INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
iNews JANUARY 5, 2017 - by Nick Mitchell
HOW BRIAN ENO SHOWED THE POTENTIAL OF AMBIENT MUSIC
Chances are you've heard one of Brian Eno's ambient compositions, even if you think you haven't.
The seven-second Windows 95 start-up sound, which he composed for Microsoft two decades ago, is classic Eno.
It also adheres to his own famous definition of ambient, that "it must be as ignorable as it is interesting".
However, as accessible as this short clip might seem, ambient is not easy listening. To the uninitiated or indifferent it can seem, frankly, boring.
By its very nature, ambient lacks all the simple, recurring structures and immediate hooks and melodies that have dominated all forms of popular music.
But those who let ambient into their life can be rewarded in surprisingly pragmatic ways, whether it's aiding concentration, eliminating distractions, or even helping with anxiety.
THE ROOTS OF AMBIENT
"Let's de-mythologise this notion that Eno invented 'ambient'," Prendergast states. "The concept, idea and execution of ambient music has been around as long as humankind itself.
"The word 'ambient' has its origins in the late-sixteenth century French word ambiant and the Latin ambien/ambire meaning literally 'to go around'. It pertains to surroundings, the air, the sky.
"The concept goes way back to ancient times, to rituals, processions, burials, sacrifices. Pythagoras, the father of musical score, believed in a music of the spheres which emanated around the universe.
"From medieval plainchant to Purcell and Bach, the usefulness of unobtrusive but spiritually satisfying music has always been championed and appreciated."
THE IMPACT OF ENO
So rather than invent ambient music, what Eno did was to formalise, conceptualise and popularise it as a distinct genre.
By the mid-1970s Eno, fascinated as he was with new technology and systems of creation, was perfectly placed to be the unofficial champion of ambient.
The former Roxy Music man's credentials for the role were impeccable: he was a devotee of the experimental composer John Cage, a lover of tape loops, and inventor of his own "Oblique Strategies" - notes to be plucked out in the studio at random, with instructions like "honour thy error as a hidden intention".
Then again, it could just be due to Eno being unable to get up to adjust the volume on a dodgy stereo, while recovering from being knocked down by a London taxi in 1975. The low-level harp music merged with the sound of the rain outside, and his ambient obsession was born, according to the legend.
While his first full foray into ambient, 1975's Discreet Music, hardly troubled the mainstream, it was closely followed by Evening Star, the second of his collaborations with former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, which pushed into a yet more elemental, featureless realm.
"What Eno did was startling," Prendergast says. "He gathered together all the various strands that were loping around twentieth Century music - the extreme Minimalism of La Monte Young say, the sheer bravery of The Velvet Underground, the interesting bits coming out of American rock and roll and the possibilities presented by multi-track tape, and went for instrumental pieces that were strikingly beautiful."
"Eno's ambient work forked into two distinct areas. The short-form work done on albums like Another Green World, Music For Films and Apollo. And the long-form work which came out of these and other practices like art installation work - for example Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, New Space Music and now Reflection, possibly his most beautiful album."
Eno's profound influence over an entire genre is even more astonishing when you consider the other creative work he was involved in at the time. Collaborating with some of the most respected talents of the day, he was making landmark albums with artists as diverse as David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo and U2.
But increasingly, he was turning back to ambient.
THE CRITICAL BACKLASH
As Eno's journey into ambient happened to coincide with the rise of politically engaged punk, some rock critics accused him of retreating from the real world into an escapist land of anodyne soundscapes.
The guitarist Lydia Lunch complained that all his music does is "flow and weave," over and over again.
Prendergast believes that these critics have been shown by history to be wide of the mark.
"Like Bowie, Eno went through the punk wars unscathed, as he produced bands like Ultravox, John Cale, Talking Heads, Devo and even U2. His work on Bowie's Berlin trilogy in itself showed the punk intelligentsia how far out of range he was and how far ahead he was thinking. Embryonic ambient in the making!"
"As aesthetic white noise, Music For Airports makes for even more dissipated listening than last year's similarly unfocused Music For Films," wrote Michael Bloom in his Rolling Stone review, complaining that it abandoned time frame along with "conventional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm and personality".
The album's title literally described its functional aspirations, and while it wasn't universally adopted by airport terminal buildings at the time, it was designed by Eno as an alternative to the bland muzak that he found did little to soothe the nerves or stress of flying.
MUSIC THAT 'DOES SOMETHING'
The view that music should have a purpose beyond mere enjoyment is what drives Eno's ambient work.
Talking as a guest on BBC 6 Music recently, he once again stated this belief that music could be "specifically functional".
"I started getting this idea that there was a place for this music that was there to do something, to deliberately and calculatingly engineer your environment in some way," he said.
"We're not embarrassed at all about doing that with interior design or lighting, but we had this purist attitude about music, that it had to be free of all that. That if you tried to use it, you were actually making muzak.
"It went from the sublime, the Beethoven musical, to muzak, and there was nothing in between. I thought, there's a lot in between."
GETTING INTO AMBIENT
So what would Prendergast's advice be to those looking to start listening to ambient music?
"The truth is that they've been listening to ambient all their lives," he points out. "Think about those interesting fade-outs in Beatles records, for example that lovely piano coda in Magical Mystery Tour or those nifty little excerpts by Ennio Morricone in those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns.
"Think of 10cc's I'm Not In Love, the entire oeuvres of Clannad and Enya, or the soundtracks created by Antonioni and Wim Wenders. Ambient is all around."
"They couldn't do any better than listen to Reflection," says Prendergast. "It's quality stuff, summing up all of Eno's life's work while creating something that is emotionally moving, sonically fascinating and always changing at the same time."