It is music, they say.
Are bells and drums all that is meant by music?
Let me immediately put up a disclaimer: the question in the title is by no means my own dilemma, as it’s perfectly clear (and I believe most readers will agree) that dark ambient is absolutely a genre of music in its true sense. What I’m interested in, however, is the common perception of non-initiates, i.e. people who have been introduced to the music for the first time, or simply irregular/casual listeners of the genre, who tend to dismiss it as not really music. This editorial is not intended as an argumentative piece; it’s more of a synthesis of both viewpoints into a single current of thought, an attempt to look at the genre from both sides, and see what it offers to either group of listeners.
In order to have a somewhat balanced, scientific look at this issue, let’s first have a look at what music is. In the loosest sense, music can be any composed stretch of sound. However, the basic properties of music are pitch (i.e. melody and harmony) and rhythm, with dynamics and texture as secondary characteristics. From a traditionalist aspect, a composition has to have all of these to be considered proper music, and the utterly limited scope of modern mainstream music has constrained that definition even further, usually becoming as formulaic as verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus, or possibly smaller variations thereof. Clearly, dark ambient would struggle to fit this bill, as its sole prominent features are dynamics and texture, with pitch making an occasional appearance, and rhythm being virtually entirely absent.
This explains why the ordinary music listener (for lack of a better expression; I’m not trying to be elitist here) has such a hard time embracing dark ambient as a bona-fide music genre. The extremely varying song lengths, abstract visuals which accompany releases etc. certainly don't help, but that’s not where the real gap is (if you have any artistic incline towards your music at all, that is; if music is nothing but a form of entertainment to you, you’ve probably ended up on this website by an inconceivable cosmic error to begin with). The comments that one can usually expect is that dark ambient music lacks fullness, an instrument, a voice – something to fill up the created atmosphere. People are used to the music being active, constantly challenging, which dark ambient is, but in a radically different way. There is literally nothing that you can cling to, no hooks, no immediate patterns, nothing that will take you up on its own.
Yet this is precisely where the beauty of dark ambient lies. It’s devoid of everything superficial, to the point where it becomes almost unrecognisable as music. It’s so subtle that you can be listening to it in your room, for example, and the random passer-by won’t even notice that any music is playing at all, as if the sounds were hidden from perception, revealing themselves only to those who are searching for them. Indeed, dark ambient is not a rollercoaster ride; you can’t expect this music to grab you by the hand, you have to learn how to let it consume you. The journey is never directed forwards, only inwards. It’s not there to tell you its story, it’s there to reflect your own. If I had to find a phrase to sum up everything that dark ambient is, I’d most likely say – mirror of the soul.
This is why dark ambient has such a limited audience (other than mundane factors, such as relatively low exposure in the insipid, consumerist modern-day music industry) – it’s so highly dependent on the listener’s subjectivity. If you take a piece of music – any music – and remove the vocals and instruments from it, there’s physically nothing left. However, certain people will be able to discern a very specific feeling that’s created by those instruments, a layer entirely separate from the assembly of sounds itself – I’m talking about that abstract concept we commonly call atmosphere. Dark ambient has taken that notion to the utmost extremes, dealing away with the first layer and expanding on the second one. The concept is so difficult to grasp because it’s like liquid without a container, smell without matter. The physical, first layer is so thin that it’s almost completely transparent, and you need to adopt a certain perspective to be able to truly appreciate the music in all its clandestine beauty.
Dark ambient isn’t music for true music enthusiasts, the music-savvy or anything else that may sound as pompous. You’re not a narrow-minded simpleton for not getting it. Conversely, you’re not an incredibly deep, intelligent person just by appreciating it – we’ll leave that sort of reasoning to the hipster population. It’s really nothing more than a gateway to your inner – or outer – self, something that you may feel the need to go through or not, as pertaining to your own liking; or as Cold Meat Industry brilliantly put it:
For the music lover
Who can sit and enjoy
The evolving sound
Of someone else’s nightmare.