The Bottomless Well: A Natural History of Ambient Music – #1

“Very deep is the well of the past; should we not call it bottomless?” – Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers

I. We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live

Quick High School refresher before we get to the real topic: recall Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch’s seven basic conflicts (you learned them in lit class) – Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature, etc. These templates, culled from the Classical Greek and Roman mythic and literary tradition, are at the core of all storytelling, according at least to Western critical thought. Aristotle in particular claimed that the agon, or “act of conflict” and the protagonist or “hero” are the only really necessary pieces in the creation of narrative. According to subsequent egghead postulation (the only form of postulation), all narrative is reducible to this “Man vs Blank” construction, and therefore, in the centuries since Aristotle (and definitely in the decades since Quiller-Couch) narrative forms have really dug their heels into this belief.

Surprisingly, this is all a circuitous but necessary introduction to talking about ambient, drone and sacred music, because, weirdly enough, this admittedly simplistic Lit Crit 101 stuff is fairly important to the understanding of artistic genre, especially since “ambient” is one that makes its bones directly contradicting these subconscious preferences. That our culture has a universal baseline for the comprehension of narrative is generally taken as given, but it turns out that this seed of reflexive thought planted by ancient philosophers ends up being much more fundamental to our understanding of all art, and probably the world, than it would initially seem. Because, well, novels, myths and histories are not the only tales we spin. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, right? Not just the epics, the sagas, the legends, the myths; not just the beautiful, the vibrant, the heart-wrenching, the fearsome. We tell ourselves the banal and prosaic stories of how all the avocados were overripe at the supermarket, of how we’ll go to the gym later, of how our dogs are smart and love us exclusively. The pertinent fact here is that all of our stories, no matter how innocuous they seem and no matter how solidly they are rooted in verifiable fact, tend to follow this very same narrative progression, as much as, or more than, any novel would. This simple literary criticism turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we believe the rules of story are inherent, the more they are.

But it is important to remember that this Classical construction of story is neither singular nor eternal, but a theory based on very specific ideas from very specific cultures. Our literary tradition didn’t spring up fully formed from some Olympian’s head (see what I did there?); it was birthed — slowly, painfully — from a series of intellectual events, one predicated on the one before it. It’s a phenomenally epochal theory, of course — one that practically invented the Western Canon — but it is not an inescapable one. Popular music has not been spared this same theoretical regimentation though, mainly because it exists more in the narrative tradition than in the strictly musical one. Where classical music’s narrative is strictly musical, that is it relies solely on musical forms to convey its message, pop’s narrative is a linguistic one, meaning, for the most part, the message here is conveyed what is being said. This seems true for two reasons, a) the fact that the enjoyment of, let’s say, Led Zeppelin or De La Soul or Dusty Springfield seems to present itself as being dependent on the narrative thrust of  song (i.e. “I’m in love with you for these specific reason” or “My life is tough because of these things, which I will now tell you”, something of which music on its own is incapable) and b) the fact that a person (me) can love pop music while also have legitimately no clue as to how the musical part of it actually works.

II. All Is Impermanent, All Is Without Self

Look, I get that this is all pretty pretentious, but it’s also a helpful way of understanding the nature of ambient music. Because when justifying my love of the genre, which of course I have to do every time it comes up, I’m always brick-walled by the standard critical language of pop music. According to the standard rhetoric, yes, I guess, ambient music can be boring. It can be forgettable. It can be embarrassingly New Age-y.

But that’s only in comparison to the conventional view of pop music, a view that is bound to a very narrow narrative structure.  When we put aside our need for those deeply ingrained pathways, a really useful dichotomy springs up: if pop music follows the narrative constraints of the Classical mythology and dramas, then ambient music follows the traditions of both the Eastern religions and those of most Bronze Age peoples. It becomes the split between the Heroic and the Mystical. Compare the creation myths of the Western tradition — Zeus’ battle with the titans, or Odin fashioning the world out of a giant he slew — to this one from the Hindu Vedas,

“…Vishnu, in [his] sleep, dreams the dream that is the universe. The lotus of our universe arises [from his stomach]. On that lotus sits Brahma and every time Brahma opens his eyes a world age comes into being, governed by an Indra. He closes his eyes. He opens his eyes: another world age. He closes his eyes. This goes on for 360 divine years – eyes opening and closing – then the lotus dissolves, goes back.  And then another lotus, another Brahma: opening, closing. And then he says, “Consider the galaxies in the infinitudes of space, each with its own lotus, with its own Brahma, eyes opening, eyes closing.'”1

Not much room for heroism here. Or, actually, plenty of room, just no point. We start getting a sense of the origin of the otherness present in ambient music; rather than setting up a traditional Heroic epic like a pop song would (maybe one about doomed lovers, or the triumph over adversity) it sets up Mystical one, which means no epic at all. It creates no characters, set no events into motion, and passes no judgement.

But, if it doesn’t create a relatable legend, how then is it at all effective or affecting? Well, that’s where the mythic analogy is really sly; because as influential as those Classical Heroic myths are on our conception of story, they are not the sole contributors to our narrative history. Mystic mythologies encompass not only the entire religious tradition of the East, but also the primitive beliefs of people on pretty much every single continent and in every single country, including Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, Britain, and the United States (which is to say, what we’re talking about when we say “Western history”), and if we accept the point that, whether they’re taken literally or not, mythologies are indicative of a human tendency toward a specific feeling — as the Heroic myth is a tendency toward the belief that the story is important — we have to infer that all people have at least some inherent weakness for the emotional content of non-Classical myth. And in that lies the source of ambient music’s appeal; it speaks to something older than the epic, something lodged deep at the base of our brain stems, something mute, primal and inescapable.

1 Transcribed from Joseph Campbell’s Sukhavati (which is embarrassingly New Age-y at times, but also really interesting) because it’s the loveliest rendering of the myth I’ve found yet.
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One Comment on “The Bottomless Well: A Natural History of Ambient Music – #1”

  1. Wes
    March 5 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    1) The romantic in me wants to say, yes you are right, but the skeptic says there are a lot of assumptions here. Those assumptions are not necessarily good or bad. And the biggest problem I have, is that I would agree with most of your assumptions (particularly the Pop-gloss over ambient music claimed as “new age-y”). The linear story of ambient music may be primitive to a person who believes in musical theory. But musical theory arguably is the single most destructive force to Western musical growth.

    2) I like your style and very much enjoyed reading this.

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