drones, to sections with minimal vocals. In some ways, Sleep makes me think of what Philip Glass’s music would sound like if you sanded down all the arpeggios: it’s got the same types of chord progressions, and there are parts of Sleep that have a melody that reminds me of Glass’s soundtrack for the movie Koyaanisqatsi. But while Glass has a melodic drive in much of his music, as though he’s trying to get somewhere, Richter is content with just being where he is.

The whole thing about it being designed for sleeping is a bit of a gimmick. You can certainly use it for that, and, in doing so, you’d miss out on a lot of good music. But that gimmick stretches the work out to a length that it doesn’t need. Richter talks about the piece being made up of variations in the liner notes; they’re not really variations, they are rather different arrangements of the same melodic material. There’s a lot of repetition, but that’s all right. You’re not going to listen to the entire work at any one time, and the repetitions remind you of Sleep’s themes.

I respect the fact that Richter doesn’t present this music as something that needs to be listened to, but rather touts it as background music. In the composer’s mind, this music might help create dreams; or it might simply be a soft, subtle accompaniment to your sleep. But it can also be background music for your day, or you could listen to an hour of it when you want to relax.

This may sound a tad critical, but I actually like the music. There are some parts that sound a bit like filler – the drone sections, for example – but much of the melodic material in the work is catchy, in a slow kind of way. There’s probably about three or four CDs worth of music in this set, and it’s been padded to get past the eight hour mark, but that’s okay. If you buy it from the iTunes Store, you pay $35, or the cost of three and a half full albums.

Sleep is functional music, furniture music, a soundtrack for relaxing and sleeping, and as such it’s successful. It’s not “classical” music, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It does what it claims, and it’s enjoyable, and that’s a good enough recommendation to anyone who wants some light music to listen to when taking a break.