• Nada, Nadie

Text in a Wordless Art

How Theme and Meaning Work in Ambient music!


Imagine you’re a singer/songwriter, let’s say Chris Cornell, you’re working on a new song, one about loss and mourning. What’s the procedure? Well, of course, pulling the words out of your head and writing the song.

Oh, when you miss somebody
You tell yourself that everything will be alright
You try to stand up strong and brave
But all you want to do is lay down and die.

“Wave Goodbye” by Chris Cornell.

But what if you’re not Cornell, not a singer nor a songwriter? In ambient, most pieces don’t even have a melody, so they cannot rely on a pillar of music theory that can evoke emotion in an instrumental. With music that is so reliant on slow harmonic changes, texture and sound design, it can certainly sound somewhat meaningless. The incorporeal nature of the genre usually portrays a lack of meaning or subtext, and while a lot of times that is true, particularly in the kind of ambient that sticks to the goal of being non-obtrusive and meant for background play, a lot of records have more than meets the ear. The following are ways in which ambient records can and have acquired emotional depth, narrative, and meaning.

2016’s Two days and one night by American musician Celer is accompanied by a liner note that reads:

In 1984, my great uncle drowned in the sea off the coast of Hammamet, Tunisia. He was 80 years old. He arrived in Tunis from his home in New York City, staying one night in the Hotel Amilcar, from where he sent a blank postcard back to his family home in Mississippi. The next day he traveled to Hammamet, where he rented a hotel room, bought swimming trunks, and by the afternoon had drowned in the ocean.
In 2015, I retraced his steps from Tunis to Hammamet. Set part in fiction and part in reality, Two Days and One Night is both a document of my own experience and a re-imagining of what my great uncle might have heard and experienced 31 years before. It's a shame he didn't see the burnt orange sunset swirling over the horizon as I did on my departing flight at the end of the second day, but then again, maybe he did.

The album starts with distant sounds from somewhere in North Africa, reinforcing the concept, before it fades into a sheet of pure ambient, except now it’s not just that, the listener is now conditioned to listen thinking of what the album represents, the emotion and meaning lurk from the fringes. The listening experience has been limited to the confines of a concept and the feelings that come with it are too. The music always had a discourse, but it is now more opaque.

Listen to the first two tracks or buy the full album here

Liner notes can change the whole listening experience, they certainly changed mine with The Caretaker’s Everywhere at the end of time. The work is made of six separate albums, each one corresponding to a Stage, referring to the stages of dementia, the theme of the six and a half hour behemoth. The notes are sad and terror-inducing descriptions of all stages that match the music greatly. 50 tracks also mean 50 titles to read as you go along the journey, they add great value and flavor with names such as “It’s just a burning memory”, “I still feel as though I am me”, “Last moments of pure recall”, and “A brutal bliss beyond this empty defeat”.

The music is in itself deeply melancholic, and it’s sonic deterioration conveys the message splendidly, but without knowing all there is to it and reading along, my experience probably would’ve been way more superficial.

Titles, liner notes, field recording snippets, all ways for an album to gain an emotional thematic, but nothing can come close to the link between William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops and the tragic, turning-point of events of 9/11. For a detailed story, I highly recommend watching Harrison Engstrom’s video on the subject. Briefly put, Basinski was digitizing some old sampled loops, but as the magnetic tape began decaying, disintegrating, and changing the loop, the result were pieces of eerie and highly repetitive ambient music that Basinski played through his apartment on that fateful day as a “soundtrack to the end of the world”. Those “loops of disintegration and despair” that everyone went through after the events can’t be unheard when listening to the Disintegration Loops I-IV.

My first listen to the Disintegration Loops was while meditating and I had no clue about the underlying theme, now it’s all I can think about when listening to it. The bond is so strong that the tracks are even played through the speakers at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Finally, there’s an album by DC musician Nate Scheible called fairfax. Musically, the project is outstanding, with warm tape loops occasionally embracing the acoustic sounds of saxophone, double bass, vibraphone and more. But what takes fairfax to the next level as a compelling and emotional listen are the recurring voice recordings of a woman, voicemails, talking to her lover from Fairfax, Virgina. Aside from hospital bills, the rain, and a reading of Shakespeare, the recordings talk about the out-of-phase timing of the letters she receives from her lover, statements of love and yearning, wishes for them to be together soon, and worries about her partner being angry.

Hearing the woman say things like:

“...I just wish you were here to put your arms around me. I-I need that, darling, and I keep it in my mind that October’s gonna be here, an-and when it comes that you’re never gonna leave again...” transforms the music into a vessel of feelings of absence, distance, longing, love, tiredness, miscommunication, hope, and loneliness. The tender sadness of the record evokes deep empathy, it feels very real and frail, all thanks to short snippets of spoken word.

Listen to the full album or buy it digitally here

All these sources of investment in the music are obviously not exclusive to the genre, ultimately this is not so much about ambient, instead about all of these elements surrounding so much of music that is often overlooked and shouldn’t be considered so much as secondary, as it can claim a very central role in how we experience it. Spoken word voicemails, titles, commentary, liner notes, historical ties, and field recordings have the ability to be their own singer, the verses and choruses in music without vocalists.

Thanks for reading!

-Nada, nadie.