Regimented lines file across the empty white document, marching to the steady beat of clattering keys. The canvas, subject to disembodied brushes strokes, explodes in swirling technicolour. Anxieties and doubts melt from your ears with each breath and every slap of rubber on bitumen, coming to rest in a waxy, viscous pool on the cracked pavement below.
Psychologists refer to these experiences as ‘flow’: a mental state characterised by relaxation, concentration and boundless productivity. When we’re in the flow, creativity drips from our fingers like water from a tap, time dilates as if in a daydream, and our creative endeavours—songs, paintings, novel, plays, assignments—materialise with ease.
But in this modern world of endless distraction, tapping into a flow state is becoming increasingly difficult. The ebullient bling! of Facebook notifications, the incessant hammering of neighbourhood construction, the domestic clatter of hungry housemates; these are unwelcome eddies, ripples and whirls in the gentle stream of cognitive flow.
Ambient music is a sensory cocoon: a steady, pure signal to block out life’s white noise. Whether you’re writing an essay, painting a canvas or going for a leisurely evening stroll, here’s five albums that will help you find your flow.
Brian Eno — Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)
The story goes like this. It’s 1978, and Brian Eno is waiting for a flight out of Cologne Bonn Airport, Germany. Sitting in the noisy airport lounge, he’s feeling anxious: all those booming announcements, the wailing children, the guttural screams of planes as they taxi down the runway—it’s all beginning to set his teeth on edge. As the opening piano chords of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ blare from the tinny overhead speakers for the umpteenth time, a thought begins to bloom in Eno’s mind: what should a soundtrack for airports sound like?
His answer? Music for Airports, a seminal four-track artefact that, according to Eno’s liner notes, is ‘intended to induce calm and a space to think’. Pieced together from mismatched tape loops of varying lengths, these songs orbit like Rubik’s cubes spinning in slow motion: snippets of melody spiral in rhythmic freefall, occasionally colliding in vibrant synchronicity only to fall out of step again moments later. Whether by gentle piano (‘1/1’), wordless vocals (‘2/1’, ‘1/2’) or glassy synths (‘2/2’), each composition affects the same feeling: a peaceful somnolence, and a sense of familiarity that is quite impossible to grasp.
Tim Hecker — Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006)
Where most ambient artists rely on warm, lugubrious sounds to build atmosphere, Tim Hecker moves in the opposite direction. Listening to Harmony in Ultraviolet is to be in a sensory deprivation chamber, floating atop a pool of glacial drones and white noise. Here, melody is eschewed in favour of a more textural aesthetic: ‘Stags, Aircraft, Kings and Secretaries’ reverberates with metallic screeches and squeals, while ‘Radio Spiricom’ prickles with the distant howl of guitar feedback. If this all sounds a bit off-putting, it’s because it frequently is—‘Spring Heeled Jack Flies Tonight’ is particularly violent, with its electronic whirs and shrieks of aural detritus. It’s paradoxical, then, that an album as visceral as Harmony in Ultraviolet can be so soothing and immersive; like rain on the roof or the rumblings of a distant storm, there’s an inexplicable warmth to this chaos.
John Luther Adams — Become Ocean (2014)
John Luther Adams’s compositions have always been in touch with, and inspired by, the natural world. “Become Ocean”, performed here by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, is a loving ode to the Alaskan coast of which Adams, until recently, called home. Across its fourty-two-minute runtime, the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece ebbs and flows in brazen, colossal movements: tremulous strings, frigid brass and crystalline piano swell in uneasy harmony, simmering with tension, before crashing down in a seething, gurgling whitewash of oceanic grandeur. Even in its stillest moments, there is constant motion—swirling tides, arctic winds, salt-flecked sea spray. It’s a thrilling experience to ride the peaks and troughs of these sonic waves and to be swept away by their currents.
Bing & Ruth — Tomorrow Was the Golden Age (2014)
It’s hard to keep track of who’s in Bing & Ruth, a turnstile ensemble lead by pianist David Moore. Where 2010’s City Lake was performed by an eleven-piece ensemble, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age features just seven members—two upright bassists, a cellist, two clarinetists, a tape delay operator and, of course, Moore on piano. It’s curious, then, that this record sounds so voluminous compared to its predecessor. In certain moments, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age is utterly immense: ‘The Towns We Love is Our Town’ stacks droning chords from floor to ceiling, its strings and woodwinds elegantly stretched by cavernous tape echo while Moore’s lurid arpeggiations flicker like iridescent fireworks. Elsewhere, his playing is quiescent and sweet: ‘We Are on the Side of Angels’ moves gingerly, propelled only by its sparse, meandering chords. Though Tomorrow Was the Golden features predominantly classical instrumentation, it could easily be mistaken as an electronic album—a true indication of neoclassical at its sensorial best.
Steve Reich — Music for 18 Musicians (2015)
Unlike the other albums on this list, Music for 18 Musicians is primarily driven by rhythm rather than melody. Composed by Reich in 1976 and performed, on this release, by Ensemble Signal, this piece is uniquely modular: strings, xylophones, clarinets, pianos and female voices rise and fall in staggered intervals, creating richly layered textures which pulse, shimmer and blink. Reich’s minimalist compositions more closely resemble mathematical equations than musical compositions, and this is no exception; an algorithmic logic tightly governs the interplay of elements, which are, ultimately, just small pieces of a broader, incomprehensible puzzle. Over time, the polyrhythmic throb of Music for 18 Musicians, inexorable as it is, starts to feel as exhilarating as an amphetamine rush—your heart rate quickens, your focus peaks, your vision narrows, and everything locks into place.