A Philosophy of Ambient Sound: Materiality, Technology, Art and the Sonic Environment - Ulrik Schmidt. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023.

By Will Schrimshaw


In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest, both creative and critical, in ambient sound and music. There have been many rich discussions beyond academia in publications such as Pitchfork, the online fallout from Samuel Mclamore’s Tone Glow review that criticized careerist ghouls at the ambient crossroads, and Liz Pelly’s writing on the affinities between ambient aesthetics and the rise of music streaming. We find many important and difficult questions being asked of ambient aesthetics in academic outputs such as Victor Szabo’s “Why Is(n’t) Ambient So White?” (2022b, 2022a) and the collection of articles found in Music Beyond Airports(Adkins & Cummings 2019). Pessimistically, one might consider this resurgence of “modern ambience” to entail the bloating or exhaustion of a once-useful term or, more positively, a welcome expansion of aesthetic and creative strategies that necessitate a critical revaluation of the ossification that David Toop (2019) has criticized as “genre ambient.” Given this rich critical landscape around an increasingly diverse approach to the creation and criticism of ambient aesthetics, I was excited to read Ulrik Schmidt’s recent book on ambient sound.


Schmidt’s book contributes to this expansion by taking the concept of “ambient” beyond aesthetic criteria towards a more generic conception of “surroundability.” For Schmidt this expansion is required if we are to return to an older and non-atmospheric concept of the ambient, disentangling its spatial implications from its spiritual and affective associations. This reorientation facilitates greater alignment with ideas such as ambient computing, and early in the book Schmidt hints at an interest in the overlap between ambient aesthetics, environmental “mediality,” and a technologically-facilitated culture of control. For example, Schmidt describes how “as an aesthetic practice, ambient listening is [...] inextricably linked to the general industrial and commercial development of increasingly more advanced, standardized and aestheticized listening technologies (p. 184). While this is discussed in the context of Jonathan Sterne (2003) and Brian Kane’s (2014) work on the cultural conditions of sound reproduction, the specific connection made by critics such as Liz Pelly between ambient aesthetics and listening practices in the age of streaming is overlooked.


The book’s argument is advanced through a combination of textual analysis, Deleuzian aesthetics, and subjective rumination with occasional attention given to historical music and sound design examples. The book’s title should be taken quite literally if one wants to stay true to Schmidt’s intentions: this is not specifically about ambient music, ambient aesthetics, ambience in any common usage of the term, nor is it about any particular approach to sonic practice. There is occasional mention of creative sonic practice, but ultimately this book is about boiling down a concept of the ambient to a spatial surroundability and to the pursuit of a generic consideration of sound in general. The book distinguishes ambient-surroundability from the atmospheric (too affective), the ecological (too relational), and the environmental (too specific). Ambient-surroundability is instead presented as a generic and autonomous system-level sonic event that cannot be reduced to its component parts.


The procedure of pinning down and refining a concept of the ambient shakes off most connections to creative practice. In focusing on surroundability, we are presented with a formal spatiality that feels rather empty of concrete work, sonic events, and experiences. Despite the argument for an emergent ambient spatiality – suggesting some kind of material becoming – what this argument for a generic reduction of the ambient to surroundability brings to the fore is the image of a somewhat empty circle, a map of the field of sonic experience withdrawn from the messy complications of contemporary practice. The pursuit of a generic and autonomous conception of the ambient seems hot on the heels of “the unremarkable, furniture-like presence of ambient sound [...] owing its effect of surroundability precisely to its palpable lack of environmental mystery” (p. 123). This pursuit of the generic runs the risk of sounding like an argument in favor of a hollowed-out experience of ambient sound that is as ignorable as it is boring.


