(Credits: Far Out / Boston Public Library / British Museum / Library of Congress)
There is a video on YouTube titled ‘4 Hours of Ambient Study Music to Concentrate’. It has 14 million views at the time of writing. For context, the video for the latest single by the Arctic Monkeys has 3.9m. However, the lads from Sheffield are deemed the saviours of rock ‘n’ roll, while the other creator is so faceless that questions abound in the comments about whether they are even human at all. It’s nice to live in a world where both exist, but as a music journalist, the anonymity of the soundscape I write to most days grew so curious that I could no longer concentrate without scratching the surface and asking, ‘Who the hell makes this study music?’
After all, a revolution is afoot — one so quiet, calm and un-revolutionary that it goes unheralded. But when Grammy-nominated rock acts are being far eclipsed by the lilting sound of who-the-hell-knows when it comes to the music that fills the bulk of our days, it is unquestionable that something is brewing amid our bewildering zeitgeist. So, I decided to chat with a man who I have listened to almost daily for years but who has hitherto gone completely unknown to me: Ryan Dann, the faceless man behind Holland Patent Public Library. Fittingly, he remains equally faceless on Zoom.
I first came across Dann’s music without realising it. It was the soundscape of the comedy video ‘Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep’. That’s not your typical comedy title; indeed, it’s not your typical comedy at all, for that matter, but when it comes to the pinnacles of the genre, the finest recent revelations have been Joe Pera’s various works and the TV series Succession. I’ve watched one in a far more measured manner than the other because, after a tough ten-hour day, there is something exhausting about the high-stakes, controversy-courting ways of Succession that renders it almost stressful. Pera’s produce is a comfort blanket you can continually drape yourself in, giving so much and asking for nothing in return, sometimes barely even your fixed attention.
Study music is no different. It’s just even more selfless because Pera’s unique brilliance can still be granted the chance of a hallowed ‘special’ but no matter how many people adore Holland Patent Public Library, Dann is still never going to step out onto the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival, and no matter how beautiful and benevolent Songs to Fall Asleep at the Wheel To may be, it’s never going to be crowned record of the year anywhere by anyone.
So, why does Dann willingly choose to be music’s figurative bassist? After all, at least the altruism of doctors comes with a hefty salary, a safe pension, a sexy sense of kudos, and perhaps a slew of baked goods from friendly geriatrics. But the pursuit of ambience is a world where the usual musical perks of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll equate to coitus in PJs with a partner who wonders why the house is a tip when you’ve been sat at home simply tinkering around to find which keyboard pitch is most relaxing, dry-freeze caffeine hits dabbled in with great responsibility, and the punk you blast when you’re finally at the end your tether from trying to put everyone to sleep.
So, again, why does Dann do it? Well, the world needs it as much as it needs that punk antidote. As he explains: “For me, what I do with Joe is a specific part of my musical life. I like a lot of different things. I just discovered the band Ghost recently. And I’ve just been rocking out to it because it’s really fun. It’s about as far away from the music that I do as you can get. But I love it. So, in my own life, I’m not pigeonholed to doing ambient music or slow music or soundscape stuff. It’s just that’s the kind of music that I find is fertile ground.”
It’s fertile ground because it is an emerging genre that reclassifies the footless nature of classical music and twists it with a modernity that matches these trying times. So, as a creator in that field, Dann feels like he “can do things” that he hasn’t “really heard many other people do”. He continues: “It doesn’t have as much of a fixed grammar that, for instance, metal music might have or pop or rock. There’s a lot of grammar there. And you end up sort of bumping into things other people have done very often. Whereas ambient music is sort of like, ‘How long is an ambient song?’ I don’t know, maybe it’s only two minutes, maybe it’s 20 minutes.”
“The other appeal is that it’s very interactive with the world around me because there’s not a whole lot going on,” he muses. “So inevitably, you start to pay attention to the space that you’re in, the people, whatever’s happening in front of you, it sort of integrates with the music. I think if you listen to a regular pop song, you sort of have the song on one side, and then you have your life on the other side. And maybe those things don’t really overlap as much. Whereas, if you just have a very calm piano piece playing, suddenly, the room that you’re in has this calming piano piece as a part of it. It just feels more integrative. And I find that really enriching and interesting.”
