INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork OCTOBER 16, 2002 - by Mark Richardson
AS IGNORABLE AS IT IS INTERESTING: THE AMBIENT MUSIC OF BRIAN ENO
Eno. Ambient. Rarely has a genre, indeed an entire musical idea, been so completely owned by a single individual. Merzbow and noise, maybe. You have to wonder if, even fifty years from now, every drifting, quiet instrumental record will still warrant an Eno comparison. It happens constantly now, twenty years plus after the original records were released, and no one gives it a second thought. For all practical purposes, Brian Eno is ambient music.
I first came across the man in the fall of 1985. That was the year my brother went off to college and, lucky for the both of us, wound up sharing a dorm room with a very strange senior who happened to DJ at the campus radio station. My brother's living space at school was lined ceiling-to-floor with LPs from the moment he first walked in the place. Like so many before me, my big bro provided most of my early musical inspiration, so this influx of new music and new ideas was a real boon. He got me into Nick Drake when his records were still out of print. He turned me on to Galaxie 500 when they were still a going concern. He brought home The Jesus & Mary Chain's Psychocandy and the first Butthole Surfers EP during Thanksgiving break in '85. And he was way, way into Eno.
My brother had all of Eno's ambient albums by '87 or so, and I heard most of them then by pillaging his collection. Though I enjoyed them a great deal and dubbed a few to tape, I only started buying copies of my own during the last few years. When record shopping now I remain in a constant state of alert for used Eno vinyl (he sold well back in the day, so there's a lot of it floating around). I now have most of the prime-period ambient stuff.
For all the talk of Eno's ambient influence, you really don't see much discussion of the actual records. Part of this comes from the nature of the music itself. Eno's ambient material - most of it, anyway - wasn't necessarily designed to cause seismic shifts in listeners. As he laid out in the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Eno composed his ambient music to ...accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. Not exactly a recipe for a life-changing music experience. Still, it doesn't seem right how little is written about Eno's ambient material, considering how often it gets name-checked. Following are my impressions of the Eno ambient albums I own, in chronological order of their release. I've included the four albums in the Ambient series, as well as the obvious precursor Discreet Music, and finally Thursday Afternoon, the album that seemed to cap this phase of Eno's output.
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Discreet Music (1975)
Eno himself began using the term ambient music in 1978 to differentiate his goals from those of the Muzak Corporation. But his first ambient record arguably came a couple years before, with 1975's Discreet Music. It was on the sleeve to this release that Eno detailed the famous listening session that occurred while he recuperated from being struck by an automobile. (Eno is a fantastic storyteller.) His friend stopped by to see him, put on a record of 19th Century harp music, and left the room with the volume was too low for the piece to be heard clearly. Eno was too weak to rectify the situation, and he found that the low level of the music made for an interesting blend with the rest of the sound environment. Eureka.
One of my very favorite of Eno's ambient releases, Discreet Music works so well precisely because of the emotional neutrality of the music. The record is like a sonic mirror, reflecting back at the listener whatever he presents to it. The first side consists of just a few synth notes occurring and recurring in varying patterns. The emotional character of the sounds themselves is impossible to pin down. So if you're sad when you hear it, the music can sound like a lament; when you're happy, it seems like a low-key celebration of all that's good (okay: really low key) The second side contains a series of variations on Pachelbel's Canon, which winds up being much more interesting than that sounds. Eno stretches and compresses the score differently for each instrument, and the result is a constantly shifting blanket of sound. I'd call Discreet Music essential.
The first side of Music For Airports is occupied by a very short, repeating piano melody coloured with just a hint of processing. The piece is not about development or change, but the shuffling of a single short phrase. The second track contains wordless vocalisations that give a hint to one possible source for Enya - long tones doubled and tripled alongside parallel synth lines. The second side combines these two approaches, with tinkly piano, bits of drifting processing, and more ethereal vocal swells. This is Eno at his most new age, without question, and while it sounds quite pretty, I find the somewhat leading nature of the material a little distracting. Part of this might come from just how ubiquitous these sort of vocal treatments have become - this is the standard approach to new age vocal harmonies right here. The Cluster-like electronics that close the album comes as something of a relief. Nice enough, but not my favorite.
