Atmospherics in music, cinema and literature

Category: Arts

As I engage the art forms in the title of this essay, I seek to absorb environments, worlds, and moods. Such are the factors I otherwise classify as atmospherics, which I often prioritize over the mere pursuit of forms and ideas.

In film, effective cinematography plays a key contributing role in atmospherics; in literature, it’s the raw and descriptive language (symbolism and allusion not strictly necessary). In music, I’ve captured atmospherics within the Ambient genre.

To provide slight background, the Ambient movement gained increased fame in the 1970s, as the composer/producer Brian Eno popularized the subgenre and coined the name. He even penned the ambient music manifesto.

During the last couple of years I’ve extensively explored Eno’s Ambient body of work. As a side note, a subset of it appeals to the Generative Music methodology - an algorithmically derived approach to composition, which some of you may find of interest.

Whatever the compositional base, Ambient music embodies non-invasiveness. It can remain nearly imperceivable, inspire passive contemplation, or even impart new context upon the environment, subject to the listener’s inclination. The impact may seem somewhat fuzzy, but in my experience, it has served all of these functions.

Ambient music constitutes what many refer to as repetitive and boring. And it indeed exhibits that quality which a seasoned musical ear may (and in all respect, should) find melodically unfulfilling. To me, however, the genre serves a deeper purpose.

It first encourages calmness and contemplation. I often listen to Ambient before sleep, or as a form of meditation. In addition, it has the capacity to transport me to the right place.

I love to imagine and explore new worlds. The right kind of Ambient music facilitates that process. It gives manifest to an atmosphere I capture with great appetite.

Brian Eno contributed an exorbitant collection of the Ambient. A tiny subset includes Discreet Music, Music for Airports, Textures, Reflection, Thursday Afternoon, I Dormienti, Music for Prague. If the music of one artist had to accompany me on a desert island for the remainder of my wicked life, let this be it.

Other music, perhaps not strictly Ambient, has demonstrated similar character. The Jazz albums New York Days by Enrico Rava, Angel Song by Kenny Wheeler, or the fused In the Silent Way of Miles Davis serve as the better examples of non-invasiveness mixed with atmospherics.

The instrumental Ghosts by Nine Inch Nails, not lacking the Industrial footprint, largely achieves similar impact. (I’ve even found soothing introspection in the Post-Punk movement, but this represents an odd tiny fraction of cases.)

The Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis presents an atmosphere not entirely Ambient, yet one I’ve come to so intimately possess that it has become a natural extension to my meditative faculty. More recently yet, I’ve discovered Volume 2 of the 3-volume Blade Runner box set, which I argue far more Ambient and apt to the task. Next to Eno’s albums, it’s one of my favorite recordings to facilitate sleep.

As for cinema, the little I attend to these days almost always serves an atmospheric function. I’ll provide a handful of examples: Blade Runner first and foremost; Andrey Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Зеркало), Stalker (Сталкер) and Nostalgia; Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Bleu (above anything else in the color trilogy); Alexander Sukurov’s Days of the Eclipse (Дни Затмения); Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives; the original Ghost in the Shell (anime); Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; Akira Kurosawa’s Russian-produced Dersu Uzala (Дерсу Узала). Even Hitchcock cinema enables a range of atmospherics, although it displays such balanced quality film-making that I haven’t managed to abstract one from the other.

Among atmospheric reads, Kafka’s Castle comes foremost to mind. I lost myself within that ghastly landscape, where I continue to still wonder. The Trial achieves a similar, although narrower effect.

Charles Dickens stylistically paints atmospherics in his works. Tolstoy showcases atmospherics throughout his longer novels, although the question follows, what element does he not showcase?

In soft Science Fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune is my prime example, in addition to Roadside picnic (Пикник на Обочине) and Hard to be a God (Трудно быть Богом) of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.

Of all the literary cases I here mention, the atmospherics that impacted me most are not of pretty environments. To the contrary, they comprise unsightly, unsavory, unwelcome, chilling, sometimes grotesque settings that demand greater than a superficial tour to appreciate.

Across my philosophical pilgrimage, these works played a powerful influence on the way I appraise the surrounding environment and shape (or don’t shape) my expectations.

If you haven’t before considered the element of atmospherics, it may provide a new way to approach these artful forms of entertainment.

Questions, comments? Connect.