The title alone ought to be enough to suggest the daunting scope of Mark Prendergast's exploration of sound in the 20th Century. Prendergast argues that an "Ambient" tendency links together most of the musical output of the century, from Debussy to Derrick May and beyond. Rather than a single narrative, The Ambient Century is pieced together out of biographical segments and overviews of genres. And he squeezes it all in, beginning with the electronic pioneers (Theremin, Stockhausen, Subotnick) moving through Minimalism, "Ambience in the Rock Era" (encompassing the Beach Boys and the Stones but also the Dead, Krautrock, New Wave and even Enya), and ending with 100 pages on house, techno, and the broader scope of popular electronic music.
While the earlier chapters may provide interesting background for readers interested in the 20th Century avant garde, the book ultimately proves a disappointment. For anyone immersed in house, techno, drum'n'bass, or any other form of contemporary electronic music - commercial or experimental - the reading seems cursory at best. Prendergast sticks to the big names - in drum'n'bass, for instance, he dwells on Goldie and LTJ Bukem, ignoring less famous originators and more recent developments. To devote a page to DJ Rap at the expense of more influential producers seems short-sighted at best. House and techno are both treated as dead genres, barely breaking out of the historical contexts (early 90s Chicago and Detroit) with which they're associated, and with little insight into the subsequent fragmentation of genres and subgenres. (His earlier chapters, while more informed, suffer from similar flaws - Subotnick's entry barely hints at the philosophy behind the composer's music; La Monte Young's follows the official Youngian party line in casting Tony Conrad as bit player).
Ultimately, even greater methodological flaws mar Prendergast's account. His valorization of individual auteurs ignores the labels which often did as much, if not more, to further the development of particular sounds. He suffers from a lack of fact-checking. His historicism is simplistic at best - his treatment of the Compact Disc seems cribbed straight from a Philips corporate backgrounder, emphasizing the format's alleged superiority with little heed for its drawbacks, ignoring the corporate strongarm strategies (like price-fixing) that led to its dominance, and falling back on utopian pronouncements akin to a kind of digital "end-of-history." Sure, after the advent of the CD "there was just more music around for everybody," but how much is this due to the medium - and how much to the majors' aggressive marketing and enforced obsolescence of vinyl? Where Simon Reynolds has developed a complex (if controversial) linkage between drug consumption and music production, Prendergast - without citing him - falls back on a simplistic determinism, resulting in statements like "Trip-Hop was the product of post-club marijuana consumption." And he suffers from the habit of capitalizing neologized non-genres like "Trip Jazz," as if to grant them legitimacy.
Finally, Prendergast's very thesis is barely spelled out. Presumably, his concept of the Ambient refers to the ascendancy of sound-for-sound's-sake in the 20th Century. He probably has something in this, but without a more rigorous examination of the technological, sociological, economic and above all formal aspects linking, say, John Cage, the Beach Boys, King Tubby, and Aphex Twin, his book remains a collection of half-developed snapshots.