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?
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.