Wondering Sound MAY 18, 2011 - by Philip Sherburne


The music of virtual geography and endless interior space

The third installment in Eno's ambient series was not one of his own, but rather a record he produced for the electronic zither performer Laraaji. But with 1982's Ambient 4: On Land he proved not only that his atmospheric research hadn't dried up; he crafted an album that suggested the principal directions that some of the best ambient music would follow in the '90s and '00s.

It was darker, to begin with, characterised by artificial whale-song bleating against basso throb and long metallic tones; it could sound like the wind playing high-voltage cables on the prairie, or the music of the spheres. "I regard this music as environmental: to be experienced from the inside," Eno begins his liner notes, before an extensive discussion of the technical modifications a listener might make to her hi-fi system in order to optimise the listening experience; he never returns to discuss either the music or the process behind its making. In the notes to the 1986 edition, however, he elaborates on his interest in mapping sound to certain spaces, both metaphorically and psycho-acoustically: "I wanted to be situated inside a large field of loosely-knit sound, rather than placed before a tightly organised monolith (or stereolith, for that matter). I wanted to open out the aural field, to put much of the sound a considerable distance from the listener (even locating some of it 'out of earshot'), and to allow the sounds to live their lives separately from one another, clustering occasionally but not 'musically' bound together."

To do that, Eno turned away from the synthesizer in favor of electronic processing of acoustic instruments and "non-instruments like pieces of chain and sticks and stones." Several talented players lend their instrumental skills to the recording, including Michael Brook, Jon Hassell, Daniel Lanois, and Bill Laswell. But Eno writes that the album's direction was influenced by "an increasing interest in found sound as a completely plastic and malleable material. [...] In this category I included not only recordings of rooks, frogs and insects, but also the complete body of my own earlier work. As a result, some earlier pieces I worked on became digested by later ones, which in turn became digested again. The technique is like composting: converting what would otherwise have been waste into nourishment."

The results are as organic as his description implies, suggesting not so much composed music as the background noise of some vast ecosystem, contact-miked and lovingly EQed. Moving away from the melodic, figural nature of his earlier ambient records, On Land maps more abstracted timbres and textures, and as a result it actually becomes more enveloping, its overtones pealing just out of earshot, its bass become a full-body thrum. Where Discreet Music. But Music For Airports echoed Erik Satie and Music For Films still showed its connection to Krautrock, On Land offered a new model for ambient music, drafting the blueprint for what a decade later would be termed "isolationism," marked by bowed metal clang, seismic rumble and terminal delay; a music of virtual geography and endless interior space.