In Sounds Begin Responsibilities
“In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.” (Eno’s liner notes to Discreet Music, 1975)
I gave Naomi a contemporary version of a boombox at Christmas this year – it has a pleasing design that I knew she would enjoy. I thought she might find use for it in her studio, or at other points of her workday. What I didn’t imagine is she would start carrying it around the house, playing music in rooms even where we have stereo speakers. She started bringing it in the living room to play while she was reading. In the kitchen while we were cooking. In the dining room during meals. In the bedroom in the morning. And what she chooses to play on it, more often than anything else, is ambient music.
Ambient isn’t part of the usual playlist on our home stereo. In the first part of the pandemic, we did obsessively play a CD compilation of Japanese ambient music from the 80s, Kankyo Ongaku, which seemed to help chill us out. But that was more or less a special case - unless you consider all spacey instrumental music ambient, it was an unusual choice for our listening together.
But on this Bluetooth boombox, playing digital music from a library I had collected on an iPhone, Naomi selected truly ambient works – other Japanese synth albums, like Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green, or Music for Nine Postcards; oddball items like Mother Earth’s Plantasia, by Mort Garson; or Eno’s Apollo soundtrack.
These ambient pieces have been following Naomi around the house, room by room. The boombox isn’t fully audible from far away. But it casts its spell very effectively in a small space. Naomi doesn’t turn the volume up high – sometimes, from another part of the house, I can’t be sure I’m hearing music she’s playing, or something from the heating pipes. Then I move closer and the sound gets a bit louder.
This digital boombox is, I realized, a near analogue to what Eno describes in the liner notes to Discreet Music, the first ambient piece he released. It doesn’t play in stereo, per se – like many Bluetooth devices, it has just one speaker or maybe it’s two so close together it might as well be one. It isn’t exactly hi-fi, either; there’s a bit too much bass (also typical for these Bluetooth devices, I’ve noticed), so I fiddled with an app that allowed us to cut the low end and flatten the eq, which made for an even smaller sound. The volume it puts out is low to begin with – and since it sits close to you wherever you carry it, there’s no reason to try and push it louder.
And so there it stays, at arm’s length but more usually just out of reach, playing a mono version of mostly stereo mixes, at a volume low enough to hear if you’re thinking about it, but not so much that you necessarily will. All we’re missing is a recent visit from Judy Nylon.
About that Judy Nylon intervention: it was, according to her own account, more deliberate than Eno made it out to be in his liner notes. Here’s her version of the story, from an interview she gave many years later:
“So it was pouring rain in Leicester Square, I bought the harp music from a guy in a booth behind the tube station with my last few quid because we communicated in ideas, not flowers and chocolate, and I didn't want to show up empty-handed. Neither of us was into harp music. But, I grew up in America with ambient music. If I was upset as a kid I was allowed to fall asleep listening to a Martin Denny album… I think it was called ‘Quiet Village’. The jungle sounds, played very softly, made the room's darkness caressing instead of empty as a void. Pain was more tolerable. Brian had just come out of hospital, his lung was collapsed and he lay immobile on pillows on the floor with a bank of windows looking out at soft rain in the park on Grantully Road on his right, and his sound system on his left. I put the harp music on and balanced it as best as I could from where I stood; he caught on immediately to what I was doing and helped me balance the softness of the rain patter with the faint string sound for where he lay in the room. There was no ‘ambience by mistake’.”
Less accident than balancing, then; a harmony with the environment, adding without overwhelming it. Not a broken, missing channel but the deliberate placement of a new channel.
It’s this same shift that opened up ambient music for me in recent weeks, as Naomi added it to various rooms and times of day in our house. Playing ambient records on our stereo, through the same speakers in the same manner that we use for all the music we listen to, has often seemed to me like less – the missing channel of Eno’s anecdote. But from this small wandering speaker, it is very clearly more.
This week, amid the noise of an ugly controversy that mixed music with misinformation and hate speech, Ann Powers sent out a short tweet that stopped me in my tracks.
Sound alters our environment. Ambient music might be an extreme example, designed to be heard as a part of everything else we hear or do. But all audio information is, in part, ambient. It colors our perceptions of the space we occupy. And maybe it doesn’t do that by making room - in the way Eno’s anecdote has always implied to me, or the way we tend to think of playing music “in the background” when we’re focused on something else. Perhaps it more typically accomplishes this by being additive, as Judy Nylon explains. It rebalances the existing environment by requiring space of its own, thus changing the space allotted to the rest.
Which is maybe why audio so easily finds itself, right now, at the heart of some very serious power struggles. This seems far from the chill of Japanese ambient tracks from the 80s. But after all, those were deliberately made to alter the spaces in which they played - and therefore the behavior of those who entered them.
Sound comes with responsibility.
Listening to: heating pipes
Cooking: the spice mixture Dukkah (and adding it to everything)