And yet, the dominant vision of ambient music today is a cartoonish inversion of these aspirations. In a multi-billion dollar wellness industry, streaming platforms and meditation apps frame the mood as background music – something for detached listening and consumption. It’s spa and yoga music, or field recordings for peaceful, restful sleep. Instead of embracing the potential of the ambient – its ability to soften barriers and loosen ideas of sound, politics, temporality and space – music became instrumentalized, reduced to sound as a backdrop .
It’s a funny thing to think of ambient music as utility, like it’s something that allows for selective engagement. As musician Lawrence English wrote, “To ignore music is not to listen to it.” On the contrary, to experience ambient music – to allow one’s political, philosophical and oppositional insights to become visible – requires full use of the senses. It means tapping into the sensory vitality of life: the tactile, spatial, vibrational and auditory experiences that human beings offer us.
Experimental music pioneer Pauline Oliveros foresaw how a sensory approach to music and listening could cultivate politically dynamic thinking. She has spent her life developing a theory of deep listening, a practice that promotes radical attention. In this approach, there is a distinction between hearing and listening; the first is a superficial awareness of space and time, and the second is an act of immersive concentration. “Deep listening takes us below the surface of our awareness and helps shift or dissolve limiting boundaries,” she wrote in 1999. “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, collect the meaning, interpret and decide on the action.”
In 1974, in response to the turmoil of the Vietnam War, Oliveros published a series of text scores entitled “Sonic Meditations”, a precursor to his theory of deep listening. The project explores how body-focused sound exercises can promote focused perception. Oliveros developed “sound meditations” from gatherings of women she held in her home. At these meetings, the group, which emerged in the context of the women’s liberation movement, practiced breathing, journaling, and kinetic awareness exercises weekly. The experience was designed to be communal, using intimacy and introspection to nurture a sense of healing.
I practiced deep listening with my “if you need to breathe” playlist, especially with new-age innovator Laraaji’s composition “Being Here”. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when “Being Here” clicks: maybe it’s at the 10-minute mark, or the 15-minute mark or even at its beatific 25-minute ending. Laraaji, who has been releasing music since the late 1970s, produces auditory glossolalia – divine, luminescent melodic debris. Listening to his music, I’m held in an unspoken embrace with his vision of the present, notes refracting like sunlight caressing the azure waters of the ocean. It’s music that rolls around in the ears, changing into an imaginary Elysée Palace, stopping time and space. It is not just a decoration, not a mere balm for immeasurable pain.