NEAR AND FAR: The Origin of Pop Ambient, or How Wolfgang Voigt Brought Oxygen to the Dancefloor

by Adrian Mark Lore

Outside, the snow pads trees with extra layers of insulation, like oversized coats on their skinny bones. It is cold inside too, tonight: in the club, in the crowd, a clear sheet of ice between bodies, their spasmodic movements frozen in the shutter of strobe lights, the satellites of an epileptic moon. Still in time, the limbs of dancers stretch out like bare tree branches; the warm beats melting the slush off their coats, the icy refuse gathering at the tips of their fingers.

Outside, music drips off the risen roof, gathering in puddles that ripple out with the low undulations of bass. A couple in the alley ingest their colored pills; they feel the frostbite turn to a sunny glow, the steady thump from inside, outside, synchronizing their heartbeats to slow as though they were sinking into a bed of snow. In the parking lot, just beyond the forest, someone holds on nimbly to their car keys, looking up at the grey firmament, cold and lonely, tired of the night yet spurred by the resentment – still feeling that pulse, that thump, that beat that pounds endlessly, hazily at a distance, both inside and out. Near and far.

The inside is outside and the outside is in; what was once far feels now so near.

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One of his many monikers, Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project was the product of a simple vision: the transformation of the organic world into a dynamic aural space. Through the use of psychoactive drugs in his exploration of the Königsforst in Germany, Voigt sought to experience the invisible facets of nature that typically escape the analytical mind. Over the course of four landmark records, he translated the forest’s dreamlike essence into a massive collection of foggy ambiances and looming beats. In spite of their atmospheric richness and thematic focus, the German producer had bridged the gap between two mutually exclusive realms: the outside world of the organic – the forest – and the inside world of the synthetic – the nightclub. This was environmentalism you could dance to, and the result was something that felt both ephemeral and imminent; remote like the wilderness yet inescapable, like the disembodied music that floods every alley in the middle of the night.

In November 2016, Voigt reissued the latter three records and the rare EP Oktember through his own record label, the omnipresent Kompakt. The collector’s set includes both vinyl and CD versions of each release, along with an art book of Voigt’s photographic study of the Königsforst. Simply titled BOX, it is the obelisk of his legacy.

Slightly more discrete was his 2009 CD reissue – and subtle rework – of all four GAS LPs, an anthology he appropriately titled Nah und Fern. In English: Near and Far.

Before coining the name of the genre, ambient music pioneer Brian Eno used the term “discreet music” to describe the essence of his output. He was being quite literal. His intent, he asserted, was to produce distant and undemanding music that could fade into the background, remaining palatable for broad consumption by rewarding listeners for their attention, yet without requiring it.

To be sure, ambient music has taken a dizzying variety of forms since Eno’s foundational ’70s and ’80s releases. In the liner notes of his latest record, Reflection, Eno mused: “[Ambient music] seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows.” Yet the genre’s central doctrine has remained largely unchanged.

This presents a mild semantic conundrum, however, since Voigt’s output as GAS – often viewed as prototypical ambient music – is anything but discrete. Not only do his compositions demand attention, but they forcibly occupy space with gorgeous, monolithic atmospheres that bloom at every corner. Contrary to Eno’s early prescription, Voigt’s music is not deferential, but assertive and even invasive. The echoes are not simply “near and far” – they are everywhere.

In other words, Voigt’s output transcends ambient music altogether. Indeed, he may well stand at the vanguard of ambient music’s most prominent seditious faction, a conglomerate of talented producers signed to his Kompakt record label. What they have collectively crafted prevails in stark contrast to Eno’s “discreet music.”

They call it: “pop ambient.”

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It began before it began. On March 28th, 2000, Wolfgang Voigt released his final – and arguably his best – record as GAS. The cover was a sunny, vibrant photograph of a Königsforst conifer. He titled the groundbreaking ambient record “Pop.”

Less than a year later, on February 7th, 2001, Kompakt released the first entry in a yearly compilation of groundbreaking ambient music: Pop Ambient 2001. The compilation includes work by Markus Guentner, Ulf Lohmann, Joachim Spieth and others – and, of course, select tracks by Voigt himself.

Caught somewhere between dance music and modern classical, pop ambient is, unexpectedly, often closer to the cyclical lounge of Theo Parrish and Étienne de Crécy than to the symphonic noodling of Jean-Michel Jarre. Tracks are often short – for ambient music, anyway – and quickly memorable, each distinct like a study of a lush aural concept. Notably, their frequent inclusion of four-on-the-floor rhythms, often etched thoroughly into the sonic lattice, give their atmospheres an animate quality. The beat is the product of pulses in the music, like a heartbeat or exhalations, rather than a percussive arrangement; the space itself breathes, is alive.

This is the great achievement of Voigt and his Kompakt associates, a team that includes luminaries such as The Orb and The Field: They have created an imperfect, organic counterpart to the sanitized sounds of artists like Brian Eno and even Stars of the Lid.

In other words, though the GAS project is now defunct, we are fortunate enough that we may continue to expect Kompakt’s yearly series of digitally-mediated gardens.

Though Voigt’s GAS records brought the quiet forest to the solemn dancefloor – or perhaps vice-versa – the tracks on these yearly anthologies vary widely in their subject and methodology. On Pop Ambient 2004, Andrew Thomas’ dizzying “Fearsome Jewel (3)” is a floral still-life that juxtaposes lush, blooming soundscapes with the delicate pointillism of wilting petals. From Pop Ambient 2007, The Field’s elegant yet spectral “Kappsta” is disquieting in its digital manipulation of angelic vocals. In sharp contrast, Marsen Joules’ “The Sound of One Lip Kissing” – the noir-inspired opening track of Pop Ambient 2010 – is set at night, at the scene of a crime passionnel where a red rose has been left over the body.

This synergy between the synthetic and the organic is at the heart of pop ambient, and it is no coincidence that each record’s cover art is a digital transmutation of various species of flora; the biotic and the abiotic need not be mutually exclusive – in fact, they are complementary.

For the cover of Pop Ambient 2001, a steel handrail existing nowhere in particular is juxtaposed with an off-center, nondescript image of a crimson flower. Neither is near enough to reveal much about the object of focus, yet neither is far enough to contextualize it. The music completes the veiled landscape; the sounds themselves too distant, yet cathartically imminent.

The cover of Pop Ambient 2006 is less welcoming, ripping apart the greenery through abrasive layers of glitch. The synergy is uncommonly, but occasionally, volatile.

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Before the age of civilization, all of the world was “outside.” The human race alone has erected new walls to form a discrete limit between feral nature and our own safe, fabricated realities – the “inside.” Yet as the planet implodes as a result of environmental destruction – the product of our own insatiable hunger for energy to fuel our industrial machines – this artificial border is collapsing. Just as we have encroached upon nature, so nature encroaches upon us.

Pop ambient predicts this subverted reality, yet its approach is inherently optimistic. By straddling the line between the outside and the inside, Voigt and his fellow musicians assert that these spheres are not necessarily in conflict.

We are a part of the natural world, indeed. The outside and the inside have always been one and the same.

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