Not just for spa or yoga – ambient music is also a form of escapism
Or so this writer realises when she turns to ambient music to help her deal with her mother's stroke and its aftermath.
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, which 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 totalled 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 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 of them, if you need to breathe, all in 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, a meditation app that costs US$69.99 a year, I found curated soundscapes by savant producer Madlib and 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, 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 anaesthesia to pacify the mind.
But in the months after 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.
At the top of “if you need to breathe” is Alessandro Cortini’s Iniziare. Cortini, an 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, spiralling 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 past 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. 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 instrumentalised, diminished into sound-as-backdrop.
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; the second is an act of immersive focus.
I practised deep listening with my playlist, if you need to breathe, especially with 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, 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-optimise and better function as workers and individuals, rather than as humans 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 precariousness. 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.
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 analyse, 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.
By Isabelia Herrera © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.