PRINT January 1995

Surround Sound

Every manifestation of life is accompanied by noise. Noise is thus familiar to our ear and has the power of immediately recalling life itself.
—Luigi Russolo, Arte dei rumori (The art of noises), 1913

Gimme two records and I’ll make you a universe.
—DJ Spooky, the Subliminal Kid, 1994

IN 1914, THE ITALIAN FUTURIST Luigi Russolo reconstructed entire soundscapes—sounds of war, sounds of the dense urban environment-to create The Awakening of the City, an attempt to represent the urban landscape from the sounds it generated. A journalist wrote of the piece,

At first a quiet even murmur was heard. The great city was asleep. . . . Presently, a faraway noise rapidly grew into a mighty roar. I fancied it must have been the roar of the huge printing machines of the newspapers . . . I was right, as a few seconds later hundreds of vans and motor lorries seemed to be hurrying towards the station, summoned by the shrill whistling of the locomotives. Later, the trains were heard, speeding boisterously away; then a flood of water seemed to wash the town, children crying and girls laughing under the refreshing shower. A multitude of doors was next heard to open and shut with a bang, and a procession of receding footsteps intimated that the great army of bread-winners was going to work. Finally, all the noises of the street and factory merged into a gigantic roar, and the music ceased. I awoke as though from a dream and applauded.1

The template of the human environment that Russolo used for his virtual landscape has today become a telemetry of projections made concrete through electronic devices. Still, living in New York today one has that same sense of being carried away by the sounds that everyday life—and its simulations—generates. The streets, the density, the immersion in the ebb and flow of the tides of the urban landscape, are the informing characteristics of New York City ambient.

The New York ambient scene is smaller and more experimental than its British counterpart. People congregate in living rooms, exchange mix tapes, and flock in the small lounges where the music is played. These parties often change location: three of New York’s first well-known ambient parties, Lalandia, the Abstract Lounge, and the Electric Lounge Machine, have mutated into successors that are still going on. Parties like Molecular in the East Village, Chiaroscuro in the meat-packing district, and FFWD on the Lower East Side are not so much social gatherings as sites for conceptual sound art.

At Chiaroscuro you enter a room bathed in lavender light, a sidereal illumination that caresses your eyes and displaces your sense of temporal continuity. Cool fluid tones swirl through the space among the listeners, who are dispersed in a pattern that allows everyone their own space. The image of the room is flow: the world blurring, smearing upward with the transient sounds of the performance. Liquid sound filters over your body as your gaze roves through the room’s disjointed architecture of human projections. With interstellar space as its referent, the music, abstract radiant wind given motion by the turntables and tone banks, floods the room in a current of kinesthetic symbols of sound and sentiment.

Amorphous and decentered, ambient almost perfectly fits Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s view of music as a form that “has always sent out lines of flight, like so many ‘transformational multiplicities,’ even overturning the very codes that structure or arborify it.” Like the rhizome, music “is a stranger to any idea of genetic axis or deep structure.”2 Ambient, like the rhizome, is characterized by a sort of incidental drift. And like a map, it “is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification.”3

In earlier music, ambient most obviously recalls the French musique concrète and the German elektronische musik movements of the mid century. But there are other forerunners—the chants and koans of Tibetan monks, or the intensely repetitive music of Joujouka, in Morocco. Musics linked to ambient in spirit if not in form focus on peripheral reception by an audience—music like Kurt Weill’s Gebrauchmusik (utility music) and Eric Satie’s musique d’ameublement (furniture music), which use sound as environment. All these musics deal with both interior space and the locale in which the musical experience takes place. In ambient, sound becomes an extension of a neurolinguistic relationship between humans and the environment. There is no escape from that environment’s sounds: breathing, car alarms, passing traffic, heartbeats, alarm-clock bleeps, footsteps, conversation on a busy street-corner, fax machines, radios, television sets, the rumble of subways, the cry of birds. Like Russolo’s noise-generating devices, ambient music attempts to merge interior thought with the environment enveloping it.

