A Guide to Ambient Music on the Web

Pauline Oliveros calls it "deep listening"—a way to pay attention to the sensual qualities of sound itself. Welcome to a world of music that defies categorization, that invites a listener to soak slowly into a deep and otherworldly zone. This music goes by many names: ambient, spacemusic, electronica, sacred music, tribal/trance. Alas, you'll often find it hiding in the New Age section. Unlike some fluffier New Age fare, good ambient albums can explore the deeper, more solitary spaces. At its best, ambient music can sensitize you to sound in unique ways. It can enlarge your listening space to cavernous dimensions, paint hallucinogenic sonic landscapes, summon primordial forces, or enshroud you in clouds of diffuse vapor.

The word "ambient" implies that this music works best when heard in the background, but most composers working in this genre want their music to be listened to with full attention. The best ambient albums work as well in the foreground as in the background, and reward multiple deep listenings. Not your usual light entertainment, ambient music is one style that begs for an audiophile listening environment.

The mainstream retail world is rarely kind to artists who expect both intelligence and patience from their audience, but the Web is quickly becoming home to many ambient recording artists, in part because it allows them to take control of their own marketing and distribution. Since ambient musicians have already embraced new technologies in their creative process, it's only natural that they should embrace new technologies to help them disseminate their art.

Here, then, is a brief introduction to some websites by and about some of the artists creating ambient music. You can find CDs here that you can't find in stores. You can find streaming RealAudio broadcasts and MP3 files for download. You can get to know the artists in their own words, and read critical reviews of the top CDs in the genre.

Artists' Pages
One of the most prolific composers in the genre is Steve Roach (www.steveroach.com), whose recorded output is nearing 50 CDs (counting collaborations and compilations). Steve's big, floating chords are enshrouded in deep clouds of reverb, punctuated by primal rhythms and a shamanic intensity. He has begun releasing CDs on his own Timeroom Editions label, available through his website. He has also collaborated with a long list of talented musicians. One of the more notable of Steve's collaborators, the Belgium-based Vidna Obmana (www.vidnaobmana.org), has many excellent atmospheric albums of his own.

From an audiophile perspective, Michael Stearns (www.michaelstearns.com) has created some of the most stunning aural adventures in the genre. With huge bass, exquisite clarity, and enormous soundstages, his albums explore the possibilities of an expanded sonic vocabulary. He has created soundtracks for Imax and Omnimax films such as Chronos, Baraka, and Ring of Fire, and is one of the first composers in any genre to compose specifically for a surround environment.

Pauline Oliveros coined the phrase "deep listening," and she has a foundation by the same name (www.deeplistening.org) with a website that introduces her works, the foundation, a performance gallery, and distinguished colleagues such as Stuart Dempster.

I guess I should also mention my own website, "The Petri Dish" (www.amoeba.com), which covers my solo work and collaborations, including the group project Amoeba. You'll find the usual assortment of interviews, photos, sound samples, online ordering, and embarrassing trivia.

Next week we'll take a look at links to the ambient record labels, online webzines, and streaming web radio.

Robert Rich is a leading Ambient Music artist who currently records for the Hearts of Space, Fathom, Hypnos, and Release record labels. He can be contacted at glurp@amoeba.com.