Ambient Music Isn’t a Backdrop. It’s an Invitation to Suspend Time.

When I heard the news that my mother had suffered a stroke, the feeling that surfaced wasn’t despair, but an impulse to problem solve.

First, the doctor’s medical jargon flooded into my brain like ticker tape: a cerebrovascular accident due to embolism of the left middle cerebral artery. Five milligrams of Eliquis and 50 milligrams of Losartan and 50 more of Metoprolol, in addition to four other pills at morning, noon and midnight. My brother and I compiled passwords to medical insurance platforms, patient portals and bank accounts in a shared Notes app entry. We filled out paperwork for long-term disability payments. We consulted lawyers, wondering how to handle my mother’s employer, who had threatened to fire her if she did not return to work. A month after the stroke, the night before my 29th birthday, we were in an accident that totaled my mother’s car. In the hopes that she would eventually be able to drive again, I gave her a few thousand dollars of my savings toward buying a new one.

The stroke wasn’t the only crisis. There was the dread of the upcoming presidential election; the ceaseless drag of the pandemic; the expectation to complete my master’s degree while I cared for my mother; and the reality that, as an immigrant family, our full support system was back home in the Dominican Republic. For the most part, my brother and I were on our own.

So, I Googled. I made playlists.

I called one “if you need to breathe,” all lowercase. I populated it with the soft-focus synth tones and obliterating loops of ambient music. I scrolled through Spotify and stumbled upon dozens of playlists engineered for mood regulation and self-care: “Peaceful Indie Ambient,” “Lo-Fi Cool Down,” “Ambient Chill.” On Headspace, the meditation app that costs $69.99 a year, I found curated soundscapes by the savant producer Madlib and the songwriter John Legend intended to conjure soothing atmospheres and facilitate productive workdays.

It was clear that I was not alone. In recent years, ambient music has become an escapist salve for a planet coping with mass death, political instability, climate anxiety, the incessant culture of overwork and the dissociation these conditions cause. The tech world has been quick to cash in: In 2017, the critic Liz Pelly wrote about the proliferation of Spotify’s “chill” playlists, referring to it as “an ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper.” This is late capitalist Muzak, smooth-brain anesthesia to pacify the mind.

But in the months following my mother’s stroke, after I rematriated into her one-bedroom apartment in Chicago, ambient music was not just some commodified act of self-care. Listening to it demanded that I relinquish control. It asked me to dispense with progressive time. It forced me to slow down and confront collapse.

Laraaji has been releasing music since the late 1970s. Visuals inspired by “Being Here (Flow Goes the Universe).”

At the top of “if you need to breathe” is Alessandro Cortini’s “Iniziare.” Cortini, the Italian musician who started out as a guitarist, keyboardist and bassist for Nine Inch Nails, is also known for his ghostly, narrative-driven synth music. On “Iniziare,” Cortini arrests time. A single synth tone, at first bound to the earth, floats 40,000 feet in the air, spiraling into astral fragments. Ripples of electronic feedback crest into peaks and valleys of stretched echoes, decayed into hollowed abysses. Time becomes supple, pliant, disobedient. Listening to it, I am forced to close my eyes, to feel the way that sound travels over the body, shape-shifting into nonlinear drift. I am detached from any deterministic version of the future. In this place between lightness and darkness, pleasure and pain exist in equal measure. I experience all the fragmentation of life, the reminders of trauma and uncertainty I have woken up to for the last four months. Here, I refuse to let grief become self-definition: I live unfettered from the speed of emergency.

Ambient music has always contained a kind of subterranean knowing. The British musician and critic David Toop, who wrote “Ocean of Sound,” the defining 1995 text on the music, recently argued that it has become severed from the philosophical qualities suggested during its genesis in the 1970s. Back then, ambient represented an alternate protocol for listening and music making. In a 2019 essay, Toop refers to it as a musical form “committed (implicitly or explicitly) to an engagement with interpretations and articulations of place, environment, listening, silence and time.” In his view, it is music that inspires “a state of mind attuned to inclusivity,” rather than “withdrawal.”

And yet, the dominant vision of ambient music today is a cartoonish inversion of these aspirations. In a multibillion-dollar wellness industry, streaming platforms and meditation apps frame ambient as background music — something for detached listening and consumption. It is spa and yoga music, or field recordings for undisturbed, restful sleep. Instead of embracing ambient’s potential — its capacity to soften barriers and loosen ideas of sound, politics, temporality and space — the music has become instrumentalized, diminished into sound-as-backdrop.

