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Pitchfork SEPTEMBER 10, 2003 - by Chris Ott
BRIAN ENO: MUSIC FOR FILMS III
Brian Eno has, on more than one occasion, uttered the words "I invented ambient music" with complete sincerity. In a Daily Telegraph interview from 1995, he explains, "It was obvious to me that people were using records in their life like you use a piece of furniture, or you use lighting."
In the face of Erik Satie's "furniture music" (a late-19th century construct), the rebellious, monastic musique concrete movement of the 1950s, and even more relevantly, Stockhausen and John Cage, it's stupefying that Eno would play such games, but his statement has been repeated so many times, it's no longer possible for him to retract it, or to color it as a boastful exaggeration. An admittedly untrained musician, Eno is an endlessly self-mythologizing thinker, with an insatiable taste for nostalgia: everything he does is - to himself if no one else - history in the making.
He enjoys a good laugh at his awkward pasts - at the glittering sweaters, thinning long hair and "is it for real, dahling?" sneer he slung as Roxy Music's pinball wizard - but in concert with mounting technological innovations, Brain One began taking his knob-twiddling dead seriously. In some respects, he earned it: 1975's beautiful LP Discreet Music predicts decades of sounds he (and we) would eventually refer to as "ambient," but the proof is in the pudding, not the recipe. Using tape loops, he wound a simple progression over itself, buttressing a largely lifeless experiment with obfuscating liner notes (although he does admit "I have always preferred making plans to executing them... I tend towards the roles of the planner and programmer, and then become an audience to the results").
Naturally (almost dutifully), Eno refers to Satie's philosophical assault on music, but it seems obvious he considers his ambient material a separate, largely disconnected enterprise. And it might be: popular music was becoming so commercial, and was so easily acquired as a consumer product by the late '70s, its effect was compartmentalized like never before. Songs became soundtracks for whatever lifestyle they were increasingly associated with, and Eno's understanding of that situation's eventual singularity was, in a word, prescient. His focused rumination on the concept resulted in the watershed release Ambient 1: Music For Airports in 1978, but again, precocious liner notes (AKA "The Ambient Manifesto") make it difficult to submit to a record that opens with an admittedly transcendent long-form meditation (1/1) before closing with a pair of synthetic vocal patterns on par with Vangelis.
Eno's manifesto boils down to these precepts: "Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." One wonders how this could possibly work in films, where the soundtrack is so critical to mood and pacing, but that's where Eno first began experimenting with ambient music, as compiled on his 1976 LP Music For Films. Though these pieces are traditionally melodic (and sound not unlike the very "proggy" Windham Hill artist mentioned above), tracks like Events In Dense Fog lay out where Eno was headed, both nominally and sonically.
After ambient works with guitarist Daniel Lanois (the soundtrack to the BBC documentary Apollo) and pianist Harold Budd (The Pearl), Eno released his defining minimalist piece, Thursday Afternoon, in 1985 (subtitled Thinking Music, it too was a soundtrack, to a video installation; Eno has since recorded many such pieces). After Thursday Afternoon, Eno worked on his own material only sporadically, diving headlong into a production partnership with U2 that proved among the most successful in music history, both commercially and creatively (on the sly, Eno has produced and "contributed" to seminal works from David Bowie, Devo and the Talking Heads; he mixed the now-worshipped, once-forgotten No New York compilation in 1977 and even ran initial demos with Television. In a very unlikely mid-'90s marriage, he made James good for an album or two).
As he immersed himself in pop music again, in the possibilities of commercial creativity - his infamous "Oblique Strategies" motivational cards - and the sonic limits of different formats, Eno's ambient work seemed to be a concluded phase. In 1988, Music For Films III promised his return to the fold, especially considering the mostly ambient material on the first two volumes. Technically, Music For Films II doesn't exist; it was for the most part a pre-release collection of tracks that would end up on Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, and was only made available as a part of the Working Backwards box set, a 1983 collection of Eno's thirteen solo albums to that point. Accuracy prevailed for this 1988 collection, and United States Distribution have re-released Music For Films III in tact.
Unfortunately for Eno fans, Music For Films III is not a Brian Eno album: it's a collection of experiments done with the usual suspects, namely Daniel Lanois, Harold Budd, and Brian's brother Roger (the two worked together most prolifically in the mid-'80s, on the score for Apollo and a track from David Lynch's ponderous Dune, otherwise scored by the deplorable mainstream rock act Toto). Though it confesses these contributors in a roster list on its cover, the title makes it impossible to extricate from Eno's catalog.
The material veers wildly, from the Middle-Eastern and African sounds of Lanois' Tension Block, John Paul Jones' (yes, that John Paul Jones) found-sound collage 4-Minute War, and Laraaji Nadananda's gurgling electric zither experiments, to Roger Eno's quaint, border-new age piano pieces. On the whole, these tracks are a strange collision of sci-fi/new-age keyboard sounds and African melodies, and though middle grounds emerge during unlikely moments, they're few and far between.
Regrettably, it was marketplace exploitation to name this collection in linear relation to Eno's first two Music For Films LPs: at the time of its release, III was little more than a sampler for Eno's Opal imprint (after leaving the floundering EG label in the mid-'80s, he went about releasing his and his closest associates' material directly). Totally devoid of consistency, with only three solo contributions from Eno (and apart from the excellent, muted Asian River, they're terribly dated synthesizer pieces), the disc can hardly be ascribed to him. Bearing Eno's reputation as both shield and bait, Music For Films III offers markedly less subtle material than one could expect from a man who's proven himself the premiere theoretical and commercial thinker in pop music.