Forum Artistic Research

Oral Presentation

Passive Listening: Exploring Interpassivity in Ambient Music

David Chechelashvili, Alan Brown

on  Sat, 15:00in  Neuer Saalfor  30min

The landscape of ambient music presents unique challenges for critique and classification due to its wide range of subgenres, functions and goals. Often defined by its atmospheric and immersive qualities, ambient music is traditionally seen as providing a backdrop for relaxation or as a means to block out the harsh reality of the outside world. This dominant theory, while valuable in certain contexts, tends to oversimplify the multifaceted nature of ambient music and ignores the potential for more nuanced listening experiences. The proposed alternative theory of interpassivity challenges existing understandings of ambient music production and consumption modes. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, aesthetics and media studies, interpassivity suggests that, under certain circumstances, audiences can choose to delegate the experience of enjoyment to the music itself. This delegation involves a passive surrender of agency that allows the music to shape the listener’s experience without direct, conscious participation. To illustrate this, we contrast ambient music with more conventional music styles. Exploring both compositional and audience perspectives, we examine how ambient music’s intentional lack of participation distinguishes it from active and attentive music listening practices. By understanding the interplay between the compositional choices of musicians and the passive role assumed by the audience, we may gain a deeper understanding of the various expressions of the genre. We examine the modes of listening commonly associated with ambient music as a means for interrogating the interpassive nature of the genre. Scholars argue that ambience in the arts is an active and complex force that shapes our perception and understanding of sound and that it should not be dismissed as passive or inconsequential, but rather be seen as a dynamic element that demands critical engagement. In contrast to an emphasis on active engagement, our perspective accommodates instances where listeners engage in a more passive experience. We advocate for an expanded view of the listener’s role in ambient music, recognising the potential for aesthetic experiences that may emerge from the intentional relinquishment of involvement. This nuanced perspective aligns with the complexities inherent in the genre and enriches the discourse surrounding ambient music, offering a broader framework for its classification and appreciation.

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