"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Vice JANUARY 6, 2017 - by Colin Joyce


Sometime after sunrise on the first day of the new year, Brian Eno sent some light into the darkness. Reflection - the experimental pioneer's latest full-length - had been out in the world for a few hours, so he took to his Facebook page to offer some words of inspiration to accompany it. Over the course of a few paragraphs, he looked back on what he aptly described as "a pretty rough year," suggesting that 2016's closure might have marked the end of a long period of societal decline, rather than its beginning.

But even as "knee-jerk nationalism" dominated global political discourse, he argues, there was an awakening of another sort, an undercurrent of thinkers weighing the nature of democracy - and figuring out how we can make it work anew. The vague solutions that Eno proposes - "thoughtful and creative social and political action" - involve, not spontaneous action, but careful contemplation and meaningful collaboration. Put another way, you might say that the way forward begins with Reflection.

Eno's newest ambient work can be purchased as a fifty-four-minute CD, LP, and digital download, or streamed on cloud-based service of your choice. The version ported to these formats is about what you'd expect: a collection of synthesized tones that sound as pristine and warm as freshly fired ceramics. It's the sort of comfortably escapist album that Eno has been making since he first coined and popularized the term "ambient music" in the mid-1970s - or maybe even before. As he mentions in the press release for Reflection, one of his first-ever recordings was a slowed-down drone, sourced from the striking of a metal lampshade.

Like title suggests - and as Eno himself proposes in the same press release - it's a record meant to provoke you take a moment to sit still and contemplate things. The sinewy chords don't have a skeleton to hang onto, so instead of admiring their narrative structure, you drift off and look inwards. This function has become a given for those who seek sounds like this, and Reflection, as a discrete piece of music, isn't necessarily more useful in the cultural context he describes in his New Year's Day letter than it might have otherwise been. It's a beautiful record that can function as a concentration aid, but its charms are diffuse by design.

The tricky thing about the version of Reflection that's available for purchase from most music retailers is that it's an insignificant fraction of the entire piece. As with many of Eno's recent works, Reflection is actually born from a generative music system - a software, designed by the artist himself, that algorithmically generates music from a library of sounds and rules. So this album essentially wrote itself, based on the boundaries Eno assigned to the software. In another press release, he posed a hypothetical as a way of explaining the process to the uninitiated:

"One rule might say 'raise one out of every hundred notes by five semitones' and another might say 'raise one out of every fifty notes by seven semitones.' If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes - very rarely - they will both operate on the same note... so something like one in every five thousand notes will be raised by twelve semitones. [But] you won't know which of those five thousand notes it's going to be."

Obviously, the rules that make up all of the breaths and contemplative pauses on Reflection are even more complex than simple tonal considerations. For this reason, listening to the recorded version can start to feel unnecessarily restrictive at a point, as if you've been asked to appreciate the image in a five thousand piece puzzle from a single piece - however pretty it may be. But those willing to shell out a little more money have an alternative. For the (admittedly steep) price of $40, an app version of the release runs the generative version of the piece on your phone alongside a similarly generative visual work by artist and long-time collaborator Peter Chilvers.