The concept of ambient music is often relegated to the background. In his essay on the topic, synth-pioneer and Roxy Music affiliate Brian Eno describes ambient music as “an atmosphere, a surrounding influence: a tint”. Eno contrasts his own abstract soundscapes with those of Muzak Inc., the 1950s company whose canned recordings popularised the genre. Their name has now become synonymous with the music that occupies a room, smoothing out and flattening incidental audio irregularities, “stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty”, according to Eno. By contrast, Eno’s work is designed to “enhance these qualities” of unease. Rather than adding stimuli to the room, his work “is intended to induce calm and a space to think, […] it must be as ignorable as it is interesting”.
Eno wrote this statement on ambient music in 1978 in the liner notes to his Music for Airports record. At the same time, a seventeen-year-old Wolfgang Voigt was taking weekend trips to the Königsforst – the vast woodland bordering Cologne, Germany – dropping tabs of LSD and revelling in the merging of the rustling forest sounds with the eerie visual lattice of the surrounding trees. It would be another eighteen years before Voigt would release his own ambient music under the moniker GAS.
If there is one common feature that unites Eno’s ambient music with that of Muzak Inc. and Erik Satie, the early twentieth-century French composer whose musique d’ambleument – ‘furniture music’ – was perhaps the first instance of ambient composition, it is that all of their work was designed for enclosed domestic spaces. In their classical, synthesised, or minimal forms, their ambient work is inextricable from the confined space of the room and is created to surround the listeners and pacify their environment. Yet, Voigt’s work as GAS is a sprawling, multi-sensory assault that bursts from the confines of the room into the imaginary forest-space of its conception.
Rather than the distant harp or soft piano of typical ambient music, Voigt’s work draws simultaneously on the natural sounds of the forest and on his years spent in the acid house clubs of 1990s London, releasing minimal techno under the aliases of Wassermann, X-Lvis and Mike Ink. This bass-heavy, nocturnal atmosphere permeates the GAS compositions, a persistent aortic pulse that imposes itself on the listener. Hovering between the claustrophobic club-space and the liminal zones of the forest, GAS subverts every preconception of the ambient.
From his first release as GAS in 1996 to this year’s fifth LP Narkopop, Voigt is celebrating his twenty-first year in ambience. As such, he took the GAS show for a rare outing inside the concert hall with a live show at London’s Barbican.
Working against the formal confines of the Barbican Hall, Voigt devised a wall-to-wall screen that took the audience on a visual journey through the Königsforst, evoking the imaginative space that has inspired his productions. Disrupting this immersive display was Voigt himself, poised at a small table with laptop and sampling module – highlighting the tension between the human creation of the music and its aspirations to the non-human realm of electronic synthesis and naturalism.
One of the main tenets of GAS is that notwithstanding the apparent formlessness of the productions and their capacity to bleed into each other – like the eponymous qualities of the project’s title – Voigt ensures that the compositions retain a fidelity to the 4/4 beat so central to techno. As such, Voigt’s tracks create a delightfully disorienting sensation in the listener: your mind wanders into a meditative state of receptivity through the gentle sedimentation of sound, and yet the ubiquity of the 4/4 kick keeps you chained to the present moment, engrossed as compositions tread seamlessly between the introspection of private listening and the propulsive movement of the dancefloor.
This fluid transition is heightened by the fact that the track titles of GAS compositions are simply numbers, inviting the listener to surrender to narrative sequencing and to lose themselves in the form of the sounds, rather than in the scrutiny of selection and repetition encouraged by mp3 formats. Beginning with ‘1’ from 1999’s Königsforst, a pulsating bass-drone emerged beneath washes of heavy synth and oscillating percussion, before moving on to the snatches of distorted vocals of ‘5’ from 2000’s Pop.
The synthesis of sound with the backing forest panoramas was so stunningly effective that both elements were inextricable from each other. The performance often took on the qualities of a live film score and as such the time-constraints of a typical live show were disrupted: all flowed into one horizontal plane. As foliage blurred from crisp close-ups into abstract streaks of light, choral vocalisations were fragmented and sounds washed into one another. Conversely, as images attained focus once more, the throb of bass and sharp stabs of snare drums clarified the arrangement.
Aside from the brief forays into Voigt’s pre-2000 works, the performance drew mostly on his latest Narkopop release. This, his first LP in seventeen years, displays a maturation in Voigt’s work as GAS, incorporating a symphonic reach of strings and vocal harmony previously obscured by the bombast of synths and muffled, distant percussion. This grandiose production brings us closer to the Wagner-esque Romanticism of the forest referenced in GAS’s visual aesthetic. Live, however, the lengthy stretches of unadorned melody occasionally jarred with the surrounding rhythmic urges of the earlier compositions.
Notwithstanding these dynamic differences, in building to finish the concert on a euphoric choral harmony, GAS confirmed that ambient music is much more than background accompaniment. More ‘interesting’ than ‘ignorable’, Voigt demands your attention. His work evokes deep and conflicting emotions in the listener, and confirms his status as one of the most inventive producers of the past three decades.