COMMENT 1: Although the term “Contemporary Ambient” may still apply to much of what is happening in today’s Ambient ouvre, I was specifically referring to that odd window of commercial viability from 1985 to 1995, during which Ambient audio was often heard in comedown rooms at raves. At its peak, the sound was perhaps most typified by the three UK producers the Orb, the Future Sound of London, and Aphex Twin. Basically, everything between Industrial Ambient of the early 1980s and Laptop Orchestras of the early ’90s. Keep in mind that this text was the liner notes to a commercially distributed album in a genre typically represented by cheap 3D computer graphics, holograms and P. L. U. R. (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect) spiritual jargon. So, on the one hand, the heavy-handed pseudo-academic flavor of this text was a reaction against the shallowness of the commercial audio marketplace. On the other hand, this injection of thematic content into a commercial CD was also a rejection of the notion that academia was the sole site of production for critical minded or “culturally important” computer music.
COMMENT 2: The US economic bubble around Electronica and Contemporary Ambient music burst around 1995–96, triggering a massive retreat of interest in ambient music from both record labels and music distributors. At that time, there was a major shift of Ambient producers toward more easily marketable Drum ‘n’ Bass, Jungle, and Enigma-esque Ethno-audio-imperialism. I placed a trademark sign after the phrase “The Death of Ambient,” because at the time the expression was commonplace among industry folk and press. It functioned as a marketing justification for continuing to only invest in productions by producers with “star potential”—closing the door on a short-lived period of support for fringe productions and producers critical of authorship and ego branding.
The signs of this shift were long coming and were the reason I cynically began releasing my Contemporary Ambient productions under my real name, “Terre Thaemlitz,” as early as 1994, with Tranquilizer (Instinct Records). Using my actual name rather than a project alias was a cynical gesture indicating my concerns about the problematic ways labels and press invariably censored non-ego notions of production. While they spoke of the “Death of Ambient” as a mystery, their bewilderment was simply a smoke screen for their own witting or unwitting roles in the genre’s cultural “homicide” by insisting the genre be marketed and sold like any other pop music.
At the time, the alternative to producing Drum ‘n’ Bass or some other market-friendly techno variant was to become a “Sound Artist.” There is no doubt that the late ’90s revival of Sound Art within Fine Art marketplaces was a direct result of the large pool of unemployed Ambient and Experimental audio producers scrambling for work in other arenas. This peaked in the early ’00s, not in small part due to the 2003 bankruptcy of EFA, one of Europe’s largest electronic distributorships. Their closure had a domino effect of bankrupting many of the smaller labels they represented, the Frankfurt based label Mille Plateaux, which was one of the most important commercial outlets for electroacoustic audio and would release the bulk of my electroacoustic and piano solo albums between 1997-2003. Of course, curators, galleries, and museums refused to acknowledge any connection between their “rediscovery” of Sound Art and the economic crises happening in global audio marketplaces. Many audio producers with extensive careers were being portrayed in the arts as newcomers out of nowhere, who owed a cultural debt to art curators for their discovery. In reality, the curators were using the established cultural knowledge and expertise of such producers to enable their marketing of a Sound Art trend.
COMMENT 3: I remember being very frustrated at that time by the way CD packaging budgets restricted the amount of text I was allowed to include in any given release. This meant most of my texts were limited to simply setting up the contextual framework of an album, with no space for in-depth particulars about the themes and technical processes behind individual tracks. And, as the last sentence of this paragraph states, in addition to the issue of limited space, I was submitting to a good deal of self-censorship and half-hearted “positivity” to get labels to release my work (i.e., the “positivity” of projecting notions of social momentum and cooperation among producers within the audio marketplace, and the possibility for conscious social change). “Negativity” in Ambient music was reserved for Industrial Ambient and Punk (which was not interesting to me), the market for which had died years ago (and so not interesting to labels and distributors). There was no room for negative thinking in the “triptastic” world vision offered by ’90s electronica and rave culture. Everything needed a positive spin. As a case in point, consider the perky conclusion of the Caipirinha press release for this album: “The result is challenging, confrontational, humorous, at times frightening, yet uniquely beautiful—indicative of Thaemlitz’s reservedly optimistic vision of the possibility for contentment through alternatives to dominant cultural methodologies. It’s an Ambient trip on a collision course with reality that you can’t afford to miss.” Oof.
All images courtesy of Comatonse Recordings