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Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

So reads the last line of Brain Eno’s manifesto for ambient music, as written on the inner sleeve of Music for Airports. DJ Masonic, also known as Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s new Composer-in-Residence, spins tracks from this album, mixing it live alongside a bassist improvising, tastefully, as guests funnel into the first room of three comprising of Lounge Regime, each themed specially to highlight a specific period from over the past 100 years of ambient music.


Each person entering is left to weigh the option of waiting in the bar’s considerable line to make immediate use of their free drink voucher (which I was obviously planning to use to purchase the most expensive option available—the signature cocktail of the night consisting of a splash of Absinthe with champagne) against waiting for the next room to open, where there will ostensibly be more bars.

It’s a difficult choice. I choose to wait in line A.

As I wait, of course, the next room opens. Guests enter in typical herd fashion, although this space is much smaller than the first (and is clearly not meant for everyone to squeeze into). The second room looks like a tiki bar, or my uncle’s basement, those being the only two places I’m familiar with that have wood paneling. On a small stage three men in crisp white-collared shirts drum furiously, though in a very controlled rhythm. They play a piece from Steve Reich’s Drumming, a 90-minute piece he wrote shortly after returning from Ghana where he trained with master drummers and did other badass stuff. The piece is hypnotic, great tunes for standing in line.

The rhythmic drumming of Steve Reich is mixed with, and ultimately faded out into, the droning music of La Monte Young. I like it, though I don’t know if I could do a whole concert of it. But I don’t have to; it ends abruptly.

The third room is a ballroom disguised as a 1920s Parisian salon, including large screens with a jittery projection reading “Paris, 1923”. It also has a bar. The bizarre thing about a concert of ambient music is that the music is meant to fade in and out. It’s not meant to be the centerpiece. It’s less invested in grabbing the audience’s attention than it is in subtlety altering the mood through atmospheric changes. So as a pianist begins to play compositions of Erik Satie, the man who created the first inspiration for ambient music, which he called furniture music, people spoke amongst themselves.

Then a singer joined the pianist on the stage. Everyone got quiet, feeling much more comfortable talking over someone playing an instrument, than a soloist singing in front of them. With it suddenly so quiet, I became acutely aware of the ambient noise of a fog machine in the background.

In case you were curious, Erik Satie also wrote a kind of manifesto for his so-called ‘furniture music’ that goes something like this: “It’s something else!! No more “false music”…Furnishing music completes one’s property…it’s new; it doesn’t upset customs; it isn’t tiring; it’s French; it won’t wear out; it isn’t boring.”

Personally, I find Eno’s description much more appealing (and infinitely less French). But the compelling thing about both these descriptions of ambient music, a genre that mustn’t be relegated to background music (which does exist; it’s was pioneered by Muzak, Inc. in the fifties), is the loftiness of their artistic visions in contrast to the simplicity of the music itself. These were artists seeking to generate a musical movement, strangely enough, to fill in the sounds between the forgettable: ambient music took its inspiration from the motion of trains, the sound of cars passing-by, the drone of a power transformer. In these places, these visionaries found sonic refuge. Which is a very peaceful idea, if you allow the space to think about it.

Mason Bates’ next appearance at the Kennedy Center is on Thursday, December 3.