Tender Textures and Self-Care: Why so many of us got lost in ambient music this year
In our world of endless distractions, sounds defined by a gentle drift have an obvious appeal. Such music – loosely categorised as ambient – has long been embraced by listeners who wish to delve into another world, a time-stretching space which provides comfort and escape. Over the past few years, this music has become increasingly popular; in times of socio-political turbulence, many are finding solace in healing sounds.
This year there’s been an outpouring of music intended to temporarily relax your brain. It’s provided a release to fall asleep to late at night or for listeners to sit with while travelling home alone on the night bus. The influx has come from both traditionally ambient musicians as well as producers who are more commonly associated with dancefloor-orientated music – from artists such as UMFANG, Kara Lis Coverdale, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Khotin and Visible Cloaks.
The first murmurs of the ambient resurgence were felt in 2014, but this year the genre has solidified its place in our listening habits. Ambient was dubbed “one of the sounds of the summer” by The Guardian, and there was a good chance you’d hear tender soundscapes if you tuned into one of the many independent radio stations which have thrived this year. There’s even a slowly emerging resurgence of the ambient/chill out room as a physical space in clubs. Make Me recently presented a night for Nachtdigital’s 20th anniversary at Corsica where they turned one of the rooms into an ambient floor, with blankets and carpets and cushions sprawled across the space. Freerotation festival’s ambient yurt has given people a place to lie down and close their eyes in the midst of an intense three-day weekend of hammering kick drums.
“In a world becoming increasingly bleak and uncertain, it’s unsurprising that listeners are leaning toward sounds which can provide a psychological sanctuary.”
In a world becoming increasingly bleak and uncertain, it’s unsurprising that listeners are leaning toward sounds which can provide a psychological sanctuary. But what hasn’t been so widely discussed is why these sounds have been some of the most prominent throughout the year. Through platforms such as Bandcamp, ambient composers are crafting sounds borne from the frustrations of current political and social problems. One composer from San Francisco, Marc Kate, uses sounds from a far-right genre – National Socialist black metal – to manipulate extreme and politically-troubling music, flipping it on its head to produce gorgeous ambient sounds. Kate’s outwardly political work simultaneously forces listeners to engage with difficult times through his subject matter and denouncement of neoliberalism while also allowing them to float away with the beautiful sound collages he creates. UMFANG’s album for Ninja Tune sister label Technicolour also had its roots in politics, with an underlying theme of frustration with police brutality and simmering racial tensions before the American presidential election – channelled into a number of beatless excursions, as well as bare-boned dancefloor tracks. Sweep is an especially striking cut from the record – an eerie three minute track that sounds like a police car siren trilling constantly.
Artists have conveyed harrowing, near-apocalyptic situations and reminders of the transience of mortality with gentle and feathery sounds. It might seem anxiety-provoking to look at the bigger picture of life, eventually ending in death, but Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s 2017 album The Kid, which reflects on four different stages of life, provided a strange sense of comfort, reminding you that you’re not alone in your worries and doubts. The album acted as a reflection and mirror to Smith’s own sense of curiosity and development in her life and these different life stages.
“Ambient composers are crafting sounds borne from the frustrations of current political and social problems.”
This feeds into ambient music’s ability to be cathartic and healing, conveying stories and themes often without words. As well as studies which suggest that ambient music/noise alleviates mood and increases productivity, research in 2015 by The Journal of Acoustical Society of America found that natural sounds such as flowing streams were one way to help temporarily lessen the symptoms of mental health issues. Bubbling brooks, the sounds of crows and other environmental noise have always been a very prominent feature in ambient music. A lot of this has been found in the depths of Bandcamp during 2017, with Rhucle & Mike Nigro, Origin Text, New York composer Oximeter and Chihei Hatakeyama heavily sampling various natural sounds.
In its different forms, music designed for, or informed by, healing has had a very tangible presence throughout 2017 – whether through home listening or in the club environment. When moments of calm and serenity are hard to find, music that releases chemicals in your brain to relax the muscles in your stiffly postured, stressed body plays a more important role. Put on your headphones, press play and drift away.