Ambient music is growing in popularity, and Mancunian artist Bing Satellites is amongst the genre’s finest creators. He layers instrumentals to produce a gentle electronic sound, without a recognisable beat.
Bing is just one of Brin Coleman’s nine musical aliases. No fewer than eighteen long-form ambient releases have been released onto streaming platforms under the Bing Satellites moniker this year. Coleman is prolific, with over 350 releases in eleven years. After a slew of productions have been made available, the question remains: why now?
For many, lockdown brought the importance of turning off from the online sphere into sharper relief. This has been reflected in a string of a reflective, ambient-influenced electronic music releases. ‘Hypnotherapy’ from nthng, ‘ISO’ from DJ Planet Express and ‘Cape Cira’ from K-Lone (a radical departure from his earlier club-orientated releases) are prime examples of artists pivoting further towards a soft and introspective sound.
Listen to Bing Satellites’ You Saved Me
Faced with our virus-enforced seclusion and the never-ending intensity of the internet – which has affirmed its status as both utterly superficial yet strangely necessary throughout the coronavirus crisis – ambient music has served for many as an antidote. Ambient can be interpreted as the antithesis to online culture, a response to the shouty, in-your-face world of stans and cynics and listicles and bad-faith arguments that pervade social media.
Ambient serves as a sonic counterpoint to the endless internet churn; a space of stillness amongst the relentlessly disorientating and disconcerting; a remedy for strained nerves and an escape from the pressures of everyday existence.
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The coronavirus experience has only deepened the sense that there is indeed something out there from which we need to escape. Over the last few years there has been a notable rise in ‘group listenings.’ These events invite individuals to congregate in a collective space, comfortably seated and usually in total darkness, and listen to music.
In Leeds, Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen launched their first listening group meeting in April 2018. There, they listened (can I be forgiven for saying predictably?) to Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and Four Tet’s ‘New Energy.’ In November, the group listened ‘Untrue’ by Burial and ‘xx’ by The xx.
Ambient serves as a sonic counterpoint to the endless internet churn
Coming together and listening to emotional and introspective music in a silent and darkened room feels like a uniquely 21st century activity, indicative of the world in which we live, reflecting a desire to turn off from the attention-grabbing realties of modern life. With its commitment to slow-moving and long form pieces of music that are soothing and emotional, ambient seeks to do the same but in a comparatively private and individuated manner.
Ambient is also, however, indicative of our very inability to turn off. It challenges us to seek isolation and calm and yet sometimes serves only as a soundtrack to lives that are frenetic and hyper-connected. Rarely, when listening to music, am I doing nothing other than listening to music. I – like most others – find myself scrolling aimlessly, typing messages, reading articles (and writing this one), walking, cooking, working.
Ambient music is particularly good at enabling other behaviours. This is a statement that draws upon both anecdotal and academic evidence. When researching and writing my dissertation, I found ambient music helped me to focus. Locked-down, I spent hours writing away with ‘Shine,’ a 2019 ambient EP by the Dutch DJ and producer nthng, on repeat. There are numerous studies that draw strong connections between ambient, mental wellbeing and cognitive ability.
Indeed, ambient is often designed to enable the listener to do other things. Take 9128. Founded by the Californian label A Strangely Isolated Place, the site was initially conceived as a music blog and record label. 9128.live launched in August 2019 as a 24/7 online streaming service designed to provide “music in the background, without having to worry about what’s playing or when it ends.”
According to A Strangely Isolated Place, the service is rooted in the experience of insomnia, of “not wanting to scroll through my phone deciding on what to play”. It was conceived for those “waking in the middle of the night,” who just want to “hit play, and go back to sleep”.
Again, this is pertinent: research by the Centre for Population Change at Southampton University found that a quarter of the population over age sixteen have suffered from worry-related sleep loss during the coronavirus pandemic. “We observed a large increase in the number of Britons, both men and women, suffering anxiety-induced sleep problems”, they said.
