Category Archives: Ambient

There are so many ways to categorise ambient, as well as genres-within-genres, and all sorts of genre cross-pollination, when it comes to the catch-all term “ambient” that it’s hard to know where to start. For me it’s a matter of finding useful labels to put on the types of ambient that I like personally, only so that I can find ways to discuss, contrast and compare within those labels.

After doing much reading on others’ blogs about the topic, my own ambient collection can be usefully categorised into the following varieties…

Drone, Electronic, Experimental, Field recording, Instrumental, Modern or Neo-classical, Noise, and Soundscape.

It’s much rarer in fact to find an album that could be said to fit just one of these categories (except maybe ‘Drone”). But as I write about my ambient collection, I am going to use these eight categories as my basis for discussion.

I own a number of drone albums. Drone is the least interesting category for me. I think of drone as usually a continuous tone or tones that change subtly and slowly, but low on musicality. Drone albums can take many spins before they grow on you. I think of Kyle Bobby Dunn, a prettier kind of drone, and say Lawrence English, with more of a field recording drone. What about Evan Camaniti, Jon Porras and their Barn Owl project? This kind of music straddles drone, noise and instrumental just perfectly.

Ambient electronica – much ambient is ‘electronic’ in some sense or another, but here I mean ambient music that is clearly more synthy and electronic in nature and I include ambient techno in this sub-genre. Brian Eno would fit in here, as would Alessandro Cortini. Biosphere‘s famous Substrata album is mostly electronic and part field recording. Ariel Kalma, like Brian Eno and JD Emmanuel, is more old school – electronic with aspects of field recording, but with a very different sounding electronic component to the kind of high-gloss or digital sheen of electronics of the past 25 years.

Experimental is perhaps a category used to cover anything that doesn’t fit one of the other seven categories. I put The Caretaker under Experimental because it doesn’t really fit the other categories. Slowed down glitch-processed ballroom jazz – that’s an experiment. Some of the Sonic Pieces stuff is very experimental but not quite as the dominant aesthetic.

Field recording ambient ranges from pure field recordings with no real musicality of any sort save maybe birdsong. I have little interest in pure field recording. I love field recordings but only when they’re mixed into ambient tones of a musical nature. Chill Out by The KLF springs to mind, as does Neighborhood by Ernest Hood.

Instrumental is a catch-all category that is similar to modern classical, but doesn’t rely on classical music instruments or might be more folky in nature. Here I’m talking about any other kind of acoustic instrumentation such as toy instruments, guitar, drums, or jazz instruments. The point is that you’re listening more to the sound of real live recorded instruments rather than ones produced or enhanced digitally on some kind of keyboard or computer. Mountains are chiefly, a combination of instrumental, electronica and field recordings. Some recordings from the Sonic Pieces label cross over between instrumental and experimental.

Modern classical tends to have an ambient feel, but I think of it as usually being made with traditionally classical instruments, such as piano, strings, maybe brass, woodwind etc. Many of the recordings on Erased Tapes and Sonic Pieces can be considered modern classical, with artists like Nils Frahm and Hauschka. We might put A Winged Victory For The Sullen into this category too.

Ambient noise is probably my favourite among these and probably my broadest category. It can range from a band such as Inventions who make ambient pop music to a kind of drone made of staticky, or dusty tones such as Jonas Reinhardt‘s album Ganymede or the wonderful synth pad music of Leandro Fresco and Markus Guentner. Tim Hecker, I think, would fall under a combination of electronica and noise. Fennesz, one of my favourites, often uses processed glitchy electric guitar tones which I would also categorise as ambient noise.

Soundscape is probably a combination of electronic, field etc, but its purpose in my mind is more to suggest a landscape or picture of some kind. I’m thinking here of the likes of Loscil, Tor Lundvall and Multicast Systems whose albums’ primary aesthetics seems to evoke ‘place’ or ‘scene’.

F.S. Blumm & Nils Frahm, Music For Wobbling Music Versus Gravity, 2013

Sonic Pieces label. Ambient style: instrumental, experimental, contemporary neo-classical folk. In additional to all the other instruments, on this recording we hear crumpled paper, rolling metal balls on ply-wood, a ping-pong ball in a wok, and a turning tin-toy carousel. … Continue reading

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F.S. Blumm & Nils Frahm, Music For Lovers Music Versus Time, 2010

Sonic Pieces label. Ambient style: instrumental, experimental, neo-classical, contemporary, folk. This record is very experimental, and extremely difficult to describe. Besides the mainstays of piano and guitar as per Frahm and Blumm, prominently featured on a number of tracks are … Continue reading

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Jasmine Guffond, Yellow Bell, 2015

Sonic Pieces label Ambient style: drone, experimental. I would call this a ‘pretty’ drone album in that it’s restless and shifting, ‘experimental’ in the sense that the artist is constantly trying new things, not content to just let her tones … Continue reading

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Dictaphone, Poems From A Rooftop, 2012

Sonic Pieces label. Ambient style: Modern classical, instrumental – violin, guitar, sax, clarinet, bass. This is way more ‘modern classical’ than ambient, but it is absolutely gorgeous and quietly melodic, making clean, though minimalist use of woodwind, violin, drums and … Continue reading

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Midori Hirano, Minor Planet, 2016

Sonic Pieces label. Ambient style: modern classical, piano, hiss, presence, noise, static, synth, field recording. My general impression was one of the artist, a piano player, using her instrument as a means of astral travelling. The piano blurs into indistinct … Continue reading

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