Simon Reynolds looks back on a decade where serene music offered a counterpoint to digital maximalism.
As with much of the past decade's hipster embrace of New Age sounds, the Getty event hovers in a blurry zone between ironic and earnest. Sideshows include a macramé workshop, a demonstration of plant-aura Kirlian photography and the opportunity to coax sounds out of a Moog yourself. But there's also a series of performances from serious ambient musicians who've been given the brief to make sounds to nurture plant life. Playing on a stage flanked with shrubs, Gregg Kowalsky's jittery pulses seem more likely to make vegetation slither back into the soil. But when Emily A. Sprague—a member of the aptly named group Florist—takes a solo turn, you can practically see the foliage quivering with pleasure at the shimmery sounds she caresses from her synth.
Ambient and nature have long been entwined. On Land, the most innovative and amorphously eerie of Brian Eno's ambient albums, was inspired by memories of the "empty landscapes" of his childhood in Suffolk, England. The association has not always been considered positive: one American On Land reviewer sneered, "I'll bet plants love it." The implication is that tranquility is soporific and safe, a middle-aged retreat from the urban edge and restless energy of true youth music.
But this past decade has seen increasing numbers of young listeners turning on, tuning in and dropping off to the sounds of ambient and New Age. The pastoral motif resurfaces frequently, with a discernible note of desperation in the hankering for some kind of restorative sanctuary of sound. For instance, Huerco S.—one of this decade's leading ambient producers—told The Fader that although he records his albums in his Brooklyn apartment, "It's me wanting to make these sounds for myself that gives me an escape into the nature." This bucolic impulse has featured outside the bounds of ambient music too: early in 2019, Solange Knowles released the inward-looking When I Get Home, an album influenced by The Secret Life Of Plants, Stevie Wonder's synth-laced soundtrack for a 1978 documentary based on a New Age book about "the physical, emotional and spiritual relations between plants and man."
The connection between ambient and the rustic outdoors goes deeper than the longings that inspire the artists or the kind of imagery they use to title tracks and albums. The slowly and subtly shifting patterns in the music itself have a kinship with natural phenomena: drifting cloud-shapes, the way a breeze ruffles leaves and sways trees, the trickles and flickers of moving water. "Soft fascinations" like these have been proposed by some therapists as a brain-massaging remedy, a respite from the frantic pace and fixated attention of our digitally overstimulated lifestyles.
In this moment of social media churn and political news overload, the idea of a soniferous panacea that filters and purifies the atmosphere of our living environment as effectively as a potted plant has renewed appeal. So too does the idea of music that induces in the listener a kind of vegetative bliss, that slows down your metabolism and deepens your breathing. Across town from the Getty, in LA hipster haven Highland Park, Leaving Records—a bastion of the nu-New Age—hosts regular gatherings called Listen To Music Outside In The Daylight Under A Tree. The free, informal events—held in an "art park" by the 110 freeway—began as an intimate series focused on live ambient performances. The last couple Saturday afternoon shows have drawn hundreds to the terraced, tree-shaded community space. As Leaving cofounder and ambient musician Matthewdavid says, "being present and deep listening is very much needed now."