Every revolution is preceded by its music. Even the revolution of Copernicus was preceded by the modernization of Polish music by the French art song. Counter-revolutions too find their prophecy in the music which advances before them. The Reagan-era found its own bloated voice in the MTV generation of arena-sized cults of (im)personality. The question might then be asked; what politics are anticipated in the circulation of ambient music? An open-ended question to be sure.
Several years ago, when ambient house first entered the night, ambience was the musical production of a recycling sensibility. Chill DJs eschewed the newest advances in musical technology for an all-night mix of dusty vinyl your cooler friends would be embarrassed to own. The bane of the punk revolution, prog rock, served as the raiding bin for ambient DJs like Alex Paterson and Mixmaster Morris. Why prog rock? Paterson, himself a child of the slacker culture in London, admits in interviews that besides obscure dub recordings, prog rock vinyl was the music of squatters. In other words, ambient music found its fermentation in the obsolete world of vinyl--very used vinyl. Paterson's first chill-out rooms at the club Heaven consisted mainly of Manuel Gottsching, Steve Hillage's Rainbow Dome Musick, nature recordings and cassettes of pillaged television samples. Indeed, junk music for club culture. Today, that sort of recycling has been usurped by the mass of product released by record companies under the rubric of "ambient." However, despite this appropriation (which, as an appropriation of an appropriation is the very definition of pop culture dialectics), the conceptual frame of ambient music remains, particularly for those of us who ask; what revolution is heralded by this musical project?
In a recent interview in Trip Magazeen,1 ambient artist and DJ, Terre Thaemlitz was asked to articulate his conception of ambient music. His answer bears particular significance to our own materialist, activist concerns. Thaemlitz is swift to remove from the genre the metaphysical baggage so often associated with ambience. He begins:
Thus, for Thaemlitz, ambient music is not music for a social experience. It is not some soundtrack intended for the sphere of human relations (the very definition of the political), but that sphere itself. If one could prove that music has always operated in a political space (e.g., Jacques Attali's Noise), perhaps one could suggest that ambient music is the very channel of that operation. But to what extent does the amplification of operations empower activism? We have to keep in mind that any form of cultural production is political. Politics were a determining factor when legitimate music was a matter of aristocratic patronage. Politics continued to determine the composition of music when radio threatened the power of publishing companies--leading to government regulation, ensuring control by those same corporations. Today, on a field of multi-national entertainment conglomerates and the tyranny of global economies, romantic notions about music being the universal language resonates in a distinctly political manner. That a global (itself a term from political economy) dance culture produces music without local referents or culturally-specific traces speaks more to the domination of capital and a world market than it does about some "cosmic essence" in the music itself. Furthermore, that this music is electronic recalls the very channels of capital's flow. Hence the truly prophetic message of Kraftwerk's "Computer World," in which the lyrics, sung by an electronically-altered voice, consist of the names of multi-national corporations and information conglomerates.
Before we go on, we want to clarify that this does not mean that the only proper type of music for resistance is a naively-formulated folk music. The same romanticism that attempts to excavate transcendence in global music, does so in the provincial. What else could invest the nostalgic strains of indigenous folk music with purity and unity than the belief that music is a global language, intelligible to all? It is the presupposition of a metaphysics which puts music outside of the complex web of human relations. What an incredible ruse this sentiment is. Provincialism, like the more politically charged ideology of nationalism is not something to be preserved, particularly within dangerous notions of purity and totality. Nor is it something to be sampled wholesale without any inquiry into its origins and power relations (e.g., digital colonialism: sampling non-western musical forms simply to evoke the "primitive" and the "native" without any inquiry into the histories of those concepts in industrialized cultures). We should be alarmed when any form of romanticism sets itself up at the expense of real and material social relations. The global economy is one such social force. What then is a response available to the musician who sees herself as part of a legacy which resists the determination of the marketplace? What strategies are possible in the resistance against ideologies which serve to mask, and more dangerously still, naturalize that determination?
For us, these questions arise out of our own position as musicians slash activists. Now is not the time to explain at length the context of our political activities, but we don't think the questions are necessarily peculiar to one mode of activism. Speaking to activists in different fields of struggle--health care activists, feminists, environmentalists, labor activists and queer activists--when that person also considers herself an artist, issues of the relationship between cultural production and intervention are indeed central to both practices. From this perspective, strategies are not simply a matter of theory but, as Lenin has extolled us, revolutionary theory born from revolutionary action.
