The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance: The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age Hardcover – 1 Jan 2001
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However, his definition of "ambient" involves "music being deconstructed" by Mahler and Debussy (sounds really "postmodern," but what does it mean?), and developments in technology/electronics, along with an "interest in pure sound." He pronounces: "[T]he bleeding heart of electronic progress had by its very nature rendered all recorded music, by definition, Ambient." (4) Given this sort of cosmic perspective Prendergast could have included all music, and what he does include seems to be more or less "cool stuff that I like." Harsh, I know, but does Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door," by any stretch of the conceptual imagination, belong on a list of the Essential 100 Recordings of 20th Century Ambient Music? If so, our author fails to offer any explanation. How about Led Zeppelin IV (ie, ZOSO)? I'm at a loss.
If the book was appropriately titled, I would have much less to criticize. But when you title a book "The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age," you lead the reader to expect some sort of theoretical analysis -- what sort of evolution? In what direction? What mechanisms are involved? But there is "no there there" if what is happening is just technological progress, and "an interest in pure sound" may characterize Cage's famous *4'33"* (the silent composition), but there is not even an attempt here to argue that it is the direction of 20th century music. If Prendergast really means to emphasize the use of music as background, where is his discussion of Muzak, and music in advertising? He doesn't develop his embryonic theme(s), but rather rushes headlong into profiles of musicians, which are strung together with little connecting analysis.
Caveat emptor -- if you're looking for serious analysis, look elsewhere, but if you want a breezy journalistic encyclopedia of non-mainstream music (that is seen as cool by The Wire magazine) you might find this a useful reference work. (For a model of analysis of cutting edge music, check out Nyman's EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC. It also has a foreward by Brian Eno!)
(verified library loan)
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.
That said, there are faults with this book. One reviewer has already pointed out factual errors--I've found one too: John Cage was a professor at Wesleyan University in the '60s and '70s (I don't know the dates off the top of my head), and not, as Pendergrast states, at the University of Connecticut. There are also numerous typos and grammatical errors, all of which suggest that this book could use a copy editor and a couple of fact checkers. Let us hope for future editions.
Intellectually, it's a masterpiece meal, but unfortunately, the detail and factual wine's been kept next to the oven, and the bread is burnt. Fortunately for the book, its breath of fresh air in insight makes up for this. If the facts were fixed this book would be off the scale.
That doesn't devalue the work, and when I first got the book in 2001 (my freshman year of college) it helped fill in a lot of gaps in my playlist. It's not an academic reference. It's not particularly good criticism. It's not incredibly accurate history... but it's readable and engaging, and responsible for both broadening my own tastes and introducing me to a lot of new music.