Audiophile Audition OCTOBER 12, 2011 - by John Sunier


The English musician, composer, record producer, singer and visual artist is credited with probably inventing the genre of ambient music, with his unique Music For Airports. His real name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, believe it or not. His career began with playing keyboards and synths and doing the mixing for the rock band Roxy Music. He soon left the group and began his solo career with art rock LPs such as Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

As he got more experimental, his first ambient-leaning album was Discreet Music of 1975 (thirty minutes overlaying two melodies of different lengths), but his 1978 Music For Airports - also created entirely in the studio without most of the elements of standard songs - really launched the generative/ambient revolution. Eno came up with innovative production techniques, and emphasised theory over practice. He was also influenced by John Cage in promoting processes of chance music, as well as by Steve Reich and Terry Riley. He himself has been a major influence on many other composers. He has worked with David Bowie, Devo, Harold Budd, Robert Fripp, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and U2, among others.

Eno also involves himself in multimedia ventures and art installations. He has done a chance computer program called 77 Million Paintings, with Peter Schmidt created Oblique Strategies - a special card deck with each card carrying a cryptic instruction or insight that is meant to solve or point the way to solving a problem. The user is supposed to draw a card at random whenever he gets stuck while going about anything of a creative nature.

Music For Airports is a four-part piece, its movements designated: 1/1, 1/2, 2/1 and 2/2. In 1998 the musicians of the NYC-based Bang On A Can All-Stars created their own version of the work for live performance in collaboration with Eno. This is similar to live versions of player-piano pieces by Conlon Narcarrow that have been created and performed by live musicians. This type of transcription is difficult to make and to perform, but the musicians of the All-Stars handle it with skill and the acoustic sound seems to give the work more depth and immediacy. The musicians are: May Beiser, cello; Evan Ziporyn, clarinets; Mark Stewart, guitar; Steven Schick, percussion; Lisa Moore, piano/keyboards; Robert Black, double-bass. Musical America recognised the Bang On A Can All-Stars in 2004 as Ensemble Of The Year.

Neroli is a 1993 effort by Eno. It continues his creation of system-based pieces which model themselves on natural processes - imitating Nature - as John Cage said. The modal Moorish atmosphere of Neroli is due to his use of the Phrygian scale with a flattened second, along with the seventh. This creates a mysterious and ambiguous feeling. Eno said he wanted to the music to be on the cusp between melody and texture. As with his earlier work in this genre, one can focus one's attention on the logic of the music if you wish, or you can run it as background music without really paying any attention. Music For Airports is the standard for this sort of thing. The Neroli CD has become a standard fixture in some maternity hospitals, for playing during childbirth. It has just a single fifty-eight-minute track, titled (Thinking Music Part IV).

Nerve Net is Eno's 1992 album, which was reissued by Hannibal in 2004. It goes back to more rock material, with very heavy syncopated rhythms, and occasional jazz touches. Sort of a cyberpunk disc. It has a darker sort of mood that most of Eno's work, and one of his electronic bits would drive any audiophile completely up the wall - the frequent bringing in of a low hum that gets stronger and stronger, and then slowly fades away. A real nightmare for any audio buff. (I guess that's not such a threat with computer audio.) On the back of the liner notes there is a long list titled "This Record Is", and among the words are: Like paella, a self-contradictory mess, overheated, unAmerican, derivative of everything, revisionist, shamelessly exhibitionist, and clearly the work of a mind in distress. That list was my favorite part of the CD.

TrackList: Fractal Zoom / Wire Shock / What Actually Happened? / Pierre In Mist / My Squelchy Life / Juju Space Jazz / The Roil, The Choke / Ali Click / Distributed Being / Web / Web (Lascaux Mix) / Decentre / Fractal Zoom (Separate Time Edit) / Ali Click (Doo Gap Mix)

Another Day On Earth of 2005 was Eno's first album containing vocals in over twenty years. He himself said that he found songwriting now the most difficult challenge in music. In this one he returns to his inscrutable surrealistic lyrics, delivered not by a classic rock voice but one interesting nevertheless, combined with often lovely drawn-out melodies. This returns to some of his early work such as Before And After Science, and has a series of meticulously-crafted songs full of oblique lyrics and an atmosphere of endlessly rippling and richly-textured electronic sounds. They can produce something quite delicate, emotional or somber. Talk about emotional, I can't even explain here what the title of the final track refers to, but it was inspired by a news story about a female Palestinian suicide bomber. Eno took four years to create the album, recording and mixing most of it on his Mac, "because otherwise I would have had to spend six years in a commercial studio and pay staff, and that would have become too expensive," he said. Distinctions between the songs and instrumentals which contain some vocals are deliberately blurred. Eno used his Mac to generate some of the words for the opening track, This.

TrackList: This / And Then So Clear / A Long Way Down / Going Unconscious / Caught Between / Passing Over / How Many Worlds / Bottomliners / Just Another Day / Under / Bone Bomb

Small Craft On A Milk Sea came out in November 2010. He had two collaborators on it: Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams, and it was released on several other formats besides CD: digital download, a box set with the CD, a vinyl disc, the download, and four more tracks on a bonus CD, an Eno lithograph; and another boxed site with all the previous plus a twelve-inch square silkscreen print by Eno and a copper plate. The album was promoted with a series of performance films featuring brand new improvised compositions. The three were inspired in creating the album by film scores and soundtracks for films. Some of the fifteen tracks were created by choosing random chords played for arbitrary lengths with improvised electronic parts above the melody, and then edited together to come up with a proper song. Eno sequenced the tracks into a sort of fifteen-section composition with themes than run thru the whole album. There is a total of about fourteen additional tracks on the various box sets, downloads and foreign editions.

Eno says that in the early '70s he preferred film soundtracks to most other types of music. He said he heard Nino Rota's scores for Fellini often before he saw the films, and listening to them found he could imagine a whole movie in advance - not necessarily the Fellini one either. (Me too!) He felt that film scores could engage the listener in a particularly creative way. Small Craft On A Milk Sea is a fresh attempt to go beyond traditional recorded music, and it takes the listener thru quite a fantastic variety of soundscapes. One reviewer suggested the listener have some Dramamine handy before boarding this small craft! While there are no real rocking tracks, there are several that get plenty aggressive, such as Horse and 2 Forms Of Anger. You won't be lulled by all the tracks, as with Music For Airports. There are lots of weird ambient sounds and effects, often conjuring up a sense of wonder in the listener. The final two tracks adopt a quiet atmosphere - almost elegiacal in character. The last track, Late Anthropocene, is over eight minutes long and provides a mysterious marvelous mix of electronics and percussion. This album goes very deep.

TrackList: Emerald And Lime - 3:02 / Complex Heaven - 3:05 / Small Craft On A Milk Sea - 1:49 / Flint March - 1:56 / Horse - 3:02 / 2 Forms Of Anger - 3:15 / Bone Jump - 2:22 / Dust Shuffle - 1:54 / Paleosonic - 4:25 / Slow Ice, Old Moon - 3:25 / Lesser Heaven - 3:21 / Calcium Needles - 3:25 / Emerald And Stone - 2:12 / Written, Forgotten - 3:55 / Late Anthropocene - 8:09