Ambient Zen


There is no I, a conscious being separated from the world (the universe, really) by the limits of the physical self, an invisible border that demarcates each individual as they move through time and space.

The I is integrated into the universe in every way, large and small. The sun shines on me and you, and affects processes inside our body and mind (themselves inseparable); we breath in and breath out, consumers and producers of atmosphere; we touch and hold things, and at the smallest level our own atoms intermingle with every object; ourselves would not exist without elements forged when stars explode, stuff that has somehow made its way across billions of light years.

We are also intermixed with sound and music. We hear because sound waves actually touch us, reaching our bodies from a distance and vibrating hairs in our inner ears. In this way, music is a discrete and unique subset of sound in that it is intentional—what we are entangled with are someone’s thoughts and feelings. What is uncanny about music notation and recording technology is that they document thought and feeling that have passed but become part of us each time played through speakers or by musicians live.

Ambient music is a part of this and is an ideal representation of Zen existence because it is meant to be integrated into the immediate universe-the ambience-that surrounds. A set from a band in a club is a performance that takes place in a space, a recording of ambient music creates the space in which it is experienced (in specific situations, especially with Sunn O))) live, the performance creates its own ambient space, and can only exist in that particular, transitory arena).

If the idea and experience of ambient music move you, than you are in a golden era. Ambient music is prolific, broad, and deep. Sound recording and simple—to—complex sound creating technology is plentiful and inexpensive. People are making fantastic music in their basements and bedrooms and distributing it globally via sites like Bandcamp and individual net labels. Styles range from Sunn O))) and their avant-garde communal mysticism to Christopher Cerrone’s compositions, from the drone songs of Sister Grotto to the processed field recordings of Kate Carr, from the black painting aesthetic of Jeremy Bible to the gone—away—world collages of Fossil Aerosol Mining Project.

I listen to a lot of this music. At the point of personal desire and need, I listen at home to more of it than jazz and classical music combined. I am not a zen acolyte, but beyond how the beauty of it appeals to me, it has the effect on my mind, my sense of time, and my connection to the world that feels like a practice.

Like the world itself, there are myriad ways to experience ambient music, from the hypnagogic to the sensual. I suggest exploring the playlist below and checking out some of my favorites from the past 18 months on Band camp, the only place to find many of these artists.






For further reading:

Sounds of Futures’ Past at New Music Box

Sadie Starnes on Japanese ambient music at the Brooklyn Rail

• My survey of post-apocalyptic ambient music at Band camp

Ambient Church

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“He gets it! He knows music!”

Alvin Singleton

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Judd Greenstein


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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