I came to ambient music as a hip-hop and dance-hall-reggae dj. I took my working name “Spooky” from the fact, humorous as it seemed, that this disembodied music that I loved—hip-hop, dance-hall, techno, ambient, futurjazz, spacedub— was itself a syntactic space reflecting the world I knew, because this strange “heatless” music seemed to embody the central talismans of consensual reality. Its displaced sounds represented the space between dreams to me. I took the latter part of my name, “The Subliminal Kid,” from the character in William Burroughs’ Nova Express who interacts with reality by manipulating tape loops, hoping that if the association lines that hold the past and present together are ruptured, the future will leak through.

A deep sense of fragmentation occurs in the mind of a dj. When I came to dj’ing, my surroundings—an amazingly dense spectrum of imagery based on a value system grounded in late capitalism—seemed already to have constructed so many of my aspirations and desires for me; I felt like my nerves extended to all of these images, sounds, other people—that all of them were extensions of myself, just as I was an extension of them. Someone, somewhere, wrote, “In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion. The schizophrenic is not, as generally claimed, characterized by the loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things . . . [by] overexposure to the transparency of the world.”4 By creating an analogical structure of sounds based on collage, with my self as the only common denominator, the sounds come to represent me.

To me, ambient’s aimless, hypnotic quality mirrors the multivalent and heterogenous process of memory. The Russian Futurist Velemir Khlebnikov believed in a “beyonsense,” a universal language at the core of human expression: “The firestorm of our minds revolves around the idea of a communal beyonsense language and achieves the atomization of words into units of thought contained in an envelope of sounds.”5 Where Russolo invoked the image of the city without the substance of the city, the sounds of ambient bring forth an intangible, liminal series of unconnected thoughts, an emotional sculpture. This is what Khlebnikov anticipated. The sounds and their unfolding in time gain what facticity they have by endlessly cross-referenced webs of thought held together only by the memories they invoke.

To construct ambient sound, the ambient artist uses both electronic tones and samples of existing music and sounds. In ambient's alternate sonic reality, the barriers between the world of ideas and everyday contemporary reality dissolve. In its clubs and lounges, the music becomes part of the collective consciousness of the people gathered. It links them just like the murmur of the city streets. Disembodied yet derived from the corporate forms of electronics (loudspeakers and such), ambient mirrors wireless, diaphanous modes of human communication—the free-form interplay of words. Most Western music, even in improvisatory forms like jazz, has focused on the interplay of a performer with a previously created text, the final product being consumed by an appreciative audience. Ambient merges the roles of performer, composer, and listener.

Ambient is kinesthetic. It creates an implosion of consciousness while at the same time it grounds consciousness with the immediacy of the body. Dance becomes internalized, moving at the speed of thought. Whenever I dj an ambient party, I have a feeling without parallel in the other forms of music that I spin—a sense of disconnectedness, which floats out and away to form a loop between me and those present, and binds us with the music in a fleeting dance of moments suspended in the tones that constitute our dialogue.

The common denominator of all ambient musics is a sense of openness: ambient is the open text of modern music culture. There are no barriers in this music, which can contain almost any tone, from the harshest guitar feedback to the smoothest rustle of water. The silences between the notes become broad and inclusive, creating a code of neurolinguistic experience. Though ambient may suggest the music of many past cultures’ religious ceremonies, at the same time it has a contemporary, decentered identity—which is what allows all these elements to coexist in the same structure. Transforming tones into a text that is no longer sequential in the traditional sense, ambient is like a holophonic equivalent of the world, a space created by the music of a time where “all-at-onceness” has become the standard to which electronic information cleaves.

Ambient music seems to me a sort of electronic palimpsest in which languages fall and rise and falter over time. Its motifs generate their own opposition in the accumulated text of the songs; their elements triumph or fall, but are never wholly lost. The vernacular of these tone poems could encompass the world. The music shows an energy and dynamism in the heart of change. It demonstrates a world where possibility dominates consistency of vision, and both benefit. When I fell into the temporal vortex to which this musical palindrome had led me, it was spooky: I had heard the musical equivalent of cultural entropy. It was far from what I had expected: I had made space to become space, and that was all that mattered. As Luigi Russolo wrote in “The Art of Noises,” “Let us go!”


1. Luigi Russolo, The Art of Noises, 1913, reprint ed. New York: Pendragon Press, 1986, pp. 4-5.

2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp. 11–12.

3. Ibid., p. 12.

4. Jean Baudrillard, quoted in the Critical Arts Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Atono Media, 1994, p. 70.

5. Velemir Khlebnikov, The King of Time, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 151.