"Most of the music around us today is ambient," Lester Bangs pointed out as the '70s ended. But "ambient" as intentional sonic wallpaper can be traced directly back through John Cage's chance experiments to Eric Satie's "furniture music" — then forward, to a thousand ever-fissioning shades of environmental, industrial, and electronic abstraction.
Ocean of Sound
In Ocean of Sound, his book-length '90s survey of "Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds," visionary critic David Toop mapped out a multidimensional geography encompassing jazz, dub, rock, ethnic exotica, and modernist composition. Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine, Les Baxter, King Tubby, Debussy all make this companion compilation — as do Satie, Eno, and Aphex Twin, not to mention "Howler Monkeys," "Shunie Omizutori Buddhist Ceremony," and "Suikinkutsu Water Chime." Thirty-two tracks, flowing into each other like the seven seas.
Consider this a stand-in for any number of infinitely looped, incrementally transforming, eternally hypnotic minimalist landmarks — from Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians to David Behrman's On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing. But Riley's experiments with cyclical repetition broke through just as the similarly hirsute counterculture was seeking its own cosmic consciousness, which might explain why this deceptively manifold 1968 piece — formed from 53 distinct motifs — has been interpreted by such post-psych drone-rockers as Cleveland's Styrenes and Japan's Acid Mothers Temple.
Metal Machine Music
Scandalous to unparalleled proportions upon its 1975 release, the double-album "electronic instrumental composition" subtitled The Amine ß Ring is primarily useful decades later as Grade-A aural Prozac and/or museum-installation fodder. A four-part feedback sculpture devoid of songs or solos, almost unanimously dismissed as an unlistenable provocation despite essentially just taking open-ended Velvet Underground trance-wrecks like "Sister Ray" to their logical conclusion, MMM has inspired generations of background din since.
Ambient 1: Music for Airports
Eno probably named ambient. And to some extent, he'd been there for years; his earlier albums Another Green World, Discreet Music, and Music for Films all basically qualify. But from its self-deprecating title on down, 1979's Music for Airports, co-composed by Robert Wyatt, made the concept explicit. It also kicked off a four-album series that literally got the word out. The liner notes reference Muzak; the music is very pretty.
As the '80s waned, all-nighting Ecstasy teens were in dire need of decompression assistance. So, ambient house came to the rescue in the form of these Brit pastiche pranksters' 1990 concept album (which resulted from DJ jam sessions with the Orb's Alex Paterson, whose style-defining Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld materialized in '91). By then, the erstwhile KLF, a.k.a. Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, already had the ravers counting sheep, among other samples.
The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations
As John Cage would've explained, ambient often occurs by accident. Released in 1997 over four CDs, Conet compiled static-scratched alphabetical and numerical spy-code transmissions, from the 1980s forward, that were intercepted from unregistered international shortwave stations — apparently operated covertly by the CIA, KGB, and lesser intelligence agencies. Voices span the gender, age, and language spectrum. Now and then, recognizable music (at one point, ambient electronic progenitor Jean Michel Jarre) sneaks in.
By its nature, ambient tends toward new-age monotony; even hipster heroes like Austrian guitar glitcher Fennesz too easily evaporate into thin air. But more abrasive stuff's out there. Helge Sten, a Norwegian who is fond of violins, saws, oscillators, and mechanical mangling he calls "audio virus," is one guy making incidental music substantial enough to fill a room and obliterate neuroses. Collected in 2004, this is a whole box of him.
Pop Ambient 2011
Since 2001, Cologne microhouse label Kompakt has tasked itself with documenting the evolution of the ambient electronic scene. Like the imprint's clubbier Total series, Pop Ambient is now up to 11 volumes: These are Aphex Twin's grandchildren, Eno's great-grandchildren. The latest installment — opening with the foreboding "Bernsteinzimmer," a collaboration between sound architect Alva Noto and Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld — might be the most downcast to date.