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From the Archives: before and after ambient

By Katie Giritlian

Jan 28, 2015

Over the course of two November nights in 1994, The Kitchen hosted before and after ambient. Curated by Ben Neill, the event was also the inaugural event for the series, Electronic Café. Electronic Café was a program in which many artists stationed at various studios and workshops in Los Angeles (including the Electronic Café’s headquarters in Santa Monica), Paris, London, Denmark, Asia, and South America collaborated via video conferencing, then a revolutionary technology. Before and after ambient filled the theater and gallery spaces (the first and second floors) of The Kitchen with simultaneous live performances by various experimental music artists, including artists performing and video conferencing from Santa Monica and London. This event, through its simultaneous shows, global inclusion, and conceptual title, exemplified the vast and complex nature of ambient music. These curatorial choices allowed for the nuances of each artist’s work to exist both independently and within larger, multilayered environments. 

Various attempts have been made to define ambient music since its inception in the 1970s with the compositions of Brian Eno. Even reviews of before and after ambient opposed one another in their fundamental understanding of the genre. Kyle Gann from the Village Voice stated that ambient music, specifically referring to one of the bands Zoar, is “superb at setting up a darkly dramatic background,” while Alex Ross countered this idea in The New York Times, stating that ambient music “does not serve as the background for unrelated events, rather, like certain modes of Minimalism, it aims to wrap the audience in its sensuous embrace.” Defining ambient music as solely ‘background’ strips it of its nuance and active complexity; whereas, defining it as an all encompassing ‘embrace’, acknowledges that both the music itself as well as the larger environment the artists create with the aid of visuals and other effects have many moving parts. Ross’s line implies that people must be open to the music in order to experience its atmosphere, and so the audience is included as another moving part in the larger experience. Whether described as a ‘background’ or as an ‘embrace,’ one of the unifying themes of ambient music is the desire to create an environment, whether through the creation of many sonic layers, other sensory materials, or physical structures. 

The Kitchen’s two-story layout allowed the viewer to explore the rich differences of each act. While some artists like Cypher 7 created an electronic mood that was upbeat and funky, others, like Zoar, created a slower melody and used effects like smoke machines. Some artists, like Jaron Lanier, used “no additional atmospheric aid” at all and created a “dissonant piano improvisation” (Ross). Other artists created an environment by including and re-contextualizing found, recorded material, but practiced this in different ways. The duo Tetsu Inoue and Terre Thaemlitz layered “snippets of older recordings” to build repetitive and textured phrases, creating an accessible melody (Gann). In contrast, Christian Marclay used fragments from telephone conversations and telephone rings in cinema and arranged them in arbitrary phrases to create a disorganized and violent environment. 

Having two floors also gave the audience the autonomy to choose in which space they wished to be. This agency encouraged a reciprocal relationship between the music and the audience that is already embedded in ambient music’s embrace. Just like with any landscape, how people feel as they interact with a space has a role in how that space is defined. So, by asking the viewer to choose their environment, the event is highlighting and strengthening the very implicit collaboration, between audience and music that goes into the construction of these soundscapes. Further, as “DJ Spooky…mixed his turntables with those of two unidentified D.J.s on the other coast…an amiable, free flowing chaos of sound resulted.” (Ross). This globalization further showed the event’s priority to include people, and how that geographic extension further expanded the music’s content. In the press release, this virtual, joint effort was described as an attempt to “explore the ‘human factor’ in future technologies” in the event's program

Ben Neill demonstrated a fundamental aspect of ambient music by emphasizing the inclusion of people. If ambient music had “opened up a weird area in between art and vernacular,” then before and after ambient’s presentation pointed to this very median role that ambient music had made for itself (Gann). By creating a physical framework that encouraged subjectivity while also aiming to include people from all different parts of the world, before and after ambient was itself a median between art and the rest of the world. In premising itself as an event that required the subjectivity in people’s feedback, it defined ambient in the multiplicity of varying human responses, rather than in a universalizing, academic definition. Even the title itself referred to everything directly ‘before’ and ‘after ambient,’ and thus this absent middle showed an understanding on behalf of the event, that what ‘ambient’ was and still is, is too large and complex to be defined in a single sentence.

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