downloaded from the web on jan 29 1996 originally in URB dance magazine issue 33, December 1993. copyright 1297w


Main Space Queen Meredith Chinn and Dub-Head Todd C. Roberts investigate the world of Ambient Music speaking with the major Ambient Icons and Connoisseurs to give us the basics of Chilling Out.

Down a dark alley, a faceless warehouse stands alone but for a few souls fidgeting in the San Francisco cold. A faint thump rolls along the concrete walls. Inside through a long hallway, colored lights and projections fill the walls. The music is filled with the funky bells of disco and house. Only a smattering of dancers populate the area near the DJ, more fill the small room at the back glowing with candles and lit cigarettes. Beyond is a small rumble of bass.

Downstairs through the black curtain strewn over the narrow, rickety staircase, the rumble thickens. Descending the stairs, the bass builds and at the bottom the bass echoes out, phasing into the slow moan of deeply layered dub. The DJ nods in time to the slow dub; his face is only lit by a small row of candles and burning incense. A mass audience fills the floor atop beanbags and pillows, squatting in corners, resting against the walls.

On the floor, a liquid chrome voice floats in amongst the violins. "Space out," it says in the tiniest of voices, echoes, and then repeats. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, the sound of a waterfall cascades over me. A lush roar of jungle noises pans into the frame; the giggle of exotic birds and creatures. Water drips from the thick foliage. Butterflies the size of birds wander by amidst the deep green backdrop. If I weren't awake I'd think I was dreaming. As I look around the rest of the room, eyes gaze intently on the ambient shaman. A phasing whale noise rushes through the air, fading slowly into an echoed vocal fragment that transforms into a baby's cry. It's a complex and powerful force; the audience is listening.

Trying to describe "ambient" is like describing a marshmallow to someone who has never seen or eaten one. The task then of defining ambient music is a difficult one; and without limits, probably suicidal.

... Kim Cascone, producer for San Francisco's Silent Records, offers that ambient music is "atmospheric music with balls, with an attitude. It has an edge." Recently, a new generation has found a niche in applying different influences to what has been called everything from "new electronic music" to "armchair techno." It applies the same faceless delivery that most dance music possesses, yet with a departure into quietude. Ambient, like its cousin techno, reinvents itself at every turn. Although, sometimes, it works and other times it falls into background music mode; a long tack of boring, uninspired noise.

A bit nebulous by definition, ambient is like a wet ball of gum, picking up whatever it comes in contact with, taking a new shape with each move. With the arrival of sampling and digital simulation, ambient has been built largely by technology. Yet modern ambient music has increasingly embraced the sounds of other ancient cultures. Nick Phillip of San Francisco's Chill Core Collective believes that "technology affects consciousness." Nick is responsible for various "ambient parties" throughout California, travelling as a DJ and promoter of the culture. A firm believer in the power of ambient culture, he says that with technology we are able to reprogram sensibilities in our awareness. There is a dissolution of boundaries, of cultural differences." He uses the idea of the ambient chill-out room, a side room for dancers to relax, socialize and come down, as an example. He says it reflects what is happening in society today. "It's like a micro of that macro. The boundaries are blurred; between people, between songs. In that setting all of our reference points are gone. "This is the reason, he says, for increased attention to ancient or primitive cultures. "We're looking back to the ancients, to primitive civilizations, for information. Modern culture is rediscovering what primitive culture already knew. Gaian beliefs are becoming more important."

The sample list, or chart of influences, for most ambient music, largely stems from sounds found in nature. The backdrop to the sparce tones of ambient are splashes of rainforests, rain, whales, waterfalls, and bird cadences. Adam Douglas of Deeper Than Space defines ambient music as a constant. "Birds, wind, cars, people; a rhythm of random, natural sounds perpetually performed: the concert of life," read the liner notes of his Earthrise album. The intervention of technology is only an afterthought. "It's a human response to nature, like remixing nature," says Charlie Ambiento, an ambient DJ and designer for San Francisco based clothing and consciousness company Anarchic Adjustment.

However, ambient has as much to do with silence as it does with sound. The delays between heartbeats are as much part of the organism as the pulse. It is a balance between the two. Ambient music is surrounded by the potential for sound as well as the absence of sound. In fact, sometimes ambience is the space between sounds.

... Chill-out rooms have provided the context for ambient music among the niche of rave dance culture. They sprang up in response to the energy expelled from rave dancing and drug use. Chill-out rooms may be the place where the individual comes in. ...

"People really needed it because it would get so intense in the other room," Jonah Sharp of San Francisco based Space Time Continuum explains. Clubs started to hire ambient music DJs to soothe the sweaty dancer's mind and give the feet a rest. "It's a place where people communicate orally, not just physically by dancing, the music in those rooms are not just about whale noises, it's about an awareness of style with no rules attached. As Charlie Ambiento says, "It's not about keeping time, it's about being aware."

Ambient music tends to fall into a psychedelic framework; alluding to the spacey, hallucinogenic qualities of being stoned or under the influence of drugs. The music lends itself to this categorization through various techniques like echo and reverb. The deep meditative tones simulate the anodyne qualities of most popular drugs. However, according to most fans of ambient music, drug use is a personal choice. Charlie Ambiento says of ambient techno, "It's like trying to recreate the sounds you hear on DMT." He sees ambient music as the simulation of what it is to be high. He equates the psychological effects with those attributed to mushrooms, peyote, and LSD. Still many more believe that the question is irrelevant. Drugs are not an essential part of the ambient experience but rather spirituality provides the euphoria. Kim Cascone says that ambient is about the awareness of sound. "Anywhere in the world you have spiritual awareness, you have awareness of sound," he says.


The general consensus for all ambient DJs is that there are no rules. Charles of Anarchic and Jonah Sharp of Space Time Continuum are both part of the growing ambient scene in San Francisco, as DJs and promoters. "Ambient sound gardeners" are the doorkeepers to the ambient experience. However, the normal limits of dance music are gone. As a DJ, Nick doesn't follow the traditional methods of dance music. "I don't play much dance music anymore, in fact, practically none. It offers a sort of a rigid structure for playing music with the narrow slipstream of beats. Ambient music opens up many more possibilities." ...

This article originally appeared in URB dance magazine issue 33, December 1993. Reprinted with kind permission from the authors. [on website] The address for URB is 1680 N. Vine St., Suite 1012, Los Angeles, CA 90028.