And yet the dominant view of ambient music today is a cartoonish inversion of these aspirations. In a multibillion-dollar wellness industry, streaming platforms and meditation apps frame the mood as background music, something to listen to and consume with detachment. It’s spa and yoga music, or field recordings for restful, uninterrupted sleep. Instead of harnessing the potential of the environment, its ability to soften barriers and loosen ideas about sound, politics, temporality, and space, music has been instrumentalized, reduced to sound as a backdrop.
It’s fun to think of background music as a utility, as something that allows selective participation. As the musician Lawrence English wrote: “To ignore music is to not listen to it.” Rather, experiencing ambient music, to allow its political, philosophical, and oppositional knowledge to become visible, requires full use of the senses. It means taking advantage of the sensory vitality of life: the tactile, spatial, vibratory and auditory experiences that the human being offers us.
Experimental music pioneer Pauline Oliveros foresaw how a sensory 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 mindfulness. In this approach, there is a distinction between hearing and listening; the first is a surface-level awareness of space and temporality, and the second is an act of immersive focus. “Deep listening takes us below the surface of our awareness and helps shift or dissolve limiting boundaries,” he wrote in 1999. “Listening is directing attention to what is heard, gathering meaning, interpreting, and deciding on action. ”.
In 1974, in response to the tumult of the Vietnam War, Oliveros published a series of text scores called “Sonic Meditations”, a precursor to his theory of deep listening. The project explores how body-focused sound exercises can foster focused perception. Oliveros developed “Sonic Meditations” from women’s meetings that she organized in her house. At these meetings, the group, which emerged in the context of the women’s liberation movement, would do breathing exercises, write in journals, and practice kinetic awareness exercises every week. The experience was designed to be collective, using intimacy and introspection to foster a sense of healing.
I practiced deep listening with my “if you need to breathe” playlist, especially new-age innovator Laraaji’s composition “Being Here.” It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when “Being Here” clicks: maybe it’s at the 10-minute mark, or the 15-minute mark, or even its beatific 25-minute finale. Laraaji, who has been releasing music since the late 1970s, churns out auditory glossolalia: divine, luminescent melodic debris. Listening to his music, I feel wrapped in an unspoken embrace with his vision of the present, notes that refract like sunlight caressing the blue waters of the ocean. This is music that curls around the ears, mutating into an imagined Elysium, stopping time and space. It is not just a landscape, it is not a simple balm for immeasurable pain.