Ambient Burnout

In the lead-up to the UK’s last general election, I took it upon myself to campaign with my party, Labour. Most days for a few weeks this entailed going to people’s houses, trying to navigate their Murdochian talking points, and being scolded for trying to trick them into voting in their own interest.

I anticipated this would be a demoralizing experience, and had arranged with my wife to go together on a holiday retreat the day following the vote. If we won, we’d be celebrating, but if we lost I could rest and recuperate. Reading, walking, reflecting on the good things, hopefully these activities would help me steel myself for Christmas.

Our holiday ‘cottage’ was a converted radar tower, used in the war to detect approaching enemy submarines. Heavy ceiling-to-floor shutters opened to reveal the flat and empty Essex countryside. Flat and empty felt right, resonant, and it was a feeling I wanted to distill. In these circumstances, I always reach for a sequencer.

The therapeutic benefits of listening to ambient music are well documented. If you’ve not tried listening to ambient music, you might expect it to make you feel drowsy or chilled out. My experience is different: it brings clarity and cohesion to the clatter of the world around me, helping me to find focus.

Making ambient music helps me further. It’s partly because I’m not good at doing nothing, because it makes me feel guilty, so I tend to rest by taking up something creative. But I think it also has something to do with reclaiming a sense of control. Ambient music becomes the sound of what I see. In the radar tower, the oscillations of sounds and arpeggiations of notes that I’m creating are the twitching blades of grass in the sun beyond the forecourt of the tower. The ambience I’m creating is the environment in which I’m sitting. I come to peace with the world as I come to peace with myself.

There are many ways to create ambient music. Some people work exclusively with synthesizer pads; others take prerecorded audio and obliterate it. I am only able to enjoy listening to the ambient music I create if it is new to me as I play it back. Recently, this has been a case of randomizing MIDI triggers within certain parameters.

The following piece is just one piano chord, heavily reverberated and put through Logic’s built in MIDI arpeggiator. Note order is set to random, and the octave range 4. In addition, the ESX24 sampler fluctuates the pitch bend value, giving it that wavering, woozy feel.