It is a funny thing to think about ambient music as utility, as if it is something that allows for selective engagement. Like the musician Lawrence English wrote, “To ignore music is not to listen to it.” Rather, experiencing ambient music — to allow its political, philosophical and oppositional knowledge to become visible — requires a full use of the senses. It means tapping into the sensorial vitality of living: the tactile, spatial, vibrational and auditory experiences that being human affords us.

The experimental music pioneer Pauline Oliveros foresaw how a sensorial approach to music and listening could cultivate politically dynamic thinking. She spent her life developing a theory of deep listening, a practice that promotes radical attentiveness. In this approach, there is a distinction between hearing versus listening; the former is a surface-level awareness of space and temporality, and the second is an act of immersive focus. “Deep Listening takes us below the surface of our consciousness and helps to change or dissolve limiting boundaries,” she wrote in 1999. “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting and deciding on action.”

In 1974, in response to the tumult of the Vietnam War, Oliveros published a series of text-scores called “Sonic Meditations,” a precursor to her deep listening theory. The project explores how body-centered sound exercises can foster focused perception. Oliveros developed “Sonic Meditations” from gatherings of women she organized at her home. In these meetings, the group, which emerged in the context of the women’s liberation movement, would do breathwork, write in journals and practice kinetic awareness exercises each week. The experience was designed to be collective, using intimacy and introspection to nurture a sense of healing.

I practiced deep listening with my “if you need to breathe” playlist, especially with the new-age innovator Laraaji’s composition “Being Here.” It is hard to pinpoint exactly when “Being Here” clicks: maybe it’s at the 10-minute mark, or the 15-minute mark or even at its beatific, 25-minute close. Laraaji, who has been releasing music since the late 1970s, produces aural glossolalia — divine, luminescent melodic debris. Listening to his music, I am held in an unspoken embrace with his vision of the present, notes refracting like sunlight caressing the azure waters of the ocean. This is music that curls into the ears, mutating into an imagined Elysium, stopping time and space. It’s not just scenery, not a simple balm for immeasurable pain.

For some, the lessons of “Being Here” might recall some sort of empty practice of mindfulness, a concept so often misappropriated as a wellness buzzword. That enterprise often tells us to “be present” so that we can self-optimize and better function as workers and individuals, rather than as human beings who are part of a community. But “Being Here” is not a demand to recharge for productivity. It asked me to forget the looping of time, to disengage with any kind of predictive chronology — about my mother’s recovery, but also about surviving a continuous state of hardship. Being here, slowing down, was not about inactivity or lack of energy. It was about releasing myself from the imperative to withdraw in the face of precarity. It was an insurgent break in time — a call to drench myself in the reality of a catastrophic present and to equip myself to do something about it.

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma is ambient multi-instrumentalist and chaplain who provides spiritual guidance to patients and families in hospitals. Visuals inspired by “Tracing Back the Radiance.”

The lived experience of diaspora is an entangled state of resilience. There is an assumption that we carry innate endurance, a superpower that enables us to perpetually surmount inherited trauma and injustice. It even lives in our speech: In the Dominican Republic, a simple “How are you?” is often returned with the phrase: “Aquí, en la lucha.” Here, in the struggle. Struggle is an embodied condition, a quotidian truth.

In the months after my mother’s stroke, I often received messages of resilience from family and friends. “Tú eres una guerrera, como tu mamá,” they said. You’re a warrior, just like your mother.

Back then, I often thought about what it’d be like to be freed from the expectation of resilience. I turned to “if you need to breathe,” wondering if there would be some untapped reserve of strength there. Its most played song was “Palace of Time” by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, an ambient multi-instrumentalist and chaplain who provides spiritual guidance to patients and families in hospitals. Listening to its 21 minutes of suspended vibraphone, piano and snare brushes, I released the pressure of everlasting tenacity. I wondered how anyone could hear this music as a self-absorbed retreat to the mind. Held in the reverie of “Palace of Time,” a portal opened to something different: thoughtful, dedicated attention.

I won’t pretend ambient music is some kind of comprehensive solution for a world contending with death, war and devastation. But I do wonder how, on an infinitesimal scale, listening closely might free us from the logic of hasty, individualistic action. When I force myself to listen closely, I hear a refusal to analyze, judge and act with immediacy. In its call to suspend time, the music carries the potential to press pause on the punishing velocity that attends disaster, that robs our attention and predetermines a fixed future. I hear the promise to act deliberately, collectively and with care, to embrace intentional observation and action — the durational practice of a lifetime.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button