Stylus SEPTEMBER 29, 2004 - by Matthew Weiner & Tom Burns


Part 3: Eternally Pretty Music, New Age and Imprints: The Plateaux Of Mirror And Day Of Radiance

Having established the Ambient genre with Music For Airports, Eno quickly set about the task of establishing its custom record label. Airports had not only been Eno's first true ambient record, it was also the inaugural release for his Ambient Records imprint. He would later dismiss his second experience as a label chief in less than five years, saying Obscure [Records] was a label I formed with a set objective, i.e. to release records that would not otherwise have been released in the pre-indie climate of 1975. Ambient was not so much a label as a term I coined for my exploring music that was as 'ignorable as it was interesting'. But it was undeniable that Eno had real aspirations for the label, however minor, securing distribution through PVC Records.

In any event, Eno took the opportunity with his new label to work with an artist from his last one. Harold Budd and Eno shared an art school pedigree, with Budd having studied music theory at Los Angeles Community College following stints in jazz bands throughout his teens. But as Budd's musical palette began to expand, he, too, became fascinated by visual art - taking a particular shine to the paintings of 20th Century abstract impressionist, Mark Rothko. Budd was mesmerized by the trance-like qualities in Rothko's color field paintings - qualities he began to approximate musically, much as composer Morton Feldman had done.

Composer Gavin Bryars introduced Budd to Eno after the latter had heard a tape of the sketches that would eventually become Budd's first album, The Pavilion Of Dreams. Eno agreed to produce the record, releasing it on Obscure. It would be one of the only pieces of Western music that he took on a four-month trip to Thailand in 1979.

He described his fascination with Budd to MOJO in 1998. [H]is way of composing was to write a piece of music, then take out all the notes you didn't like! What intrigued him about Budd was how even though he had started in hardcore classical minimalism, the composer's career trajectory was moving away from the standard NEA minimalism, that style of music guaranteed to get you a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, because it's totally respectable, modern, defensible and unobjectionable. Having flirted with such dogma himself on Airports, Eno was determined to explore a new area of interest on his next ambient record.

By the time he returned from Thailand, Eno had a pretty clear idea about what form his second Ambient Records release would take. To start with, he wouldn't be playing much on The Plateaux Of Mirror; barring a synthesizer pad here and there, it was by and large Budd's piano that would be front and center.

For another, Budd's playing would be largely improvised. The hitherto studio-bound Eno told Sound On Sound: I was never interested in improvisation really before [working with Budd], but I liked very much his approach to starting with a very small set of possibilities and then improvising around them. What appealed to the studio colorist most was the idea of working within a restricted palette and exploring all its combinations.

Eno described the working situation thusly: By and large he made the music, I the sound. There was a little bit of overlap: sometimes I would suggest editing something or repeating a passage, and sometimes he would suggest some aspect of sound. And the process was equally unfamiliar to both of them. I used to set up quite complicated treatments and then he would go out and play the piano, Eno later said. And you would hear him discovering, as he played, how to manipulate this treatment. How to make it ring and resonate. Which notes work particularly well on it. Which register of the piano. What speed to play at, of course, because some treatments just cloud out if they have too much information in them.

The result contrasted sharply from The Pavilion Of Dreams. Where that record had indulged in an excess of sleigh-bells and piano trills, on Plateaux, Eno and Budd stripped away the extraneous elements, reducing the compositions to their essential elements, which was generally Budd's heavily-treated piano.

Perhaps more importantly, the tracks' development was neither harmonic nor melodic, but timbral. It was in the tone color and treatment of the melodies themselves where Eno sought the most variation - in some ways a return to his equalization work on Discreet Music. The difference in this case was that the instrument being treated was by and large acoustic, which appealed to the sound-sculptor in Eno. With free rein to construct far ranging melodic lines on electric and acoustic pianos, Budd explored his full range of interests on the record as well, inserting Feldman-esque punctums here, Satie -esque tinkles there - even sounding a hint like ECM's Pat Metheny Group on the record's title track, with its Rhodes piano, chromatic major-9 harmonies and pseudo-Brazilian percussion.

But for all its variety and glacially descriptive titles (such as Wind In Lonely Fences, and Among Fields Of Crystal), there's a sense with The Plateaux Of Mirror that the pair couldn't quite settle on what it was they wanted stylistically. While First Light and An Arc Of Doves are lovely evocations of solace, others tracks plod rather than glide, while the wordless vocals on Not Yet Remembered serve to interrupt, rather than enhance, the overall mood.

