Ambient. Immersive. Contemporary. Take a deep dive into the curatorial pillars that we use to define the scope for ZoneOut and that help us to better understand music without boundaries.
“Ambient” describes a mysterious quality of music, its ability to occupy or even become the air around us. Music that conveys a sense of timelessness, or no-time. Music that surrounds us, and creates an atmosphere of sound, an environment that we can enter into and have our consciousness altered by doing so.
This refers to the experience of listening to music. We feel immersed, we become immersed. To “immerse oneself” can refer to a physical “dip into” a body of liquid. Immersion can also refer to a total mental involvement, to immerse oneself in an experience, a place, a language, a culture.
One could argue that all music is ambient and immersive. However, music that prioritises structural elements such as lyrics, melody, and form is more likely to draw our attention towards a focal point. Music that instead prioritises texture, timbre (colour), and rhythm is more likely to feel ambient and immersive. Without an obvious focal point we have no choice but to let the sound wash over us. The boundary between the listener and the music disappears.
What is considered “contemporary” — belonging to the time in which we live — is by definition ever-evolving. For our purposes we can mark the beginning of “contemporary music” as a point at which “classical” notions of music were not just questioned, or stretched, or broken, but outright abandoned.
In John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33” (a work in which performers are instructed not to play their instruments for 4 minutes and 33 seconds) the audience is challenged to consider the quality of the environmental sounds occurring around them. Therefore, 4’33” marks a transition point in music, the beginning of an era in which the extremities of complexity (order) and silence (lack of order) are fully explored by artists. Contemporary musicians, consciously or unconsciously, are influenced by this shared cultural reality.
However, to think of music as an art form that progresses through defined historical periods at all is to take an inherently Western-centric perspective. The indigenous music of cultures from across the globe is very often both ambient and immersive. And by virtue of not belonging to the Western historical narrative, it is eternally contemporary.