One such strategy employed by musicians has been to speak directly to power as it is organized by political/economic institutions. This is a music that positions itself on the edge of revolution--on the limits of social transformation. Hence rap artists such as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Consolidated and Ice T speak to the way in which government cooperation with big-business institutionalizes the machinery of exploitation. In brief, these artists contend that a capitalist economy requires exploitable labor, therefore, what better way to construct that population than to enforce poverty and racial prejudice so that one class or group is kept in a position of subjugation. This tactic of "speaking to the truth" unites a wide spectrum of musicians from street-rappers, media terrorists to European artists such as the Irish and British-Jamaican quartet The Marxman. For the later, the notion of an imminent revolution still holds powerful attraction over their own politics and music-making. In a recent interview in URB magazine,2 Marxman rapper Phrase yearns for that great revolution to come: "I'm hopeful. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a 100 days, or could happen in a 100 years. Who knows what tomorrow brings?" It is noteworthy to see that this sort of messianic urge still reigns in the minds of a few Marxist-Leninists.
What happens when that future revolution, the revolution of the masses, passes through us in repeated manifestation, such as the rebellions of Watts and the Rodney King uprising? Or, when the revolution is enacted on a constant level by activists, lay-people and the contradictory forces of capital grinding against themselves? Blindness to these truths produces its own crisis for traditional Marxists for whom social transformation is often restricted to the terms of a workers' movement. If identity politics has demonstrated anything it is the potential for capitalist exploitation to radicalize other subject positions as well, including those defined by race, sexuality and gender. However, once this focus is lost, most activism devolves into sectarianism or liberal posturing. What is needed is a form of political activism that embraces the community organizing of identity-oriented activism and a critique of capitalist organization. In the terms of musical production, one possibility may be an approach to sound that labors to amplify its own system of production and circulation. Thus, in addition to "speaking to the truth," another strategy for sounding cultural resistance has more to do with the forces of social transformation in the sound itself, particularly a sound that amplifies social relations as they exist presently. This, we might say, is the revolution on the edge of music.
Central to the experience of hearing ambient music is a suspended sense of anticipation. One music critic described listening to Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2 by Aphex Twin3 as "waiting for something that never happens." What does it mean to await an absence? Obviously, that something in its absence is not posterior to our listening experience, but always already past. What sound is heard when what one expects to hear never arrives? Its replacement is the waiting--the "to comeness" of the event. To borrow a term from astro-physics; a music of an event horizon, a horizon which is positional, not fixed and entirely unstable. To describe a music as an amplification of the mundane--that which is invisible in its obviousness--a music which defers its structure and stability for the pleasure of radical improvisation--anticipating and suspending what is "to come"; for us, these are nothing less than the elements of a politics. Is not this "to-comeness" the very language used by political activists and revolutionaries? And not just by communists but by any theory which holds onto its object in the realm of anticipation. Of course this would probably come as a surprise to most ambient artists and theorists. In many ways, this intimation is a sort of meta-text; our own attempt to act in the gap between our public space and the music which never seems to happen except in its anticipation. For what else is political action but a continual negotiation between the here/hear-and-now (as it is understood, provisionally, on a limited basis) and our sense of what is to come? We may articulate that particular "what is to come" as an imminent resolution in music, or as a manifestation of "radical democracy," or even a "communist democracy" the very object of Marx's anticipation which he saw working itself out (through human relations) amidst the internal crisis of world capitalism.
The question remains (or, as for what remains of our question), what politics can we intimate in ambient music? Perhaps a reply to this question can be suggested in a diversion (rather than a clarification). We are not trying to suggest that ambient music is the music of cultural radicals. The preponderance of new-age metaphysics would certainly prove that contention incorrect. Neither are we suggesting that ambient music in some way substitutes for direct political action. On the contrary, no matter how eloquent our formulations and how subversive our compositions, the powers of capital will not collapse at the sound of ambience. Rather, and with this we shall conclude, ambient music in its organization of sound and in the way it demands the listener to hear the commonplace, appears to propose an approach to the social relations which govern the listener of ambience (the subject of ambience). Certainly corporate bodies will profit from the genre. Sales will, for a time increase with the flood of product. But any such commodification must first contend with the simple fact that what is being marketed is its own social relations. If ambient music is the amplification of human relations amidst a capitalist economy, then what ambient music markets is that network of power required by capital to be in the background - the "ambient" market, gone public.
This essay, originally published in two parts, appeared in issues 3 and 4 (May 20 and 27, 1994) of Contact, the 'zine of the Los Angeles ambient/electronic music club Public Space.
1 Jay Patrick Ahern, "Terre Thaemlitz: Ambient Technics & Psychic Ability," Trip Magazeen, volume 14, April 1994, p. 16.
2 Aidin Vaziri, "Permanent Revolution: Marxman Signals the Revolt," URB, number 36, June 1994, p. 27.
3 Sheffield, UK: Warp Records, 1994.