PRINT December 1993


Andrew Ross' Weather Report

This summer’s most unlikely club hit took you by complete surprise by being uncannily familiar. This is what we’ve come to expect from pop hooks. It’s as if certain grooves had been lying dormant in some cryostasis of the collective acoustic memory, awaiting the signal to reactivate, like some techno-implanted recognition chip.

Record companies should be so lucky. In this case the hit was from the ambient house album Deep Forest (Celine Music Synsound/Epic), and the music had a very particular story to tell about technology’s capacity to summon up voices from other places. Sampling a cappella recordings (all purchased from UNESCO) of tribal chants by rainforest peoples from Zaire, the Cameroons, Senegal, Chad, Ghana, and the Solomon Islands, Frenchmen Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet looped these vocals into the synth-driven grooves of techno and deep house music. A chart hit in Europe and especially Australia (no doubt in the wake of the successful Aboriginal group Yothu Yindi), Deep Forest could be found in New Age stores and ecohealth emporiums as well as Tower Records; it truly is the Benetton of music-marketing concepts. The video, directed by the award-winning Tarsem, will take the music into virgin homes as yet untouched by the encroaching influence of that peculiar culture, “the great Western rainforest.”

The result is somewhat different from the world-beat macrotourist tradition established by Peter Gabriel, Sting, David Byrne, and Paul Simon; and from more recent sorry-assed attempts to synthesize unlikely oral forms, like Enigma’s MCMXC a.d., which delivered Gregorian chants to the sacrificial altar of a techno mix. With Deep Forest the latest sons of Rousseau have made their connection with first world ecoromanticism through ambient house, one of its burgeoning, underground satellite cultures, and not, as is more common these days, by way of New Age’s washed-out soundscapes.

Ambient has an elite ancestry in the electronic avant-garde of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young, and a cheesy one in early-’70s German art-rock, like Can and Tangerine Dream. To be more specific, however, ambient crawled out of a breathing space in some late-’80s rave fest, establishing a chill-out niche that grew into a whole genre of mellow, atmospheric music for mind games. It was as if the solidity of techno had sublimated into liquid or gaseous energy. In this new kinetic state, loops of sampled noises were entered into the swim, like some deep-space receiver picking up fragments of communication flows from Earth. When you hear ambient European crews like the Orb, Aphex Twin, Orbital, Biosphere, Eon, Sven Vath, Moonwater, or Irresistible Force, you are listening to daily life on this planet as if it were another world in a distant galaxy. Unlike the dolphin songs and sea-wave rhythms of New Age’s clean utopian wallpaper, ambient is a cluttered and often irreverent arrangement of moods and random sounds. Its youth subcultures are the cyberpagans and travelers who have remixed the ’60s over the last decade, forging the cruelty-free and minimum-consumption life-styles of the new experimental ecocommunalism.

The emergence of neotribal spiritualism in ambient’s trance culture is more of an evolution from than a reaction to the worship of energy and bpm intensity in techno or the breakbeat anthems of deep house. After all, the original Detroit techno trio of Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May conceived their music’s bass-line hypnosis and symphonic spacemaking more as a grand dream about technology than as a harsh slave to the rhythm. Later, in New York City, when Moby’s sequencer took the beat as high as 500 bpm, the effect was simply celestial, and not at all industrial. The counterculture, as always, was looking for the ghost in the machine, the atavist beneath the technologist. Where progressive rock of the early ’70s aped classical music and poetry, progressive house took science and technology as its guide to the evolved life of sound. NASA, not Musorgski, was elected guardian of the higher mysteries. With progress, of course, comes its pretechnological flip side, and so it wasn’t long before electronic dance music began to resonate with the drum rhythms and tribal chants of world beat. When ambient chilled off the brain-drain velocity of techno and introduced sound effects that had a biological feel to them, the result was recognizably “green music,” soundscaped to make listeners feel like they were surrounded by a living, breathing environment.

