By now a sprawling genre of electronic music - characterized by a very fine and wavery line between boring and soaring - the idea of ambient music has an intriguing history. The term was coined by Brian Eno in 1978, but the idea of music as ambiance, soundscape or soundworld, is much older. Erik Satie, for example, called some of his pieces 'musique d'ameublement' ('furniture music', or what I guess we'd call 'geluidsbehang' in Dutch).
If ambient is music that doesn't want to be music, John Cage stretched the idea to the limit in 1952 with his composition '4'33"' (four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, composed for any instrument). Cage wrote he wanted to "compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 4 and a half minutes long - these being the standard lengths of 'canned' music (...) It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly."
Years later, Eno also took Muzak as a point of reference for defining his concept of ambient music. This was his original definition, for the record:
The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak. The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces - familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner. Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music as an idea worthy of attention.
Over the past three years, I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised. To create a distinction between my own experiments in this area and the products of the various purveyors of canned music, I have begun using the term Ambient Music.
An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint. My intention is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.
Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncracies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to `brighten' the environment by adding stimulus to it (thus supposedly alleviating the tedium of routine tasks and levelling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.
Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
From the liner notes of 'Music for Airports'.