Stylus SEPTEMBER 27, 2004 - by Matthew Weiner


Part 1: Airport Access-Roads: Frippery, Discreet Music And Another Green World

Much has been written about Eno's pioneering Ambient Music - music as ignorable as it is interesting. But what was the pop egghead going for with his four-record ambient series? And was its legacy anything more than wanker chill-out records? More than a quarter-century since Music For Airports' release, Matthew Weiner and Todd Burns put on their headphones and try to find out...

Question: What is a boring question?
Eno: One to which you know the answer.
- from Paul Morley's liner notes to Eno Box II, 1993

For Brian Eno, the easy route simply couldn't be trusted. It wasn't so much that he was a masochist who liked to make things hard on himself as it was a mistrust, disdain even, for the obvious - according to his own mother, young Brian was always looking for something different, bored silly by everything else. And from hours spent as a young man messing with recordings of static on cassette players to his tenure with the willfully-amateur Portsmouth Sinfonia to his first gig as a feather boa-clad synthesizer provocateur with proto-glam outfit Roxy Music, the waifish, prematurely balding former art student relished the different, letting it guide his professional career.

Leaving Roxy after only two albums in the early 1970s, Eno proclaimed himself a non-musician, releasing a pair of quirky pop records on his own before unleashing Another Green World in 1975, a mysterious and ethereal long-player that arrived just as the music industry was collapsing in on itself - a victim of its own corporate bloat. Ironically, the record's buzz transformed Eno into the industry's hottest commodity, leading to production and collaborative offers from pop's leading luminaries, with David Bowie only the most famous.

Logging an ever-increasing number of hours in the studio as he produced, wrote and experimented with recorded sound, Eno would devise ways to inspire himself and his collaborators. He found ways to treat acoustic sounds electronically, to give them a distinctive sheen. He devised the Oblique Strategies card set, a series of I Ching-derived aphorisms that guided the musician through the doldrums of the recording process. And he started the Obscure label, for which he could release and produce works by non-pop experimental artists like Gavin Bryars and Harold Budd. In almost every respect - whether it was his creative methods, his attitudes about marketing or his business practices - Eno was subverting the music industry - challenging it to be more interesting, stimulating and provocative.

For all his innovations and contributions to the working methods of pop, it was a series of four, coffee table-like records with which Eno would make his most profound mark. Over a period of three years, his once-frantic music had grown progressively quieter, more textural and somnolent, as if the compositional process had become one of elimination - a highly unconventional precept for pop in the '70s. But the moment 1/1's round electric piano tones opened 1978's Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Eno introduced to pop listeners an idea even more radical: that background music could not only be challenging if one so chose to listen to it, but it could also be of serious artistic consequence. To differentiate his work from Muzak, he called it, simply: Ambient Music.

In championing music you didn't even need to pay much attention to - that was, as he famously put it in Airports' liner notes, as ignorable as it is interesting - Eno was laying down a gauntlet of sorts by challenging the one thing The Beatles, Motown and the rest of the '60s pop royalty had agreed upon: that music mattered - that they were aspiring to something important. In western music, such aspirations went back as far as Bach, who composed for the glory of God Himself - a pretension, of course, that Cage had punctured with his infamous ode to nothingness, 4'33". But by proposing this notion not to academic eggheads but a pop audience in 1978 (then infatuated with the likes of Debbie Boone) that music was no more important than its surrounding environment - well, that was crazy talk.

As if to prove his point, Eno would undertake a similarly designed, sequentially-numbered, four record Ambient Series that studied the concept intensely - Music For Airports, The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980, with Harold Budd), Day Of Radiance (1981, with Laraaji) and On Land (1982). While Airports' may have sold nearly a quarter-million copies, with his findings on those records ultimately forming a critical template for much of today's modern pop (his work with Bowie and U2 being but the most obvious), Eno himself rarely speaks about the Budd and Laraaji records in any detail, much less of his specific intentions for the series itself. As such, Ambient's legacy remains largely misrepresented, leaving the series that started it all remarkably, if you'll pardon the expression, obscure.

More than twenty-five years later, myths persist and questions remain - and they're by no means boring.

Airport Access-Roads: Frippery, Discreet Music and Another Green World

Like everything with Eno, it began with collaboration. Roxy honcho Bryan Ferry had introduced his foil to King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp sometime in the early 1970s, and in 1972, the pair undertook their first effort together. Eno was anxious to use the collaboration to tap into his fascination with technology, in particular, how it could create things that did not exist in nature. For the recording that would later be released as No Pussyfooting, Eno would devise a system of two interlocking Revox tape decks that could repeat the incoming signal almost indefinitely; on tracks such as The Heavenly Music Corporation, Fripp spun sometimes-dazzling improvisations that lasted upwards near twenty minutes, ebbing and flowing as the pair built up layers of guitars, resulting in an impressive wash of electronic sound. Though perhaps a bit unaffecting, Pussyfooting was, by Eno's measure anyway, a success.

But it was another three years and one infamous hospital visit later before the experiment began to pay dividends artistically for Eno. The story of Eno being struck by a cab in 1975, lying bedridden and immobile as a record of harp music played at barely-audible levels has been recounted several times over the years. The experience of listening to music as background created for Eno, a new way of hearing music.

And the results were immediate. By year's end, Eno had released two records that would form two distinct components of the Ambient template. The first was Another Green World, ten tracks that were closer to brief instrumental sketches than the pop songs on which had made his name to that point. Not only was the self-proclaimed sub-Bowie leaving behind vocals for much of Green World, even more radically, there was little-to-no sense of linear development in many of the tracks; in fact, several sounded as if their length was arbitrary, or, as he put it, just a chunk out of a larger continuum.

Discreet Music (released a month after Green World on Obscure) was an altogether different beast, though it did share its predecessor's somnambulant tones. Employing the Revox tape system he'd devised with Fripp, the 31-minute title track (the longest I could get on record at the time) created the illusion of direction, with gentle, synthesized flute loops piling on top of one another. But where Pussyfooting created a sense of (somewhat muted) harmonic development, on Discreet Music that development begins from nothing but leads to nowhere. This was partly due to Eno's limited choice in notes; where Fripp shifted modes during the songs' duration by one writer's account three times, often venturing outside those even, here Eno employs but six notes, chosen and positioned carefully so as not to create any sense of groundedness. Combined with Eno's emphasis on equalization to subtly adjust the sonic timbre, the result is a sustained mood, but one that never quite resolves itself.

Both records advanced the idea of Ambient considerably. Eno would call a few of his later ambient records the purest expressions of what I thought ambient music should be: endless, relatively unchanging moods. A couple years and one last pop record later, he would pursue that ideal with a radical, unflinching vengeance.