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Title: The Ambient Century
Author: Mark Prendergast
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 1-58234-323-3
Pages: 510
Price: $19.95
Rating: 90%

The 20th century saw many changes in the way music was performed and listened to. As Brian Eno points out in the introduction to this book, "Until recently music was inseparable from the space in which it was performed - including the social space." Music has always been closely linked to this social space: in the middle ages, music was performed in religious institutions or at fairs; the Renaissance brought music into cathedrals; the Baroque period brought it into castles and theaters; the Classical period into increasingly democratic locations; and finally the 20th century brought music into the home, through technologies that allow us to listen to music repeatedly. 

It's hard to imagine how people approached music before the Victrola, record player, 8-track tape deck or CD player. Music was generally heard once, and only once. It provided a background for social events, in churches and cathedrals, or, in the case of opera, offered a setting for social gatherings where the music was not always as important as the mixing and hob-nobbing that took place among the listeners. 

Music has long provided atmosphere, but it was only in the 20th century that composers began to create ambient music, or music designed to function in the background. (Though this is not entirely true; Telemann wrote what he called tafelmusik, or table music, which was, in its own way, designed to provide nothing but ambience.) The seminal recording remains Brian Eno's Discreet Music, which, in 1975, was the first true ambient recording. Eno acknowledged the roots of this music in the baroque era by including a deconstructed version of Pachelbel's famous Canon in D on the b-side of this album. 

Critic Mark Prendergast sets out in this book to tell the story of the ambient century; the 20th century that saw the creation of ambient music, and its gradual development into one of the leading forms of creative composition. Ambient music has permeated many genres, as can be seen in the many composers and groups Prendergast discusses in this book. While it's hard to accept his lumping together such bands as the Grateful Dead, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, or even classical composers such as Mahler, Stockhausen and Schoenberg, Prendergast goes deeply into the history and ramifications of ambient music and tells its story. 

In a series of portraits, Prendergast describes the most important protagonists in this musical adventure, with a brief narrative of their career and the main compositions that made them so important. He then offers listening suggestions so readers can go further and discover these works. Notwithstanding the far-fetched inclusion of the Rolling Stones and Donna Summer, among others, Prendergast covers the key works and composers who have created this genre. But separating the real ambient composers from the rest gets a bit annoying after a while; I can understand, in some cases, how he can suggest that some of the Grateful Dead's work could be considered ambient, but Prendergast seems to be trying to give a new definition to this term; the closest he comes to defining it is when he says "atmospheric sound, its timbre and personality", when talking about this type of music. 

If one ignores these problems, however, one is left with an indispensable primer to ambient music and its offshoots. A long-time fan of such music, I am impressed by Prendergast's knowledge and understanding of the music, and am hard-pressed to find important composers that he has left out or underrated. (The only real exception is Wim Mertens, who he mentions briefly in passing, and who, in my opinion, has had a great deal of influence in this genre.) 

Armed with this book, and a copy if iTunes to listen to previews of some of this music at the iTunes Music Store, a curious listener will be able to discover the important compositions that have made ambient music into a real musical genre. I regret that Prendergast doesn't give pointers to web sites about the composers and groups he mentions, since many sites offer the chance to listen to excerpts of works by some of the composers he discusses. 

This is an essential book for anyone interested in ambient music and its historical development. It could be a bit shorter, and many composers and groups could be left out, but I can respect Prendergast's decision to include them; he clearly has a deep knowledge of this genre, and sees, as perhaps others may not, links among some of these composers.  

As a fan of the genre, his choices don't surprise me; in fact, many of them are in my record collection as well. Prendergast attempts to show the cross-fertilization that has helped develop this genre, and this is a good thing; the boundaries between musical genres are not impermeable, and this book ignores many of the standard boundaries to cover a wide scope and range of music.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn ( is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site,