Hear the Very First Pieces of Ambient Music, Erik Satie’s Furniture Music (Circa 1917)

Who invent­ed ambi­ent music? Many fans of the genre might say Bri­an Eno, though Bri­an Eno him­self makes no such claim. Still, the records he labeled with the word “ambi­ent” in the 1970s and 80s did much to pop­u­lar­ize not just the term, but a cer­tain con­cep­tion of the form itself. “For me, the cen­tral idea was about music as a place you go to,” he said in an inter­view about his recent ambi­ent album Reflec­tion. “Not a nar­ra­tive, not a sequence that has some sort of tele­o­log­i­cal direc­tion to it — verse, cho­rus, this, that, and the oth­er. It’s real­ly based on abstract expres­sion­ism: Instead of the pic­ture being a struc­tured per­spec­tive, where your eye is expect­ed to go in cer­tain direc­tions, it’s a field, and you wan­der son­i­cal­ly over the field.”

Did the 19th and ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry French com­pos­er Erik Satie have the same idea? The Guardian’s Nick Shave calls Satie (whom you’ll at the very least know for Gymnopédie No.1) “the mav­er­ick who invent­ed ‘fur­ni­ture music,’ sounds that were designed to be heard but not lis­tened to.”

F.D. Leone of Musi­ca Kalei­dosko­pea describes Satie’s musique d’ameublement as “music which had no set form and sec­tions could be re-arranged as a per­former or con­duc­tor wished, much like fur­ni­ture in a room, and to act as part of the ambiance or fur­nish­ings.” And Satie start­ed on it in back in 1917, com­pos­ing for the deliv­ery sys­tem of not records, and cer­tain­ly not (as Eno has used in recent years) gen­er­a­tive smart­phone apps, but live per­for­mance.

Though Satie would con­tin­ue writ­ing fur­ni­ture music until just a cou­ple of years before his death in 1925, much of it was nev­er per­formed dur­ing his life­time. Its revival came a few decades lat­er, thanks to the arrival into the music world of a young com­pos­er intent on tak­ing his art to places it had sel­dom gone before: John Cage. “He’s indis­pens­able,” Cage once said of the still oft-derid­ed Satie. Shave also describes Eno’s 1978 album Ambi­ent 1: Music for Air­ports a direct answer to Satie’s call for “music that would be a part of the sur­round­ing nois­es.” You can hear all of Satie’s fur­ni­ture music (selec­tions of which appear embed­ded here) per­formed by the Ars Nova Ensem­ble at Ubuweb. “It seems to have swollen to accom­mo­date some quite unex­pect­ed bed­fel­lows,” Eno has writ­ten of the genre of ambi­ent music today. But would would Satie hear it all as just an expan­sion of fur­ni­ture music?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the 1917 Bal­let “Parade”: Cre­at­ed by Erik Satie, Pablo Picas­so & Jean Cocteau, It Pro­voked a Riot and Inspired the Word “Sur­re­al­ism”

The Vel­vet Underground’s John Cale Plays Erik Satie’s Vex­a­tions on I’ve Got a Secret (1963)

Moby Lets You Down­load 4 Hours of Ambi­ent Music to Help You Sleep, Med­i­tate, Do Yoga & Not Pan­ic

Music That Helps You Sleep: Min­i­mal­ist Com­pos­er Max Richter, Pop Phe­nom Ed Sheer­an & Your Favorites

The “True” Sto­ry Of How Bri­an Eno Invent­ed Ambi­ent Music

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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