An Ambient Playlist to Create a Bubble of Tranquillity


Listen to 8 airy, cumulous songs (keeping in mind that not all ambient music sounds like this).


Never miss a chance to experience Laraaji’s sonic opalescence.Credit…Balarama Heller for The New York Times

Dear listeners,

In times when I need to tune out the busy exterior world and tune into my own subconscious, I turn to ambient music.

I have read entire novels — on rush-hour subway commutes, no less! — thanks to the dulcet tones of Laraaji. I retained (most of) my sanity when a new apartment building was going up across the street because of the textured, hypnotic drones of Bitchin Bajas. I have written more articles to the placid soundtrack of Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” than I can possibly count.

Ambient music — a vast and nebulous genre that I’d very loosely define as wordless music that focuses more on atmosphere and tone than on rhythm and melody — has had a surprising and somewhat controversial uptick in popularity in the past decade. It became a common method for quelling anxiety during lockdown, but even before the pandemic it had become something of an ever-present millennial commodity, in the form of endless streaming playlists advertised to help one study, work or just chill.

The Canadian experimental musician Tim Hecker called ambient music “the great wellspring — but also the bane of my existence,” in a recent Times profile by Grayson Haver Currin. His reason? “It’s this superficial form of panacea weaponized by digital platforms, shortcuts for the stress of our world,” he said. “They serve a simple function: to ‘chill out.’ How does it differ from Muzak 2.0, from elevator music?”

Hecker is definitely on to something. In the streaming era, ambient music has too often been branded as yet another tool for hyper-capitalist optimization — either a way of focusing more deeply at work or relaxing more deeply in order to return to work recharged and ready to be more productive. The actual artistry involved in composing such music, at least according to this viewpoint, is woefully beside the point.

In fall 2020, when I had the delight of interviewing the ambient pioneer and perpetual crossword answer Eno, he recalled composing his earliest works of what he called “Discreet Music” in the late 1970s, and voiced reservations similar to Hecker’s. “When I started making ambient music,” he said, “I was very conscious that I wanted to make functional music. At that time, functional music was almost exclusively identified with Muzak — it had a very bad rap. Artists weren’t supposed to make functional music. So, I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’”

I appreciate Eno’s challenge that artistry and functionality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When he considered how he used music in his own life, he realized, “Well, I use it to make a space that I want to live in.” Sometimes that desired atmosphere was kinetic and upbeat, so he’d listen to Fela Kuti all day. Other times, he preferred slow orchestral music. “I started to think, I imagine a lot of other people are doing this as well,” he said. “Ambient was really a way of saying, ‘I’m now designing musical experiences.’ The emphasis was on saying, ‘Here is a space, an atmosphere, that you can enter and leave as you wish.’”

In that spirit, today’s playlist is a space that you can enter and leave as you wish. I designed it to be airy, tranquil and cumulous, like a house of drifting clouds illuminated by slashes of sunbeams. Of course, not all ambient music sounds like this. (I love Hecker’s music, for example, but much of it features evocatively woolly textures and a general sense of foreboding that would have felt out of place here.) I tried to find a unifying harmony in the feelings and tones that all of these songs conjure, and, though they’re all very different artists, I found that Julianna Barwick’s heavenly vocal tapestries, Laraaji’s sonic opalescence and Hiroshi Yoshimura’s burbling electronics worked exceptionally well together.

Many of these songs have existed in my own life as “functional music,” as Eno calls it, but not just in the soulless “Music for Productivity” sense that Hecker rightly bemoans. I have used some of these songs, time and again, to slow down and daydream. I used a few of them on a playlist at a friend’s wedding that I D.J.ed, for those liminal but still sacred moments when the guests were arriving. I tested this exact playlist earlier this week on a noisy New Jersey Transit train, and it gave me enough mental elbow room to get lost in Annie Ernaux’s gorgeous and immersive novel “The Years.” May this music find its own unique and gloriously unproductive function in your life.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

1. Laraaji: “Trance Celestial — Movement 3”

A gently luminous slice of bliss from the prolific New Age legend and laughter enthusiast’s 1983 composition “Trance Celestial.” (Listen on YouTube)

2. Julianna Barwick: “Envelop”

To create the songs on her magnificent 2011 album, “The Magic Place,” Barwick wove layer upon layer of ethereal vocal loops into intricate symphonies of breath. (Listen on YouTube)

3. Harold Budd and Brian Eno: “An Arc of Doves”

In 1980, for the second album in his Ambient series, Eno teamed up with the Minimalist composer Harold Budd for the evocative “The Plateaux of Mirror.” On “An Arc of Doves,” Budd’s improvised clusters of piano notes glide along the marbled surfaces of Eno’s electronics. (Listen on YouTube)

4. Hiroshi Yoshimura: “Feel”

A pioneer of Japanese ambient music, Yoshimura’s “Feel,” from his landmark 1986 album “Green,” uses synthetic sounds to construct an otherworldly landscape. (Listen on YouTube)

5. Laraaji: “Trance Celestial — Movement 4”

Back to the celestial trance already in progress. I love the rippling effect Laraaji achieves here. (Listen on YouTube)

6. Mary Lattimore and Paul Sukeena: “Hundred Dollar Hoagie”

Though its title is charmingly down-to-earth, the harpist (and, here, synth wizard) Mary Lattimore’s 2022 collaboration with the guitarist Paul Sukeena sounds like a warped transmission from a distant galaxy. (Listen on YouTube)

7. Bitchin Bajas: “Pieces of Tape”

The adventurous Chicago group Bitchin Bajas create soundscapes of all sorts of tones and textures, but here, on a nearly 10-minute composition from their 2014 self-titled album, they sound like warm-blooded aliens. (Listen on YouTube)

8. Brian Eno: “2/2”

I just had to include something from “Music for Airports.” Ken Emerson’s 1979 New York Times review of the album is an illuminating time capsule, too. As he concludes, “if it were ever actually piped over the p.a. system at LaGuardia, travelers would either ignore it — or miss their flights.” (Listen on YouTube)



The Amplifier Playlist

Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“An Ambient Playlist to Create a Bubble of Tranquillity” track listTrack 1: Laraaji, “Trance Celestial — Movement 3”Track 2: Julianna Barwick, “Envelop”Track 3: Harold Budd and Brian Eno, “An Arc of Doves”Track 4: Hiroshi Yoshimura, “Feel”Track 5: Laraaji, “Trance Celestial — Movement 4”Track 6: Mary Lattimore and Paul Sukeena, “Hundred Dollar Hoagie”Track 7: Bitchin Bajas, “Pieces of Tape”Track 8: Brian Eno, “2/2”

Bonus tracks

Jon Pareles’s radiant profile of the 79-year-old Laraaji, from earlier this year, is a must-read.

So is Isabelia Herrera’s poignant and beautifully descriptive essay from last year, about how ambient music helped her relinquish control after her mother had a stroke. “In its call to suspend time,” she writes, “the music carries the potential to press pause on the punishing velocity that attends disaster, that robs our attention and predetermines a fixed future.”

And I cannot mention Annie Ernaux without also pointing you toward the great Rachel Cusk’s definitive piece on the recent Nobel Laureate.

Plus, as always, check out the Playlist for the latest song recommendations. This week, we have new tracks from Blur, Bad Bunny, Anohni and the Johnsons, and more.



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