All About Jazz APRIL 4, 2005 - by John Kelman


While ex-Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno was establishing a distinctive and new style of music that he called Ambient Music - which investigated the potential of making music as an integral part of the listener's aural landscape - he was also finding ways to mold the concept, albeit in sometimes a more direct way, to integrate it with other media including film. Like the Ambient Works series, where Astralwerks and Virgin recently reissued Eno's seminal Ambient recordings in beautifully remastered form, the new Soundtracks Reissues group together four releases by Eno, containing music that was used for real films, or conceived for imaginary ones.

That these four albums - Music For Films, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, Thursday Afternoon and More Music For Films - should take their cues from visual inspiration rather than the more specific aural purpose of Ambient Music, results in their fitting comfortably within Eno's body of instrumental work while, at the same time, having a complexion all their own.

While some of the pieces are distinctly Ambient in nature, others are more intrusive. Some even have touches of song form, with chord changes and rhythms, albeit soft, that are rarely to be found in the more static environment of Ambient Music. And yet, for the most part, the music found on the Soundtracks Reissues is, like the Ambient Works, something that can be placed into the background or, when placed more in the foreground, demand the listener's attention.

Like the Ambient Works series, the four discs that comprise the Soundtracks Reissues have been digitally transferred from the original master tapes by Simon Heyworth, using a technique that results in the closest thing to experiencing what Eno would have heard in the recording studio. The level of detail revealed makes it well worth the investment to replace earlier, less accurate, CD issues of these important recordings; not to mention More Music For Films placing a variety of pieces, previously only available on limited-edition vinyl, on CD for the first time.

Originally released as a limited-edition (five hundred copies) LP in 1976, that was sent to filmmakers for possible inclusion in their work, the commercial Music For Films release was expanded to include a number of pieces for, as Eno put it, “possible use as soundtracks to ‘imaginary' films." Unlike the more extended pieces found in Eno's Ambient series this release consisted of brief miniatures - some as short as one minute, with the longest piece clocking in at a mere four minutes.

Unlike Eno's Ambient works, Music For Films utilises a broader instrumental palette, with Eno's synthesizers and found sounds being supplemented by contributions from guitarists Paul Rudolph, Fred Frith and Robert Fripp; bassists Percy Jones and Bill MacCormick; percussionists Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) and Dave Mattacks; violist John Cale, pianist Rod Melvin and trumpeter Rhett Davies. The results are largely more intrusively intriguing than Discreet Music, which was released only a year before the limited-edition LP.

Revolving around relatively simple thematic and/or rhythmic concepts, this is compelling music. What is remarkable about these short pieces is how, in the space of a very brief time, they draw the listener in, deceiving one into thinking that they are longer than their few short minutes. There's little preamble; pieces often fade up from nowhere, and fade back to nothingness. And yet they manage to immediately evoke strong images.

While there is, no doubt, a clear sense of purpose with each of the pieces, there is also the impression that improvisation was a part of the process, albeit in a controlled and clearly-defined way. Jones' bass on the tranquil Aragon, and Eno's own acoustic guitar on the equally peaceful From The Same Hill have a sense of composition, but also a certain immediacy that would imply these were not prior conceptions.

Elsewhere, things become darker. The three consecutive versions of Sparrowfall build from an air of melancholy to something more powerful, showing how, in terms of film scores, a simple theme can be interpreted different ways to evoke a variety of emotions.

As short as the compositions are, and as much territory as they cover - from the stark beauty of Slow Water to the more insistent drama of Patrolling Wire Borders - Eno's ability, as producer, to place these eighteen miniatures in a sequence that gives the album its own narrative sense, makes Music for Films more than merely a series of vignettes. It tells its own story, one that will most certainly vary from listener to listener.

Unlike Music For Films, the music for Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks was entirely written for a specific film project - a documentary about the NASA Apollo lunar missions, by director Al Reinert. Additionally, by this time, Eno had found a sympathetic partner in Canadian Daniel Lanois, having already worked with Lanois on the '80 collaboration with Harold Budd, Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror and the '82 release, Ambient 4: On Land. Lanois would bring an equally vivid imagination, and a more melodic bent that would be matched by Eno's brother Roger, who also collaborated on the release. However, while Lanois' foundations were in roots music, Roger Eno's were more representative of a European upbringing in classical music.

The first half of the album, the “Atmospheres," is more ambient in nature, evoking images of the vast reaches of space and an aural impression of weightlessness. Even An Ending (Ascent), which is the first piece on the disc to actually use simple chord changes and a transcendent melody, remains within the Ambient mold. That this piece would later show up in Danny Boyle's film 28 Days Later to complement the images of an empty London, apparently devoid of life, is almost paradoxical, given its sublime beauty.

By the time it reaches Lanois' Silver Morning which, with its layers of heavily-treated guitar, may be sharper than anything that precedes it, the music suggests something more grounded - clearly the “Soundtrack" portion of the work. There's more rhythm, more changes - the pieces are as close to real “songs" as anything Eno has done within the broader purview of Ambient music. Deep Blue Day may have rich washes of sound, but Lanois' guitars and the rhythmical pulse of the bass gives the piece an almost countrified texture. Always Returning takes a spare three-note theme and, by constantly altering the chord pattern underneath, creates something more poignant, more lyrical.

Eno points out, in the liner notes, that his intention in creating the soundtrack music for the film was to avoid the more melodramatic and uptempo way in which the original broadcasts of lunar landings were presented. Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks suggests that the collective zeitgeist, arising from the first lunar landings, might have been another thing entirely had it been treated with the more humbling view of the how the achievement truly expanded the boundaries of human experience in an infinite universe.

