What does it sound like?:
Brian Eno is a remarkable man. He has done many great things. His ‘treatments’ livened up early Roxy Music, his Pop songs are unusual and witty, his production techniques cajole musicians to their finest work (eg., Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads), he pioneered the use of samples, found sounds and cut-up techniques with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and his Oblique Strategies encourage us all to don Edward De Bono’s green hat. However, long after he has gone, he will be best known for Ambient Music.
According to Eno, Ambient Music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” It creates a mood or an atmosphere, usually with synthesisers, without any real discernible beat or melody. Erick Satie had composed ‘Furniture Music’ to accompany dinner parties, music that does not demand attention but provides a focus if the conversation lulls. Tangerine Dream and Popul Vul had experimented with long synthesiser pieces in the late sixties. However, Eno defined the concept, starting with his collaboration with Robert Fripp in 1973, No Pussyfooting, through Discrete Music in 1975, until he coined the term, from the Latin ambire -to surround, for 1978’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports.
Over the decades, Eno has added another element, one of generation, that he developed from the work of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. However, instead of loops to repeat elements at various time intervals, the synthesiser’s are programmed to adjust notes, tones and timings within certain parameters. Eno makes active interventions from time to time. The electronic machines aren’t left entirely unsupervised.
Ambient Music is a lot like the aural equivalent of conceptual art. The theory is often as compelling as the product. The listener hears sounds that they interpret according to their own perception and experience. It is the listener who draws emotion and feeling from the work. Sometimes, everything is such a blur, even the musical notes cannot be distinguished. However, it is possible for everything to click into place to wondrous effect.
Here, we have Reflection, a single 54 minute piece that is his most perfectly realised Ambient musical instillation to date. It begins with a simple keyboard motif that is stretched and bent slowly. There are hums and deep bass tones that surface periodically. Ripples of string-like tones flutter by. A small bell tinntinnbulates. A pad of percussion bounces until it rolls gently to a rest. Washes of sound twist and blend into each other. There is an occasional flare, rocketing into the distance in a controlled, non-explosive manner. It’s warm and comforting, quiet and peaceful. It fills a room but is polite enough to step back and allow you to have a conversation if so minded.
Nevertheless, Reflection is challenging and strangely disturbing. Listening closely requires superhuman powers of concentration, stamina and patience. It is more cerebral than the poetic Thursday Afternoon, less compelling than Neroli and not as gorgeous as Lux, but it certainly provokes thought, even as it sits quietly minding its own business. Engaging with it feels like relating to the synthetics on the TV shows, Westworld and Humans, intriguing and unsettling. It is even possible to buy an Apple version, or an app, that changes on each listen. Brian Eno continues to push boundaries, creating music almost with a mind of its own.
In the end, Reflection achieves its goal. It encourages reflective thinking and it is as ignorable as it is listenable. It is a definitive album of Ambient Music.
What does it all *mean*?
Brian Eno is close to solving the age-old puzzle on the meaning of reality; if a tree falls and there is no-one to hear it, does it make a sound?
Goes well with…
Reading, talking, doing homework, listening, quietly reflecting, practising mindfulness. The possibilities are endless. Psychotropic drugs are not recommended.
Might suit people who like…
Long, quiet pieces of music, leisurely baths and thinking.