Where ambient typically features “anywhere” sounds, Deep Forest tries to re-create the very particular ambience of a rainforest community itself. Here you can hear birds chirping, insects buzzing, rainwater dripping and trickling off the ferns, and snatches of voices conversing as they move from the background through the foreground of danceable grooves and backbeats laced with yodels and chants. The prologue voiceover to the album is classic Jacques Cousteau: “Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women; they are the past and maybe they are the future.” And, like Cousteau, this music aims to go deep. The sleeve notes are full of tommyrot about “the universal language of music,” and “world harmony,” and the “ancestral wisdom” of the magical forest, “a place of power and knowledge passed down from generation to generation by the oral traditions of primitive societies.” It’s been a long time since dance music had to have this kind of philosophical accompaniment.

The depth in Deep Forest is not provided by the kind of sculpted sound environments increasingly possible with synthesizer technology, and now almost de rigueur with ambient’s sad, open spaces. Neither is it part of the challenge laid down by Public Enemy’s “Bass! How low can you go?,” which led to the highly social presence, on the streets, of fat, jeep-beat sounds. Nor does it have much to do with the obsessive body culture for which dance music has served addictively as a libidinal drug over the last decade or so, and to which Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” is an honest enough response. Least of all does it remind me of the ineffable appeal of the Gatorade ad—“for that deep down body thirst”—to which I never fail to respond with utter sympathy, even though I never drink the stuff. No, the depth here is mostly a romantic concept, woven out of centuries of Euro-American fantasy about the interiority of the primal jungle of noncivilized places and the primal mind of its native innocents. Modern environmentalism, especially the atavistic strains of deep ecology, has given these fantasies a structure and a cause. The depth of the jungle/rainforest, whose inhabitants live lightly on the land, can only contrast with the shallowness of Western materialism, consuming the earth to death.

If you need to temper your hedonism with a deep conscience, then you should know that a percentage of proceeds from Deep Forest’s album sales go to the Pygmy Fund, set up to aid Zaire’s pygmies in the transition from nomadic to agrarian subsistence, and to provide appropriate health care in their struggle for survival. Whether this is the musical equivalent of Rainforest Crunch or a Body Shop product—arguably progressive contributions to the economy of rainforest peoples with few options—is a matter for debate. Can we speak about the music industry’s use of indigenous culture—songs and chants—in the same way that we speak about natural materials gathered from the rainforest harvest and marketed to the first world by locals? Many would see this as a legitimate question to ask at a time when the industrialization of world beat is moving in the same direction as a pharmaceutical industry that rips off the medical knowledge of the shaman, treats patentable drugs as “the common heritage of mankind,” and seeks in some cases to actually patent plant genes for its biotechnology sector. Increasingly, the copyrighting and recycling of sounds are discussed as if they were part of the same economy as that of material resources. An ambient musician like the Aphex Twin, for example, who will only sample and recycle sounds he himself has generated, claims a “moral ecology” for his synthesizing activities. Rappers, on the other hand, who are heirs to a black musical tradition that has seen much more than its fair share of cultural theft, have little use for this kind of piety. Hip-hop sampling, for the most part, has been a long and diverse salute to community memory.

The economy of musical recycling aside, however, the more interesting question has to do with the ideology of sound itself. Even if Deep Forest satisfied all of the ecologically correct requirements for its production and consumption (and it probably earns a high B+), it would still be music that could appeal to some rapacious lumber contractor itching to clearcut every old-growth stand in sight. Given that there is no necessary connection, finally, between our politics and the sounds that turn us on, what would you like “green music” to be? Ambient atmospherics, or music that rocks, like the songs packaged together on the 1989 Rainbow Warriors album (The Pretenders et al.) in support Of Greenpeace? Perhaps this is a genre/generation question. Rock has had a copyright on the politics of music for so long it’s become a conventional obligation of being a rock performer to have something to say about politics. Today’s youth, raised on raves and the Roland 808, likely have a different view of how music can be used for social, even political, purposes. For the moment, the evidence suggests that ambient or progressive house is seen as a self-sufficient environment, not a message medium. It may not sound like a soundtrack for protest or rebellion, but at least ambient will never be used by the military to break a siege, as hard rock was deployed in Noriega’s papal nunciature, in Koresh’s Waco compound, or in Rutskoi’s White House.

Andrew Ross is the director of the American Studies Program at New York University. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.