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November 26, 2010

Apart from :  “am·bi·ent (ām’bē-ənt)  adj.   Surrounding; encircling” what does it mean?

I’ve been mulling this post over for a while.

I don’t mean a day or two, or the last few weeks. I mean years. Yes, I do take on board that years ago I couldn’t possibly have considered the term ‘blog’ or ‘wordpress’ or ‘internet’ – (that’s right, kids, there was a time Before The Internet Existed) but that’s not what I mean and I know you know that. I’ve been thinking about it – ambience – since the mid-eighties.

For starters, I became aware of the feeling of it, or the experience of it before I was aware of the word, the meaning of ambience. There would be times when walking back from the fields behind our school, after a long day exploring or playing football or just walking back from school – in-between times, if you like, down-time that stood outside of interactions and events. At those times, I would tune-out from thoughts and words and that interminable ‘voice’ inside my head, my narrative voice, and become aware of ‘something else’. This is not supposed to sound deliberately vague or woolly; if I could I would spend even longer on discovering the words to name these experiences specifically. I just happen to think that they don’t exist.

I filed these experiences away and allowed myself to move on, get home, dissolve into family meal times, or get on with homework, coursework, writing, etc. Days would pass before I would get that feeling again, not recognising that I could actively seek out the experience if I chose to do so. Then, just shortly before my ‘O’-levels (history check – exams we used to take before GCSE‘s or whatever they’re called nowadays), I spoke to my drama teacher, the amazing Mr. Horton, about how I could relax around revision time. He put my onto some relaxation tapes, a few books on meditation and the rest, as they say, is history.

When I found I could create that wider, bigger-picture, universal mindset on my own I was amazed. It did not end there, though. Feeding back my experiences to Mr. Horton with such enthusiasm, such glee, about how it had made a huge difference he then suggested that I tried to repeat the exercises but this time with accompanying music. I must have given him a quizzical look because he then wrote down a list of records (#ageisshowingagain – records are what mp3 files used to be called but were printed out flat onto a black material called vinyl and then accessed through the direct application of a needle. Yes, a needle. Isn’t history interesting?) that didn’t include any of my then restricted repertoire of Queen, or The Police, or Eurythmics.

Among the titles on that list was Gnossiennes by Erik Satie. Although I would, in later years, whilst working in an independent record shop file this very piece of music in Classical, it was my first entry into Ambient. Why do I think this? Because when I first listened to it in a heightened sense of awareness I felt completely surrounded by it, encircled by the piece, almost inside it. From there my hunger for similar sounds and experiences blossomed. I beat a path to that same record shop that I would later work in and refused to leave until someone behind the counter made me a longer list of recommendations based on the Satie piece. More classical, more ambient, more anything different but excellent.

On that new list was a name that – for me – has become synonymous with Ambient ever since. Brian Eno.

I can still remember the feeling – in fact, I’m getting it now as I write about it – that flooded over me when I listened to “Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks“. It was the closest I will ever come to floating in space. I played the album over and over and over. I listened to it at night, looking up at stars, so many times that when I play it now, I see constellations. If you haven’t listened to it, or bought it already, then please, I beseech you – rectify this anomaly with immediate haste. Go! Come back to this page once you have experienced it.


Cover of

Cover of Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks


From Eno, I discovered EG records and went through their entire stock, then discovered Harold Budd, Roger Eno, Laraaji. I devoured the record section of the library – small at the time, huge by the time I’d requested new title after new title. I left school, got the job at Andy’s Records and made myself the Ambient expert. The go-to guy for info on the best to listen to. I became the rep’s best friend and started ordering titles for the shop as well. Our racks and shelves soon filled with Ambient #1 – Music For Airports, The White Arcades, Lovely Thunder, Angels In The Architecture.

From there it was a simple jump to movie soundtracks (Ennio Morricone, James Horner, Thomas Newman, etc) and a lot more electronica (Aphex Twin, Warp Records, James Fahy, LUXX, etc).  Everywhere there was music that accompanied, complimented and revealed a deeper world – a connection with something other, larger, wider.

For me, that is Ambient. If you haven’t already felt it…search for it now. There are links all over this article. I’m now the Mr. Horton of your journey.


Further reading:

Geeta Dayal’s excellent article Meeting Brian Eno (

or buy her wonderful book Another Green World (

Further listening:

Check out the links to the right under Music.


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From → Memoirs

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