Close up a man's hand playing the bass guitar.

The Low End of Ambient

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For most of my life as a music listener, I’ve been somewhat resistant to genres of music that a) largely eschew vocals and b) don’t rely on tight, memorable melodies or pop-centric structures. Whether it’s classical, techno, or jazz, I’ve always had a hard time connecting with forms of music that aren’t interested in giving me instantly hummable earworms. That is, until a few months ago when I became obsessed with ambient music.

It’s hard to pinpoint what it was about the works of Tim Hecker or Brian Eno that broke down those barriers, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say it was the sheer freedom of musical expression, a truly postmodern embrace of sound for sound’s sake. Classical and techno (as different as they are) trend heavily towards rigid and exacting meters, and even jazz’s high premium on virtuosity can feel restrictive in its own way. By contrast, ambient music places the highest premium on, well, ambience, and thus allows all other aspects of musicality- melodic interest, timbre, rhythm, song structure- to bend completely to the composer’s will, as long as they can use them to cultivate a particular atmosphere or mental state. Ambient music can do things most pop songs simply can’t do- throw you completely off-balance with sudden arrhythmic change-ups, or lull you into a dream-like state with endless hypnotic repetitions.

So where does bass guitar figure into all this? Well, to be honest, it usually doesn’t. Due to most ambient artists’ reliance on sampled noises, digital production, and post-hoc audio manipulation, actual live bass guitar in ambient music can be a bit hard to come by. Even when electric bass does seem to crop up, it can be very hard to parse out whether it’s really there or not, subsumed as it may be in a blurry wash of noise and textures. It’s tempting to be disappointed by this, but it’s actually pretty exciting to me. Prominent use of bass in ambient composition is, as far as I can tell, still sparsely-tread territory, which means the rules (inasmuch as rules can exist in this kind of music) have yet to be codified. Thus: more freedom! With that being said, there are a few points of reference we can use to glean clues as to what the role of a bassist can be in an ambient context.

For example, if we look at Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “Their Helicopters Sing”, we can clearly make out a rumbling, distorted low-end underneath the swooping, screeching guitars and violins. Tonally it seems rather stable, the grounding that gives all the noisy, chaotic high-end such a tense, dissonant character. However, rhythmically it seems rather choppy, almost jittery, as though the bass is being tremolo-picked to create a rhythmic instability that pervades the entire rest of the composition. For a very different example, The Dead Texan’s “The Struggle” features a central motif played in the lower register of an electric guitar, and the two lowest notes (I think it’s a D2?) have a particularly bassy resonance that imbues the floatier bells and keyboard tones with the emotional gravitas that makes the song a personal favorite of mine. It’s tough to tell for sure if an actual bass guitar appears on the track, but I find the bass-adjacent tones to be the unsung heroes of the song, and I can’t help but imagine what it will sound like if and when more ambient artists start embracing the possibilities the bass guitar offers.