It’s a beautiful notion to consider with a huge undercurrent beneath its calm surface. As the world has grown more hectic and we reconcile the impact of a massive cocking pandemic, our relationship with culture and how we spend our diminished free time has also shifted. If you’ll allow me to indulge myself as a representative of the millennial generation, the lyric I have identified with more than any other this year comes from the excellent A.S. Fanning with the line, ‘Because living young is getting old’, and I think many people would agree. In the pre-pandemic days, once a few pints had been washed back, there would be a yearning to juice the night right down to the pith and then perhaps regrettably even further, but increasingly, I find myself content to have my fill and then return to the safety of home and its leisurely comforts.
This is not just a symptom of ageing that even L’Oreal can’t fight, but a lifestyle choice borne from these bruising times that more and more people are choosing to follow. We’re distanced further from nature and reality owing to the concrete crawl and subsuming effect of the internet, and our hours of freedom are increasingly receding, so the beauty of ambient music is that it doesn’t drain a drop of energy from you. Meanwhile, it revitalises your engagement with the world around you in a deeply mellow manner. It’s like a fresh WiFi router that aids crisp connectivity to reality.
This is a more appealing pursuit to Dann than the Spinal Tap lifestyle that ushers many others towards music. As it happens, when I catch him, he’s fresh from a weeding blow-out and still reeling from the experience. “So, given this last weekend,” he jokes, “The whole like, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll thing is just not my speed. I really enjoyed the next day when we all just hung out by the pool for the entire day. That was my highlight of the weekend,” he says, sending every millennial reading this nodding in imagined agreement.
With this in mind, it actually seems that ambient music is the most indicative genre of the times. “I think that it’s relevant for a couple of reasons,” Dann explains. “First, the zeitgeist, to me, is ‘information’. We’re just drenched in it. The timeline is just like a water spigot that’s blasting at our face constantly. Which I think actually makes real reality a bit like when you step out of a movie, and you’re back into a vivified world, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, look, there’s stuff around me’.”
Being a conduit to this is what inspires Dann’s music. “It’s not about escapism; music isn’t really trying to make you escape. It’s more about making you feel present and in the place that you’re in, giving it colour.”
He expounds: “If you’re in an empty room with nothing happening, and suddenly you play this really sombre song, the room is going to feel sad. You’re gonna maybe tune into the plant that needs water, or you’re going to look at a piece of clothing that reminds you of a moment. But it can also kind of have its own buzzing, quiet energy to it; there’s a drama.”
So, while much of Dann’s work has been creating the “walking pace” music for Pera’s soft-core comedy, he carries the torch of making music for scenes in all his ambient music. “When I’m writing music now, I’m almost just inventing scenes to write music to in my head without anyone knowing what the actual show is.”
That explains the artistry of the craft, but what about the appealing practicalities of it for musicians? Well, when describing his film school past, he hits upon one clear perk: “I think that there’s always been a part of me that wants to be a filmmaker, but it’s really expensive. And I’m just not suited to it. You have to be kind of a business person to be a good film person. I’m not good at any of that stuff. But the story of a film, the way that a scene moves, the dialogue, all that really resonates with me. And so I think I’ve tried to become a filmmaker through music, which is why, obviously, ambient music makes sense because I’m just making the movie in my head. So, that’s really satisfying. I can sort of continue to be a filmmaker in my own mind without having to acquire funding.”
So, if you’re not the kind of cat who’s into the ‘top hat flown first class’ trappings, then the DIY ways of ambient creation are also a perk. “The ability to make a wide spectrum of music in your own home, without other musicians, without crazy money, without having to go to a studio, is really freeing,” Dann explains. “A lot of people who make this type of music aren’t really even looking to go touring either. All those things have played into the rise of it.”