This release found Eno collaborating with pianist and composer Harold Budd, adding treatments, processing and synthesizer accents to ten keyboard pieces. Budd's melodies have a pleasant drifting quality, with lots of repetition and an overall sense of simplicity, but Eno's ear in the production seat is what makes the record special. There's uncanny warmth to the tone in places, accomplished through careful layering of Eno's trademark reverb. But other tracks, like Failing Light, are disorienting, with the piano sounding like it's underwater. The Plateaux Of Mirror is mostly a solo acoustic piano album, but it's crammed with small details, like the barely-there percussion in Above Chiangmai, and the background vocal swells (these more Dead Can Dance than Enya) in Not Yet Remembered. It's just a bit fluffy in spots, but if you have a taste for solo piano, The Plateaux Of Mirror is excellent.
Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance (1980)
After titling his first album in the series Music For Airports, one would have supposed that Eno would have eventually crafted Music For The DMV or Music For The Jiffy Lube Lobby. But it seems that he drifted away from the original idea of ambient as background enhancement and decided to use the word to label all kinds of meditative, atmospheric pieces, as well as using the label to present the work of others. Day Of Radiance is not properly an Eno record; it features the work of Laraaji, who plays dulcimer and zither, and Eno is credited only as producer. The album has a strong Eastern feel reminiscent of Javanese gamelan music, with ringing, percussive string tones and highly repetitive rhythms. To my mind, this is not properly ambient music; it seems much too intrusive to function as a secondary sound source. While it can occasionally be headache inducing, Day Of Radiance is a hypnotic listen.
Ambient 4: On Land (1982)
The best album in the Ambient series is also that one that operates furthest afield from Eno's stated goals. Though it's a fantastic album, On Land is simply not ambient music as Eno originally defined it. It's a dark piece of music with a serious sense of tension, interesting as hell but in no way ignorable. Eno has indicated that he recorded this album as a way of exploring memories of the countryside from his youth. From the evidence here, he's remembering how it sounded at night with the covers pulled over his head. Full of rumbling bass drones, distantly tolling bells, and assorted sounds that could be the cries of wounded animals, On Land is a fantastically creepy record. In some ways, it's an extension of the ideas explored on Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics, the record Eno recorded with Jon Hassell in 1980, but with the central location of the music translated from central Africa to an English marsh. One of Eno's best albums, period.
Thursday Afternoon (1985)
My brother bought this the week it was released and it was a big deal. Thursday Afternoon was touted as the first album composed specifically with the CD in mind. It is a single 61-minute piece without pause, recorded at a low level that would have been drowned out by surface noise on an LP. Another one of my ambient favorites, Thursday Afternoon shares many qualities with Discreet Music, and in some ways is the sound of Eno coming full circle. The piece is a series of loops - mostly of single piano notes, bits of static, and distant synth washes, all of which proceed at different speeds and hence appear in endlessly varying combinations. Like Discreet Music, Thursday Afternoon is almost completely neutral in terms of emotional triggers. Eno presents us with sound, and what the listener extracts from it has everything to do with what he puts in.
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Eno's famous quote is still slapped to his ambient music without thought, but I wonder about the ignorable as it is interesting dictum. After listening to these straight through, I have to question the strength of the threads connecting Eno's ambient work, and whether they can be united by theoretical underpinnings. Music For Airports is just that, the Budd collaboration is close to minimalist composition, the Laraaji record probes Eastern modalities, and then On Land is an exploration of a psychic landscape. I'm guessing that Eno's mini-manifesto about ambient music became less interesting to him with time, and that ambient became something of a moving target, meant to accomplish very different goals, some of which surely had much to do with marketing. Still, Eno released some fantastic and varied music under the banner, most of which is worth seeking out. If you look hard, you really can see roots of almost everything called ambient now in one of these records.