John Foxx's ambient playlist – with John Cage, Popol Vuh, Elgar and more

The singer and artist selects music from the tranquil end of the spectrum – from Erik Satie to Thomas Tallis via Virginia Astley and Aphex Twin

Brian Eno gave it a name and mapped much of the territory, an early recognition that the need was already in the air – a search for some new equivalent to classical music, but one more abstract and spacious, as well as intimate and modern, capable of providing a tranquil space in an increasingly crowded, pressurised world.

Jazz had fallen into its own set of cliches and conventions, classical constantly retrod old ground. Pop and dance music both tended to grab you by the lapels. There was a need for something that addressed that other part of the spectrum – tranquillity.

1. Erik Satie – Gymnopédie No 1 (c1885)

This is where it all started, for me and many others. I first heard Gymnopédies when I was at art school in 1965 – a beautiful June day, avenue of trees at Avenham. A girl I knew played it on the old lecture theatre piano. In that moment, the promise of art, youth, joyous tranquility and sunlight on the green, green leaves of the colonnade, all combined with the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. Changed my little life.

2. John Cage – In a Landscape (1948)

Cage was living and working through his theories of music as organised noise, sound as a spiritual, magnetic field, and art as a Zen awakening. His father, an inventor, had taught his son: “If someone says ‘can’t’, that shows you what to do.” That son also became an inventor – and he reinvented modern music. I love the range of his work and all the stories of his life. This piano music illustrates a tranquil, contemplative period. I’m a lifelong subscriber.

3. Harold Budd, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois - The Pearl (1984)

A holy trinity of the most innovative recording artists of their time. Daniel Lanois – the Capability Brown of soundscaping. Brian Eno – well, Brian has a bright idea about every 20 minutes. Here, both are working around the core of Harold Budd’s visionary version of piano for the modern world, through the lens of cool, west coast jazz, European art music and Cagean minimalist philosophy. Classical music for the future.

4. Popol Vuh – Aguirre Parts I, II, III (1972)

A seminal band who, almost inadvertently, invented a new and vital aspect of music – the hybrid human/electronic chorale. Popol Vuh are also a perfect example of how technology, music, context and ideas can all mate like cats in heat. At the end of the 1960s an inventive band in Germany fortuitously gets an instrument that is a little like a Mellotron, but sounds different and better – it has better engineering and voice loops, for a start. The context is that German postwar youth were frantically remaking their culture, having no choice after those toxic war years. All film-makers, artists, musicians and writers were firmly in cahoots. A positive revolution.

So, a friend gives Popol Vuh a commission to provide some film music. The film was Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the friend was Werner Herzog, and the music – well, this is where electronic technologies meet Tallis, where the stage for Music for Airports is firmly set, and a long, still promising stream of music reaches back to evolutionary infinity and forward to technologically enabled choirs of unlimited size, in notional cathedral architecture of infinite dimensions. It’s all possible now, so it will be done. Popol Vuh were there first.

5. Thomas Tallis – Spem in Alium ( c1525)

Tallis was a contemporary of Shakespeare and of equal standing, a British man who wrote music easily as wonderful as Palestrina’s in Rome. This was an incredible attainment at that time, when we had no visual artists of any real merit, for instance, and no sculptors and few architects capable of rivalling the Europeans. Tallis explored and developed chant, the most ancient form of human music. He worked in the way that all art was made in that time, through intellect, calm deliberation and a deep philosophical and technical engagement. He created luminous harmonic structures that will last as long as our civilisation.

6. Benge – 20 Systems (2008)

This is a serious documentation of synthesiser evolution, through the playing of pieces that demonstrate the sonic textures unique to each instrument, and Benge also revels in it all. It was the revelling I really liked, because he’d also made a piece of calm, beautifully textured sound-as-music. Cage would have loved it. Benge was one of the first to understand that the world had abandoned analogue synths for new digital technology far too early, before their true potential had been properly explored. So he adopted discarded instruments and constructed a safe haven laboratory in an east London basement. This is the man who rescued an entire genre from a skip.

7. Virginia Astley – It’s Too Hot To Sleep (1983)

Each year the album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure gains even more potency, like a piece of found Super 8 film. It’s an unaffected and affectionate sonic portrait of a lost summer in Oxfordshire, where Virginia and her brother lived in the sunshine and fresh air of their family home. They rode bicycles, recorded owls at night, birdsong at dawn, and made music on flute, recorder and piano. It’s where I would really like to have lived, but I was lost in a grey and filthy London at the time. Oh, how I envied them.

8. Chant (since the 11th century)

The relationship between voice, architecture and space has fascinated me since I was in the school choir and came across a few sonic phenomena – and a few emotional and psychic responses – that I’m still learning from.

Chant is architectural music. Music that requires some sort of huge, resonant architectural space to interact with. The architecture responds by delaying the reflections of the voice, just enough for us to begin to harmonise with those delayed reflections as they return to us, and so an exciting and challenging harmonic loop is created, which can also lead to thrilling adventures with resonant frequencies, multiple delays, standing waves – and which causes that contemplative state of being completely atomised and gloriously recreated as part of something far bigger than our wee selves. Understandably, religions often tend to claim this effect as their own, but it is pursued in many religions, all around the world. I prefer to take the secular view, because I think it’s actually a normal part of human experience.

Whatever the reasons and causes, we continue to explore these effects – now using voices extrapolated from our own, in notional spaces of infinite size, all allowed by new electronic technologies. This is where technology mercifully becomes a bit like swimming and a bit like landscape gardening.

9. Aphex Twin – Ambient Works 2 (1994)

Aphex took up the ambient thing a bit late for my generation, but he was actually evolving the music and connecting it to the next generations by importing his own analogue acid abstractions and lone explorer ethos. He made superbly minimal and emotionally adept pieces, occasionally referencing Brian and Roger Eno’s splendid An Ending (Ascent). The bass frequencies in these recordings are gorgeous and the recordings are rough and beautiful in a way that was, at the time, unfamiliar to hi-fi lovers, and has now become an inverse mark of “quality”.

Burial is the natural successor to Aphex – another photo-shy rough diamond, the restless side of ambience, even though much of his work veers into a fiercer cut-up dubstep. Titles such as Rough Sleeper, Fostercare and Stolen Dog update and return to the true urban edge of Britlife at this moment. Listen to In McDonalds: you enter a world just under the skin of worn-out London, of shiny wet streets, fried-chicken shops, traffic. Alone and grateful at 3am. A strange calm after the last tube.

I had to mention these two together – they both move in mysteriously similar ways, bringing a sort of Banksyism to the music. They prove that the art of inventive instrumental music is alive and living under the floorboards everywhere.

10. Elgar – Nimrod, from The Enigma Variations (1898)

This – along with Barber’s Adagio for Strings – is both precursor and touchstone of this strange, so called ambient thing. The part of the emotional spectrum they address is reflection, pleasurable melancholy, recollection in tranquillity. The appropriate visual equivalent might be Turner’s majestic skies. We Brits like to pretend we are not much good at art, perhaps being too self-conscious, but a merciful strain of absolutely transcendental beauty can occasionally break out of our restricted souls.

• John Foxx’s The Complete Cathedral Oceans deluxe vinyl book set is out now on Edsel records‎, available here‎.

John Foxx

The GuardianTramp

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