But within that, you can still be creatively independent, he adds. “Obviously, there are other people who are doing similar things to you, but one ambient song to the next can feel very different. Music for Airports is one thing,” he says, taking a rather literal approach to the Brian Eno classic of the genre, “But there are thousands upon thousands of different spaces. You could write music for the subway. You could write music for the elevator in the subway.” So, when you sit down at home in your underpants for another day as an ambient musician, the world is truly your oyster, and that, frankly, sounds almost heavenly.
But in the modern age, nothing that seems utopian stays that way for long, and the big problem facing the faceless world of ambience is the faceless world of AI. When we spoke to the founder of ITOKA, his big selling point was that creators could conjure ambience with a click. “I’ve seen people who really have figured out how to use it as an artistic tool and not as a substitute,” Dann progressively opines, countering the doom of the notion. Presently, contrary to a lot of commentary, most ‘study music’ is not made by AI, and the effortless artistry should make that patently apparent, but we’re so used to art coinciding with fame and fortune that it seems incongruous for an actual human to create it with zero fame and very little fortune in mind.
But when you go beyond that, you can empathetically understand why so many people are turning towards ambience as a listening preference and a creative profession. In these days of the mechanical grind of capitalism, the dream we’re increasingly chasing down is a little bit of peace. Mansions and Mercedes seem as pointless a pursuit as pelting after a train you know left eight minutes ago when you can barely afford rent, so just striving for a semblance of humble contentedness among the chaos is a new noble dream. This is something that the mellowed humanity of ambient music seems to embody. There is an art to delivering that which AI will always struggle to grasp, but it might just financially impeach upon artist’s ability to provide it themselves.
“That’s the problem,” Dann adds. “I don’t think that AI is going to replace art because I think the core of art is that you feel like you are connecting with somebody else,” even when they are faceless, “That there is a person on the other end of the art and they are trying to communicate something. When you connect with a piece of art, you’re connecting with a person. You’re not just connecting with images, you know what I mean? When you look at the lilies in a Monet painting, you’re seeing the fact that the guy was going blind, and he’s trying to pull in the very last bits of light he was going to ever have access to and put it in a painting. Even if AI created something similar, you wouldn’t feel anything because, like, who cares?”
So, from ambient music to viewing galleries around the globe, art is safe from AI. “But it is hard to be an artist of any kind in a capitalistic world where you have to survive on money,” Dann sensibly continues. But thankfully, he has a millennial’s creative solution to a millennial’s creative problem: he cares more for comfort than a crazy pile of cash and public cache.
“I have enough money to survive. I’m not wildly rich. But I have enough. Maybe that’ll change in the future, and I’ll care more about it. But for now, I’m kind of like, ‘Well, I’m doing OK’. Is somebody somewhere ripping me off [because I’m more faceless than other musicians]? Maybe, but I’ve got a finite amount of energy and brain space, and I don’t really want to occupy it with chasing down every single dollar I think I’m entitled to; it doesn’t really bother me that much. I’m also incredibly lucky that having worked with Joe, I’ve been able to do really well without having to scrap.”
And with that windfall in mind, we arrive at the final throes of why study music is both the most selfless and selfish of the music genres to embark upon. “I try and really live what I think of as the ideal artistic life. It is not just a hobby, or a side hustle or a main hustle. It’s just every part of your day is integrated with this creative project. Everything that’s coming into you, you’re trying to figure out how to integrate it with your motivation, your career, your creative energy. So, when I get to write music, that’s the fulfilment of that ideal. As much as possible, I have tried to structure my life to facilitate that. I could have made more money, I could have had more jobs, but I’ve sacrificed that to have more time, and I’ve used that time to be more creative. And a lot of that creativity hasn’t really been that profitable, but it’s been incredibly satisfying. That’s just how I’ve always structured my life. I’ll continue to structure my life that way. And whenever I need to make money, I’ll do the bare minimum.”
As an ambient musician, he concludes: “That’s the creative process to me; the peak, the most satisfying part of my life, and I will always prioritise it as much as I can.”