Always one to embrace new technologies as they might be applicable to his musical vision, Eno was one of the first to embrace the nascent technology of the compact disc. And so Eno created one of the earliest pieces to exploit the CD's larger capacity and, therefore, its potential for uninterrupted music of greater lengths; and the possibility for broader dynamics and the use of complete silence.

Taking the concept developed on Discreet Music and Music For Airports a step further, Thursday Afternoon is a sixty-one-minute piece originally conceived for use in a video that presented seven video paintings by Christine Alicino. Challenging the apparent limitation of the video medium, where repeated viewings would dilute its intent and impact, Eno stated in the original liner notes - sadly missing from the reissue - that “Our background as television viewers has conditioned us to expect that things on screen change dramatically and in a significant temporal sequence, and has therefore reinforced a rigid relationship between viewer and screen - you sit still and it moves. I am interested in a type of work which does not necessarily suggest this relationship: a more steady-state image-based work which one can look at and walk away from as one would a painting; it sits still and you move."

In other words, perhaps, the philosophy of Ambient music made visual, where the images become a part of the larger visual backdrop, sometimes at the forefront of one's consciousness, at other times less so.

But without seeing the video, which has long since gone out-of-print, Thursday Afternoon remains the kind of aural experience that, like its visual counterpart, drifts in and out of the listener's consciousness. Harmonically static, with no rhythm to speak of, it consists of a constant backwash and a number of short themes that, being of inconsistent length and being repeated in a random fashion, come together in a variety of sonic clusters.

Most importantly, however, with the introduction of the compact disc, Eno was able to introduce pure silence into the mix - something that, regardless of how good a vinyl pressing was, was impossible to use fully, as once the volume of the music dropped below a certain level, the sound of the needle on vinyl took over. The new format allowed the use of levels so low as to be almost invisible; but this time not swallowed up by any imperfections of media.

By being a logical advancement of concepts first utilised on Discreet Music and Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon is, in some ways, less groundbreaking. On the other hand, its embracing of new technology to further a musical concept demonstrates that Eno has always seen such developments as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

Perhaps the gem of the Soundtracks Reissues series is the fourth release, More Music For Films. Culled from tracks on the original Music For Films limited-edition promo that didn't make it onto the commercial release, as well as all the tracks featured on the rare '83 vinyl release, Music for Films Volume 2 - previously only available as part of the box set Working Backwards 1983-1973 - More Music For Films fills in the gaps between the initial Music For Films release and the hard-to-find Music For Films III from ‘88.

Like its predecessor, More Music For Films consists of short vignettes - twenty-one in all, over the course of forty-three minutes - and some of the pieces are alternate versions or extensions of pieces from the original. Fuseli, with John Cale's unusually harsh viola over a dark electric piano pad and bass drum rhythm, is clearly from the same session as Patrolling Wire Borders; similarly, From The Coast is an alternate reading of Quartz. Always Returning (II), on the other hand, is an even more languid and spacious version of the original that appeared on Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.

While no musicians are credited on More Music For Films, those familiar with Music For Films will be able to identify some of the same contributors. Bassist Percy Jones, whose distinctive fretless style helped define the fusion band Brand X as well as his more recent group Tunnels, dominates Untitled, The Last Door and, most notably the almost funky Chemin De Fer.

And while there are some tracks that fit comfortably within the Ambient music universe, others are surprisingly song-oriented. The aptly-titled Melancholy Waltz has a tinge of country, but odd textures flitter in and out, giving it a more disturbing complexion.

Like Music For Films, More Music For Films' miniatures are remarkable for their ability to instantly evoke images and emotions. More immediately invasive than the other recordings in the Soundtracks Reissues series, More Music For Films demonstrates Eno's broad reach, and a penchant for darker, more noise-laden work that he would explore further on later works like '92's The Shutov Assembly.

And so, while the Soundtracks Reissues series is less conceptually-focused than his Ambient Works, they do fit comfortably within his overall artistic oeuvre. Examined in the context of the Ambient Works series, and his more song-based Early Works, these soundtracks for films real and imagined succeed at creating a broader picture of Brian Eno - an artist who has managed to move modern music forward with the same kind of significance as artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. While not possessing the same musical technique or advanced harmonic knowledge of either, his mastery of the studio to create groundbreaking advances felt far and wide is no less important.

Music For Films
Track Listing: Aragon; From The Same Hill; Inland Sea; Two Rapid Formations; Slow Water; Sparrowfall (1); Sparrowfall (2); Sparrowfall (3); Alternative 3; Quartz; Events In Dense Fog; 'There is Nobody'; Patrolling Wire Borders; A Measured Room; Task Force; M386; Strange Light; Final Sunset

Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks
Track Listing: Under Stars; The Secret Place; Matta; Signals; An Ending (Ascent); Under Stars; Drift; Silver Morning; Deep Blue Day; Weightless; Always Returning; Stars

Thursday Afternoon
Track Listing: Thursday Afternoon

More Music For Films
Track Listing: Untitled; The Last Door; Chemin De Fer; Dark Waters; Fuseli; Melancholy Waltz; Northern Lights; From The Coast; Shell; Empty Landscape; Reactor; The Secret; Don't Look Back; Marseilles; The Dove; Roman Twilight; Dawn, Marshland; Climate Study; Drift Study; Approaching Taidu; Always Returning (II)

Note: There is a defect with the first issues of More Music For Films. Track 18, titled Climate Study is, in fact, a repeat of track 20, Approaching Taidu. This will be resolved with subsequent releases, but best to check and be aware of this problem.