INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian APRIL 26, 2006 - by Tom Robinson
THE BIRTH OF AMBIENT
Brian Eno has been one of music's most interesting and original thinkers of the past thirty-five years.
For me, Brian Eno has been one of music's most interesting and original thinkers of the past thirty-five years. His prodigious recording career and collaborations with the likes of Roxy Music, The Portsmouth Sinfonia, Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, U2, James, Derek Jarman and Jah Wobble have sometimes had seismic effects on the course of pop music. Even his most esoteric experiments have never been less than interesting. Having followed his career with fascination from afar, I recently managed to record a two hour interview with him for BBC 6 Music - which includes this account of how Eno arrived at the idea of Ambient music:
I'd been very close friends with a painter called Peter Schmidt - we used to compile cassettes of things we were listening to and give them to each other. One thing we both noticed was that we didn't like variety on our cassettes - so if you had a tape of dance songs you didn't want a ballad in the middle of it, and a cassette of quiet, slow music should all be like that. We wanted to make tapes for each other that were different from the kinds of records we were buying.
At that time there was an idea in record companies' minds that our attention span was about three minutes - and then you needed to have the mood change because otherwise we'd lose interest. Back then records were always organised as: fast song, slow song, fast song, slow song. I just hated that and (when) copying records onto cassettes I would completely reorganise them.
So I started thinking about music as something functional... that existed as part of the design of your life. Just like the way you decorated your room or the kind of furniture you chose or the kind of lights you used. They were all kind of issues about how you want to feel... so I wanted to make things that were panoramic in a certain way. Things that have a way of existing in the space and you enter them for a while and then you leave them for a while. I didn't want this narrative thing to be part of the record so much.
In early 1975 I got hit by a taxi as I was crossing the Harrow Road and was immobilised for a while. When I was lying in bed Judy Nylon brought me a record of renaissance harp music and put the needle on when she left. My speakers were a bit dodgy and one of them had broken - and it was also raining quite heavily outside and the volume wasn't very high. I couldn't get out of bed and was irritated, thinking 'I can hardly hear this music'. Then gradually I started to think 'well, there it is - it's going to play for the next twenty minutes anyway'.
Suddenly it started to seem like a really beautiful way of listening to music - instead of dominating the environment it became part of a soundscape. The rain was hitting the windows and occasionally I would hear the loudest parts of the harp notes appearing like the tips of icebergs in this sonic ocean. And from that I really developed the whole Ambient idea - which was more an approach to listening than to composing. It was saying: 'let's treat music like painting'.
If you have a painting on your wall you don't sit in front of it staring at it as you would a television. It's there and you sometimes look at it and sometimes look away from it. Sometimes it will hold your attention for a while and sometimes it's just a glance. It doesn't make paintings any less important just because they don't engage your attention full-time - it just means it's a different kind of attention.
I have to say, a lot of other people were getting to that idea (at the time) with other things they were doing, but I gave it a name. Muzak was very much talked about at the time and very much disliked. It was the opposite of what any serious person ought to be doing. (But) I thought they had a really good idea in Muzak - I just felt they had really bad taste.
The fact that people use music to make an environment was important because until the mid-'70s you had a real disconnection between what composers were doing and what listeners were doing. Composers were making music as though people were going to sit and listen to it with total critical attention and a furrowed brow, perfectly situated between their stereo speakers.
What listeners were doing however was compiling things on tapes, running them while they were doing the hoovering, or while the kids were watching TV and so on - so listeners were engaging in quite different kinds of behaviour. Some listeners were still engaging in that older form of behaviour too and I was one of them, but a lot of the time I wanted music to be a world that I immersed myelf in, not a story that I was being told. So (the aim of) ambient was really to try and make an immersive kind of music."