The Bottomless Well #2

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

III. A Space To Think

In the liner notes to his landmark 1978 album Music for Airports/Ambient 1, legendary music producer Brian Eno defined the genre he was inventing like this:

Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, 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 leveling out the natural ups and downs of the body rhythms) Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.

For the record, Eno’s Muzak™:

Like all creative acts – like all acts of creation, that is – this manifesto ends up being a fascinating colloid of ballsy pioneering and hapless reclamation. As much as I, and I’m guessing most of us who buy into the whole artist/rock star mythos, am susceptible to the idea of a musician as iconic, important, and – whether the public knew it or not – popular as Eno taking a long weekend just to fucking invent a new genre of music, it’s not really the whole story. It couldn’t be; what we were talking about last time (read it! read it! read it!) implies that the reason music affects us emotionally is largely due to atavistic antediluvian stimuli burrowed in our subconscious. Cultural history has drilled us full of holes, and we use music to fill them.

Eno’s manifesto on the subject – and the subsequent albums he produced and then inspired – may be revolutionary in popular music, but from a deeper historical perspective, it actually couldn’t be more regressive. Let’s recount his points real quick: ambient music is supposed to 1) blanket the environment, 2) induce calm and, 3) provide a connection between the physical world and the cosmic by allowing the listener a space to ponder the “doubt and uncertainty” of life. These ideas sound very much like the impetus for the creation of religion to me.

IV. This Precarious Tenure

In the opening paragraphs of his classic ethnographic work The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer tells of a sacred grove nestled under the village of Nemi in Bronze Age Italy, that served as a temple to an early aspect of the Mediterranean goddess Diana, called Diana of the Wood. Frazer writes,

In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.¹

Pithy point being, as far back as we (archeologists, &c.) can go, religion’s main function was to address the inherent difficulty of life. Pre-classical Italy was not a easy place to live, so the beliefs systems it birthed were appropriately rough. The reason that – as far as it makes sense to me – ancient religions all dealt with cosmic problems rather than the more prosaic strictures of the “modern” theism of the Mediterranean or Levant is because, in the far past, the only certainties of life were, in order:

1) You’re going to die, painfully and soon

2) You won’t ever know why because you’re ignorant as all hell

3) Because of 1 and 2, there’s nothing you can do about 1 or 2

Ancient people didn’t really have the time to worry about “sin” or “good and evil” or “what types of shellfish are OK to eat, if any” or “how long to keep your finger nails” – they were too busy trying to survive. With no ontological breakthrough in sight, they instead found solace by diving head first into figuring out our place within the grand, unknowable machine of the universe. And life didn’t provide them any reason to believe they were more than it’s tiniest cog.

V. Stay With Me Here, We’re Still Talking About Ambient Music I Promise

Essentially what Eno is describing in his little thesis is the creation of a music that already exists. It’d take a much, much smarter man than I to explain the origin of music as spiritual expression, but I can say this: as far back as we find religion, we find what is known as sacred music – a genre which encompasses hymns, Vedas, Guru-kirtan, sutras, Ghazals and the many forms of religious chants, from Shomyo to Gregorian. Eno’s definition of “ambient music” is also the definition of the music which is an integral part of nearly every religion that has ever existed in the world. And, therefore, the vast majority of human beings on Earth already have at least a passing familiarity with the form and function of this “new” music. (Transitive property = dummy math.)

As evidence, let’s talk about Turkey’s famous Whirling Dervishes. The dervishes are practitioner’s of Sufism, a mystic sect of Islam (very) roughly comparable to Jewish Kabbalah or “Heresy of the Free Spirit” era Christianity. Watch them for a sec:

Whirling is a Sama or physical meditation; the idea behind it being that the motion destroys the individual’s conception of the world around him,  thereby destroying his conception of himself (or, in one of religion’s rare egalitarian moments, herself), and allowing the mendicant to hear the quiet music of the cosmos. In many orders, the dervishes sing, chant, or play instruments while whirling as a from of prayer to Allah. Obviously this is all quick summation, and Sufism has a huge tradition and history behind it, but it adds up like this: in the case of the dervishes, music is used to 1) blanket the environment, 2) induce calm and, 3) provide a connection between the physical world and the cosmic by allowing the worshiper a space to ponder the “doubt and uncertainty” of life.

Honestly, there are hundreds if not thousands of examples, most of which are not as exotic as the Dervishes. Think of hymns at church when you’re slowly marching up to take Communion, or the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah, where a boy has to sing his way through the Talmudic wisdom. But the examples aren’t all so contemporary either, but stretch back into to far past, and can be seen in the Orphic myth cycles, American Indian death songs, Buddhist Shomyo chanting, and the Hindu Vedas that we talked about before. Music as mystic prayer has existed since back in those shadowy eons of prehistory.

Eno ended reinterpreting rather than creating. We don’t really live in the world of mystic religions anymore; they still exist, of course, but the modern conception of “religion” is much more literal. Churches are more interested in saying”yes” or “no” than pondering the imponderables, and aren’t really interested in providing that “communion with the infinite” that was the whole reason for religion in the first place. It no longer fills the need that still exists within most people², the inner voice that yearns for the spiritual connection to the cosmos.

Ambient music fills this gap. Eno didn’t birth a genre of music from his head fully formed, but altered a previously existing one to fit a new purpose: religious experience for the non-religious. By removing the moralizing and philosophy from religious music, he reconstituted the genre into something much more in line with it’s original purpose, allowing the listener a space to reflect on the nature of life itself.  Consciously or not, he took the ancient art and transformed it, wringing secular from sacred, catholic from Catholic.

¹ Attention Heavy Metal Dudes: this is song handed to you on a blood-caked bone platter. Get it the fuck done.
² I really want to say “all people” here, in spite of my better judgement. Even if, somehow, you were raised in an atmosphere devoid of any spiritual impetus, I’d say you would still have been instilled with the same triggers the rest of us were.  Literally every idea we live by has some basis in spirituality; ideas don’t come from nowhere. Everything is tied to the hundreds of thousands of years of human history the preceded it, which were dominated by spiritual thought. Religion, morality, philosophy, politics, art theory, narrative: it’s all grown from the same seed.

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