"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Stylus SEPTEMBER 30, 2004 - by Matthew Weiner
BRIAN ENO AND THE AMBIENT SERIES, 1978-82
Part 4: On Land, Fourth World And Imagination On Tape
"We were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside."
At the dawn of the '80s, Brian Eno's prevailing interests were no longer western, much less pop. Ironically, 1980 had been the high-water mark of Eno's pop production career to that point; the year had seen the release of such exotic masterpieces as Talking Heads' seminal Afro-funk appropriation, Remain In Light, and the producer's critically hailed Fourth World collaboration with avant trumpeter, Jon Hassell, which presented an imaginary electro-acoustic landscape suggestive of foreign cultures unknown to western ears. The hard work paid off; although utterly bored by pop's progressively insular tendencies, Eno found himself the toast of the critical cognoscenti.
Such recognition did not come without its price, however. A year before the success of Remain In Light would elevate Talking Heads to a place among pop's elite, Hassell (then a struggling composer in Soho's ultra-hip loft scene) had turned Eno and head Head David Byrne on to African and world musics with recordings from the French Ocara label. They inspired an idea: fake ethnic music. That it might already have been explored by The Residents on their Eskimo and on Can's Ethnological Forgery Series didn't seem to faze them; as such, the project went ahead as planned and plans were drawn up for the trio to record somewhere out in the California desert. But while Hassell was waiting back in New York for the call to fly out and add his parts, little did he know that Eno and Byrne had gone ahead with the project without him. When he eventually heard the results, the trumpeter was aghast at what he perceived to be an obvious theft of his Fourth World concept: found sounds like tapes of evangelists, radio call-in shows and Lebanese mountain singers - worst of all - set to a chattering funk beat. He dismissed the whole matter as two egos out of control, saying I imagine it went something like, 'We're rich and famous...we can get away with it, so we'll do it.
And Hassell wasn't alone in his disgust. The estate of evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman forbade Eno and Byrne from using her voice, forcing them to re-record one track; the pair's English distributor insisted the pair drop another from the record's UK release due to the inclusion of a potentially blasphemous recording of Muslims chanting the Koran. Though in truth a prescient example of hip-hop sound splicing, all the legal scrambling (and perhaps a bit of karma) forced the release of the record, by now titled My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, back almost two years to 1981.
All was not lost, however. In preparing the record, Eno had traveled to Ghana with a stereo microphone and tape recorder in tow, with the intention to record indigenous music and speech patterns. Eno would later write, in a moment of clarity that recalls the hospital visit in 1975 that produced Discreet Music:
What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with the microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to the result on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame; they became music.
Of course, the context for those sounds in the final product was important. If you take a photograph of something, you don't take a photograph of everything you can see, he would later tell Modern Recording & Music. You make a selection and you put a frame on it. When you frame something, you do something very distinct to it - you separate it from the rest of the world and you say, 'This deserves special attention.' Listening to the wide stereo spectrum of nature recordings also encouraged his efforts to create what he would later call virtual spaces. Where the trend in pop recordings in the late-1970s had been towards producing artists in audio verité - that is, exactly as they would sound in person - Eno was taking exactly the opposite tack, fashioning sound spaces that did not, and sometimes simply could not, exist in nature.
And perhaps the charges of cultural imperialism directed at Byrne and him over Bush Of Ghosts weren't so draining after all. In weathering them, Eno came to recognize, perhaps unconsciously, that regardless of the enormous power the recording studio offered, the issue wasn't so much whether it was right or wrong to separate sounds from their natural contexts - rather, it was that separating the two just wasn't always possible. Armed with those twin notions - that one could listen to the world in a musical way and that sounds were imbued with innate meaning - Eno would set about working on the fourth and final in the Ambient Series proper, Ambient 4: On Land.
The result sounded nothing like its predecessors in the series. Gone were the glacial piano melodies of Music For Airports and The Plateaux Of Mirror; in their place were virtual ecosystems: murky drones and ambient noises like frog croaks, rattling chains and bells. Spurts of melody would bubble to the surface but only occasionally - and then usually courtesy of bassist (and future Ambient impresario) Bill Laswell and Jon Hassell, whose whirring, buzzing trumpet makes a delightfully creepy guest appearance on Shadow. Laswell would later tell writer/composer David Toop of the experience helping Eno in the studio one summer in New York: We would go to Canal Street and we'd buy junk - those hoses you twirl around - and gravel, put it in a box and put reverb on it. All these weird things to make sounds. We'd be in this bathroom with these overhead mikes, making sounds for days.
By immersing himself in sound, he was also abandoning the last links to linearity in his music - in truth, one of Eno's goals for Ambient at least as far back as Discreet Music. But Music For Airports had proven how difficult that was to achieve. Melody was a horizontal creation - one note following another. And regardless of how many times a melody was repeated (and Airports' 1/1 certainly repeated its melody many, many times), its essential horizontality would never change - Oblique Strategies axioms be damned.
Harmony, of course, was another story - though in the case of On Land, Eno wasn't so much stacking harmonic intervals as he was sounds. By weaving dense sonic tapestries that appeared static from afar but upon closer inspection were in a constant state of microscopic transformation, Eno was essentially forcing the audience to examine the broader soundscape - to pay attention not to horizontal development (one moment to the next) but to what writer Eric Tamm would refer to as the vertical color of sound.
Such intricate and sophisticated sound environments also allowed Eno to create an unprecedented sense of place in his music. Since 1978's Music For Films, he had been naming compositions after locales recalled from his youth in England, often set to poignant, bittersweet music on piano and synthesizer. But with tracks like Lizard Point, Lantern Marsh and the languid Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960, the music itself began to specifically reproduce the sound and feel of their titular inspirations - or so Eno imagined. In the pamphlet that accompanied the 1986 reissue of On Land, Eno recalled the effect Fellini's 1974 film, Amarcord had on his thinking - how he was inspired by the film's unfaithful reconstruction of childhood moments to embark on an exploration of the inaccuracies of memory, creating what he told Musician was a slightly thrilling sense that you're almost in some other time, not quite in touch with the present. And so while places like the real Lantern Marsh could be found near his childhood home, their musical renditions derived not from visiting them but rather spotting them on a map and imagining where and what [they] might be.
It was a bold idea. Running musical interpretations of half-memories and associations through echo effects, synthesizers and 70-second reverbs, Eno was turning the Bush Of Ghosts controversy regarding the propriety of sound on its head, in essence, committing his memory of childhood to tape. It amounted to what Mark Richardson would later call an exploration of a psychic landscape - the sound of nighttime as a child with the covers pulled over [your] head.
On Land would prove one of Eno's most sophisticated and mature releases - and a tidy summary of everything he had been working towards for half a decade. As such, it would also prove an ending of sorts for him and his Ambient Records series - if not his commitment to Ambient music. Given that he would release more than a dozen records that could be classified as ambient over the next two decades, Eno's interest in Ambient as a genre was far from on the wane - if anything, it was just taking hold. The public? Well, that was another matter.
PART 1: AIRPORT ACCESS-ROADS / Stylus SEPTEMBER 2004
PART 2: TRANSIT SOUNDTRACKS AND 'SERIOUS' MUSIC / Stylus SEPTEMBER 2004
PART 3: ETERNALLY PRETTY MUSIC, NEW AGE AND IMPRINTS / Stylus SEPTEMBER 2004
PART 5: AN ENDING / Stylus OCTOBER 2004