This risk could have been reduced through discussion of the rich and expanding field of contemporary ambient sonic practice. However, the lack of examples results in many of the broad claims and statements coming across as vague or equivocal. It is asserted that ambient sound must not be taken to be a hylomorphically ordered form or composition but rather a field of immanent becoming. This seems uncontroversial when I listen to the ambient sound currently enveloping me as I write this review: the convergence of my neighbors having a row, my partner rehearsing for a concert, mild tinnitus, the birds in the garden, someone’s TV, and the regular punctuation of delivery vans passing, but it seems to miss the mark when I listen to the diverse ambient environments created by Chris Watson, KMRU, Jana Winderen, Tim Hecker, Hildegard Westerkamp, etc. When we are asked the question: “What morpho-material features can produce such environmental heterogeneity without either introducing figurative hierarchies or dissolving all difference in pure homogeneous abstraction?” (p. 89), the answer could have passed through the work of any number of contemporary composers along the minimal, drone, and ambient continuum – Klara Lewis, Kali Malone, Robert Curgenven, Ellen Arkbro, Phil Niblock, or Clarice Jensen, for example – that would have both grounded the discussion of Simondon and updated the references made to La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, thereby presenting new challenges for this conceptual architecture to address. In its search for a refined conception of ambience, A Philosophy of Ambient Sound seems uncomfortable running the gauntlet of contemporary creative practice and actual sonic experience.


Schmidt presents us with a few more concrete examples towards the end of text; there is something exciting about seeing Phil Spector on the same page as Iannis Xenakis, but I am not convinced that Spector’s work presents a “pure medium, pure immanence” (p. 149), or that pure immanence is a useful concept or criteria by which to critically assess the complexities of popular music. Where the conceptual architecture being developed seems most enlightening is in the discussion of the soundtrack to THX 1138; Schmidt’s generic concept of the ambient finds an interesting fit with the film’s bleak dystopian world. However, given that this film was released in 1971, the mutually-enlightening clarity of this pairing of ambient theory and sound contributes to a growing sense that we are going back over well-trodden ground. Some of Schmidt’s summaries echo a sonic-materialist perspective in claiming that true ambience exists in the primordial being-in of a pre-individual or de-individuated sonic flux, etc., or arguing for “an ambient continuum of groundless, free-floating sonic energy” (p. 143). Throughout A Philosophy of Ambient Sound we are repeatedly taken back to Sterne’s audiovisual litany, Merleau-Ponty’s account of immersion, Deleuzian becoming, Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, Fried’s critique of literalism, Tony Smith at the New Jersey turnpike, John Cage in the anechoic chamber, La Monte Young, Edgard Varèse, Brian Eno. The historical importance of these reference points is clear, but given their ubiquity in contemporary music scholarship and sound studies it seems an opportunity to cover new ground – following the recent growth of scholarship in the field of ambient sound and music – was missed. Those working in this area will find much well-trodden ground to skip over in this text, but the lack of examples and explicit structure does not invite the student or the novice either. Without more examples or more direct engagement with contemporary scholarship, the significance of the book's broader claims is often hard to pin down.


The writing has a tendency to resort to listing questions that – while giving the text a feeling of spontaneity and openness – are sometimes only obliquely answered, requiring the reader to check back for what has been ticked off the list. To grasp Schmidt’s argument most clearly, I would suggest starting at the end, where in the closing sentences we find the project’s guiding questions: “What is ambient sound? How is it produced? How does it affect us? What does it mean to engage in an act of ambient listening?” (p. 263). These questions, along with the “exceptional” status and “socio-aesthetic isolation” of the ambient subject, are important and interesting, but answers that clearly engage with the complexities of ambient sound are to be found elsewhere.



Adkins, Monty and Simon Cummings (eds.) (2019). Music Beyond Airports – Appraising Ambient Music. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press. 


Kane, Brian (2014). Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.


Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.


Szabo, Victor (2022a). Turn On, Tune In, Drift Off: Ambient Music’s Psychedelic Past. New York: Oxford University Press.


Szabo, Victor (2022b). “Why Is(n’t) Ambient so White?” In Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta and Robin James (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Electronic Dance Music (online edition). New York: Oxford University Press. 


Toop, David (2019). “How much world do you want? Ambient listening and its questions.” In  Monty Adkins and Simon Cummings (eds.), Music Beyond Airports – Appraising Ambient Music (pp. 1–19). Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press.