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Ambient and Drone

1 October 2010

1934 to the 70’s

Muzak was started in 1934 and until 1987 was a source of extremely annoying background music of the 1001 Strings, elevator music variety. John Cage first proposed a silent piece as something for Muzak to play. In 1969, the General assembly of the International Music Council of UNESCO passed a resolution condemning Muzak. In 1973, R Murray Shafer was pamphleting against Muzak.

Then, in 1974, Brian Eno was hit by a taxi cab and got the idea for music that fit into the environment while he was recovering in bed. For more, see his essay in Audio Culture pg 94-97. In 1978, he released Music for Airports. Thus ambient music was invented. He wanted to “induce calm and a space to think” and use the music as a tinting effect. It could be used “to modify our moods in almost subliminal ways.” (quotes from Ocean of Sound by David Toop around page 9-ish)

Ambient music must be “as ignorable as it is interesting” and thus can not be programmatic, as people may drop in and out of listening at any time.

The 80’s

New Age is and was a quasi-spiritual movement that incorporates ideas like using Tarot Cards to make decisions, believing in horoscopes, psychic powers, communicating with aliens or angels. There is no single set of beliefs. Adherents pick the ones that work for them. There is a tendency to idealise an imagined pre-Christian utopic past and a tendency towards problematic exoticising appropriation of eastern beliefs. But, again, adherents can vary widely in their beliefs and practices.

They wanted music that would be unobtrusive and useful for things like meditating, doing yoga, seeing a massage therapist or whatever. This is related to ambient music because it seeks to induce calm and relaxation. In 1981, Tower Records in Mountain View, California added a new age bin. Hearts of Space was an important radio show and record label, which played this music, also called “space music.”

It was optimistic and represented the future. In 1986, Constance Demby Released, Novus Magnificat: Through the Stargate, which sold 200k copies and is the best selling new age record of all time. (It is not on spotify or in the library, sorry.) It references western hymns and spiritual music, is endlessly hopeful and has several slowly building climaxes and follows normal western musical form. The timbres she uses are very classic FM synthesis sounds. She rejects the label ambient.

The 90’s

Alex Patterson worked with Eno and DJed in chillout rooms. The did ambient stuff under the name The Orb. We listened to Montagne D’Or (Der Gute Berg), which I think sounds cool.

Aphex Twin, who claims not to have known of Eno, released Selected Ambient Works, which is in the library. We listened to Rhubarb.

Dark Ambient

Coming from ambient, but going the opposite direction as New Age, we get Dark Ambient. Some of Aphex Twin’s stuff is considered dark ambient. We listened to Tree.

Nurse With Wound is also a dark ambient group. They also do noise and drone. We listened to Spiral Insana 2, which is not on spotify of in the library.

And Robert Rich is also a dark ambient guy. We listened to The Simorgh Sleeps on Velvet Tongues, which is a very drone-y piece.


Drone has roots in Indian music and also in western music with folk instrumentes like the Hurdy Gurdy or the bag pipes. La Monte Young did drone stuff in the 60’s with his Dream House installation. It started as a high art, acoustic genre. Important acoustic droners include The Deep Listening Band (who do use electronics sometimes), and Ellen Fullman.

Phill Niblock has been doing electronic drone for a long time. We listened to a bit of Pan Fried Part 2. He builds up clusters of tones only a few Hz apart and uses many channels.

Eliane Radigue is a french drone artist who uses electronics. We listened to some of Elemental 2 which is not on spotify or in the library. And a bit of Maggi Payne who is similarly not available.

Adam Menzies, aka: _i is a drone artist who used to be a rave DJ. He was a strong believer in PLUR – Peace, Love, Unity and Respect, but the world got him down and now he does sad music. We listened to a few moments of thehammondanditelleachotherwhatwe’vebeenupto.

Eleh is a drone artist fo unknown identity who has a CD out now. We listened to HeleneleH

William Basinski is also a big influence of a lot of drone artists. His Disintegration Loops are literally the sounds of tape falling appart. The music is a recording of the process of destruction.

Dave Seidel is another drone composer. I quite like his work and it’s all up on his website for download.

Techniques of Making Drone

You can slow down samples. Shamantis showed that even Justin Bieber sounds good if you play him slowly enough. He used a FOSS programme called PaulStretch, which you can get from the Mac download site or for Windows or Linux. The windows/linux page also has instructions on how to use it. (FOSS means Free and Open Source Software)

Or you can do some droning with SuperCollider. The following code example is extremely processor intensive:

b =, "sounds/a11wlk01.wav");

	x = SynthDef(\drone_buffer, { arg out = 0, bufnum, startFrame, dur, grainDur, rate = 1,
									amp = 0.2;
		var env, player, speed;
 		env =, (grainDur - 0.011), 0.001, amp), doneAction:2);
 		speed = rate *;
 		player =, bufnum, speed, startPos: startFrame); out, player * env)

		\instrument,	\drone_buffer,
		\rate,		0.5,
		\bufnum,		b.bufnum,
		\grainDur,	0.05,
		\dur,		1/440, 
		\amp,		0.1,
		\startFrame,	Prout({ |evt|
						var frame;
						frame = 0;
						{frame < b.numFrames}.while({
							frame = frame + 3;

From → electronica

One Comment
  1. Thanks for the mention, Les. You put me in some very nice company!

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