Plateaux wouldn't be Eno and Budd's last collaboration, however. From his work with German keyboard duo Cluster, Eno had learned one of his most treasured axioms: If at first you don't succeed... It may not have wound up in his Oblique Strategies set, but if 1977's aimless Cluster and Eno and the following year's remarkable By This River (The Son's Room), were any indication, persistence paid off for Eno when it came to having difficulty playing with others - sometimes it was just a matter of trying again. Similarly, Eno's second collaboration with Budd, 1984's The Pearl, sounds more uniform stylistically and, as such, more fully realized. It is today regarded quite correctly as one of Eno's best works.

Ambient 3: Day of Radiance

And then, there was this - performed solely by nomadic zitherist/comedian Edward Larry Gordon (Lar-ah-jee - getit?). Before Eno came upon him one day busking in New York City's Washington Square Park, the native Philadelphian had tried a bit of everything in his 38 years - having acted and studied music, leading him to perform in amateur orchestras and choirs, playing everything from classical music to show tunes to jazz fusion. For all his experience, it was the zither in which he found a quasi-spiritual outlet for his music proclivities, releasing his first LP, the groovily-named Celestial Vibration, as he played for dollars on the streets of New York.

Laraaji was not the only unknown to Eno that day; in the zither - a broadly-used term which encompasses thirty- or forty-stringed instruments like the dulcimer and the autoharp - Eno had found an instrument that offered both an exotic flavor and a harmonic richness ripe for electronic alteration; one can easily imagine Eno leaning over to drop a dollar in Laraaji's open instrument case while dreaming of what his EMS suitcase synthesizer could do with those endlessly ringing overtones. As such, he reportedly offered to produce the musician on the spot.

The result would be without question the most unique release in Eno's catalogue. Like the Budd collaboration, Eno's role on Day Of Radiance was more akin to that of a producer - albeit one closely involved in creative decisions. The album is divided into variations on two themes: Dance and Meditation. The first two variations of Dance feature Laraaji playing rapid and hypnotic rhythmic patterns on the dulcimer only slightly affected by Eno's treatments. But by The Dance #3, the producer's sensibility begins to creep into the proceedings. Where the earlier tracks added phasing and echo delay effects to the zither, spreading the hammered instrument's sharp attacks wide across the stereo spectrum, here the tape is slowed down significantly, resulting in resonances that are deep and in some places harsh and distorted, constituting what are probably the least ignorable moments of the Ambient Series. The two pieces of the flip side (Meditation) continue in this more consciously electronic vein, focusing on the somnolent drift of the zither as Eno electronically alters the instrument's long decays - not unlike the experiments jazz guitarist Pat Metheny was conducting around the same time with his custom-made 15-string harp guitar. The ethereal sound that resulted would soon be referred to under a moniker that Eno would come to take as an insult when used to describe his own music: New Age.

Of the genre, he would later tell Mark Prendergast: I find it spineless and too 'secure'. There is no thrill for the listener. The synthesizer pioneer was offended by the mindless use of electronics that current technology has given birth to - it has become very easy for anyone to produce a tape of blurring noises mixed with 'pretty' sounds and call it New Age.

However much disdain he expressed for New Age, however, in this case of Day Of Radiance, the label was not entirely unwarranted. Until this point, Eno's work had always made a point of challenging the natural sound world - his treatments emphasizing artificial shapes and colors in otherwise unremarkable instrumental textures. Whether it was treating a Robert Fripp guitar solo with digital feedback, muting the upper frequencies of a bass drum on a Talking Heads album, or altering the vocal line in Music For Airports to give it an unnatural hiss, the idea of treating a sound electronically was to reshuffle the sonic deck a bit, giving the final product a distinct, unique sound. New Age, by contrast, had no such ambitions; almost willfully anti-intellectual, New Age artists made listless, unobtrusive music, emphasizing homogeneity but also a particularly empty form of spirituality. It created not a space to think, but space out. In other words, Muzak for hippies.

Despite Eno's best efforts, Day Of Radiance would prove to be just that. Here, the otherworldly treatments that gave Music For Airports and The Plateaux Of Mirror both a tension and alien quality are buried amidst the relentless prettiness of the lapping major chords. As such, while not entirely devoid of charms, the record exposed the limits of surface attraction in Ambient. The Laraaji collaboration may have been a minor failure, but it was a mistake Eno was determined to learn from.