Partial or divided attention feels inherent to the digital age: films are watched with phones in hand; ‘chill,’ ‘workout’ or ‘concentration’ playlists are the norm, as are ‘sleep sounds.’ Ambient fits neatly into this broader trend. Music writer and critic Liz Pelly has identified a move towards understanding music as “emotional wallpaper”: we increasingly select playlists tailored for us by algorithms depending on our mood, entrusting our taste to streaming services.
But ambient has always balanced this apparent paradox between deep-listening and divided attention. Brian Eno, who is widely credited with the genre’s genesis, stated that ambient, “must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular”. With a memorable phrasing, Eno declared: “it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”.
A quarter of the population over the age of sixteen have suffered from worry-related sleep loss during the coronavirus pandemic
But there is an apparent contradiction here. To Eno, ambient was “an atmosphere”, “a surrounding influence” and “a tint”. Yet ambient is not simply music designed to replace silence. It was intended to be interesting enough to inspire deep-listening and capable of bleeding into the fabric of things.
Bing Satellites feels very much of this tradition. His most popular 2020 release ‘A Place of Peace and Beauty (Ethereal Ephemera)’ sits within the ambient tradition of nostalgia, idealism and escapism. Its first song, the eighteen-minute ‘A Place Where Strangers Gather to Watch the Sunset’, has been streamed 719,000 times on Spotify. It is comforting and delicate: music that aims to create a bubble of tranquillity in an otherwise fraught world.
One potential criticism of ambient music is its acquiescence, its softness, its lack of urgency and radicalism. Ambient carves out a peaceful space for the listener without necessarily challenging the world they seek to escape. Its criticism of digital maximalism remains implicit.
Ambient does not fit the template of radical music. It is generally reflective rather than insistent. When producing his seminal ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports’, Eno was reportedly inspired by the “empty landscapes” of Suffolk. The ambient music he made reflected this environment: tranquil, serene, pastoral and cocooning, but perhaps also slightly middle-class and middle-aged.
Seth Kim-Cohen, author of Against Ambience, writes that “ambience is an artistic mode of passivity. Its politics, that is, the kind of relation it fosters with the world in which it exists, is content to let other events and entities wash over it, unperturbed. Ambience offers no resistance”.
As tempting as this criticism may be, it doesn’t stick. We all have to work within the systems and structures in which we find ourselves. If ambient producers like Bing Satellites can provide moments of peace, seclusion and stillness for themselves and their listeners in a world that feels increasingly fast-paced and off-kilter, then that can be taken as little else but a form of resistance.
But the desire to seek moments of peace and seclusion is not all that animates ambient music. It is not just about places of peace and beauty and strangers watching sunsets. Ambient is not socially disengaged. Lawrence English, in 12 notes towards a future ambient, writes: “ambient is never only music for escapism”.
Instead, according to David Toop, ambient should be understood as a form of music focused on space and environment that negotiates the hyper-productivity of contemporary capitalism. Toop argues that ambient “is a state of mind attuned to inclusivity rather than an industry genre whose aesthetic integrity depends upon withdrawal”.
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For Toop, there is no such thing as silence. We are all continually shaped by our environment and our environment is never totally silent. As such, ambient music, with its slowness, ambiguity and emotional depth “has the potential to affirm and redefine notions of intimacy in the era of ubiquitous remote, disembodied connection via digital networks”.
Here, he is arguing for a collective listening experience, one that reflects the missions of both 9128.live and listening groups like that formed by Belgrave in Leeds.
Ambient is about creating a sound-scape that has social potential. It is about creating music for airports, lobbies and collective urban spaces. It is also music that appeals to the individual, evoking emotions and personal experiences in the listener. It can boost productivity, and yet is set staunchly against the world of heightened demands and constant ‘optimisation’.
Ultimately, and in today’s cities more than ever, we cannot escape sound. There is always noise in the background and ambient wants to make that noise art.
The cover art for this piece was created by Lottie Peachey, you can find more of her work on Instagram.
Joe Ronan is Head of Editorial at Salt Magazine and is from South Manchester. He is interested in books, music and how the internet is changing culture. He also writes about sport. Follow Joe on Twitter @JoeRo99.