Hecker is definitely on to something. In the streaming era, ambient music has too often been branded as yet another tool for hyper-capitalist optimization — either a way of focusing more deeply at work or relaxing more deeply in order to return to work recharged and ready to be more productive. The actual artistry involved in composing such music, at least according to this viewpoint, is woefully beside the point.
In fall 2020, when I had the delight of interviewing the ambient pioneer and perpetual crossword answer Eno, he recalled composing his earliest works of what he called “Discreet Music” in the late 1970s, and voiced reservations similar to Hecker’s. “When I started making ambient music,” he said, “I was very conscious that I wanted to make functional music. At that time, functional music was almost exclusively identified with Muzak — it had a very bad rap. Artists weren’t supposed to make functional music. So, I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’”
I appreciate Eno’s challenge that artistry and functionality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When he considered how he used music in his own life, he realized, “Well, I use it to make a space that I want to live in.” Sometimes that desired atmosphere was kinetic and upbeat, so he’d listen to Fela Kuti all day. Other times, he preferred slow orchestral music. “I started to think, I imagine a lot of other people are doing this as well,” he said. “Ambient was really a way of saying, ‘I’m now designing musical experiences.’ The emphasis was on saying, ‘Here is a space, an atmosphere, that you can enter and leave as you wish.’”
In that spirit, today’s playlist is a space that you can enter and leave as you wish. I designed it to be airy, tranquil and cumulous, like a house of drifting clouds illuminated by slashes of sunbeams. Of course, not all ambient music sounds like this. (I love Hecker’s music, for example, but much of it features evocatively woolly textures and a general sense of foreboding that would have felt out of place here.) I tried to find a unifying harmony in the feelings and tones that all of these songs conjure, and, though they’re all very different artists, I found that Julianna Barwick’s heavenly vocal tapestries, Laraaji’s sonic opalescence and Hiroshi Yoshimura’s burbling electronics worked exceptionally well together.
Many of these songs have existed in my own life as “functional music,” as Eno calls it, but not just in the soulless “Music for Productivity” sense that Hecker rightly bemoans. I have used some of these songs, time and again, to slow down and daydream. I used a few of them on a playlist at a friend’s wedding that I D.J.ed, for those liminal but still sacred moments when the guests were arriving. I tested this exact playlist earlier this week on a noisy New Jersey Transit train, and it gave me enough mental elbow room to get lost in Annie Ernaux’s gorgeous and immersive novel “The Years.” May this music find its own unique and gloriously unproductive function in your life.