The creator of ambient music was actually accused of being fraudulent and using naivete of his listeners, telling them that this music is more than it actually is. Common sense would argue against listening to some wooshing for an hour. So what does this music have to go against those arguments? Why would we spend time on it if there are far more engaging genres out there? Well, it all boils down to the listener, and more precisely, how patient they are and what is their sound/music philosophy. It also requires a certain mindset to not expect any sudden movements in your music and to not be as concentrated on it as you would be on something else. For a common listener it may be difficult to get in such mindset on their own, but thanks to having that music so often in other forms of media we consume, it finds its way to our minds when we least expect it. In that case, we already have our minds occupied, leaving only a tiny piece of our concentration to listen to ambient’s gentle humming. Exactly what it needs to prevent our brains from searching for sounds.
It may not be giving „a lot” but it will never take away from the experience.
I mentioned in the last part that ambient is a very spacious genre. It gives you a sense of a sonic world around you (even if it is very modest), gifting you with a sense of solitude, which is why some people find it relaxing and calming. Videogames and movies use it to give the illusion of world being far bigger than it actually is. Martin Stig Andersen, phenomenal sound designer and ambient composer, used gloomy ambient in Limbo to broaden the game’s perceived world but also co-create it. Tracks like Boy’s Fort are thick and deeply depressing, which signifies the metaphysical position of the dead children – they are in a void. Non-existence and abyssal depth are all this soundtrack reminds me of when it closes me inside Limbo’s hopeless world, inside vaccum. It does a great job at hinting how big this world is and how distant it is from us, something a flat screen of a 2D side-scroller cannot fully achieve without proper sound. Here, the music chokes you and closes you of, it tells how this cold world works and allows you for one conclusion – you are alone in the endless abyss and there is no way out. The world goes endlessly just like the echoes in the piece of music.
Pragmatic, but maybe not so artistic function of ambient is also welding together many pieces together into one musical, sonar experience, no matter the mechanics or tempo of the game. Music is often separated into different sections, areas and mechanics, especially in sandbox and open world games. Fighting, exploring, playing gwent, mining for resources on distant planets, dialogue options – all of those activities often receive a theme, which further delineates one mechanic from the other and creates strong associations with music. But time also comes for doing nothing or solving an environmental puzzle, going there and back again. Listening to a looped track for 20 minutes, no matter how good, would drive us insane and mess with our concentration, so ambient piece is put there instead, giving our ears something to do, but not so much that it drives our focus away from the activity. It illustrates and hides itself at the same time. It may not be giving „a lot” but it will never take away from the experience. Under Kyrat Stars by Cliff Martinez accompanies the player when they are exploring moonlit forests of Far Cry 4. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for simply walking and thinking on what to do next, giving us time to cherish those few calm moments in Far Cry games. Instead of fading into silence, the game gives us more music that is noticeably peaceful and slower, and even though it is not that necessary, it is a welcome surprise to always have something played to you. And ambient is a great way of having nothing and something at the same time, as it can fill all the voids between more prominent pieces of music. In that way, as we are visually pleased at all times, music does the same.
It is serving some functions not necessarily connected with what we claim to be artistic. It’s a compromise between music and sound-design.
That brings me into the last function I want to talk about in this part. What also naturally progressed from movies into videogames, is underscore. Since the first talkies, scores have been silenced during dialogues or some moments that require less music, and I noticed the ambient has been a safe bet for many composers when it comes to having something played when characters are talking. Underscore is all about having some sonic foundation and complement to human voice, and most often watered down string music was implemented between actual music pieces. It’s tough to notice when you aren’t thinking about it during your experience, but it is noticeable when it’s lacking. In Quantum Break Petri Alanko’s ambient was mixed behind the lines said by the protagonist, allowing Jack Joyce’s voice sound more precise, fuller and somewhat in contrast to his surroundings.
All the things mentioned here are arguably impossible to achieve with fully developed music pieces. Even though it’s in fact anaemic and apathetic, it works amazingly in it’s niche, sometimes serving functions not necessarily connected with what we claim to be artistic. That said, it will never replace traditional music, but then again we should learn to appreciate it more as a fully realized genre. In my last article regarding ambient, I will try to give some clues how to do it. For now I will say that we should not always expect specific emotions from music and a mood to fill-in with our own thoughts works too when experiencing music.