Pitchfork OCTOBER 8, 2004 - by Liam Singer


Discreet Music / Ambient 1: Music For Airports / Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror / Ambient 4: On Land

Remember Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque? In 1991, it was Spin's album of the year, besting Nirvana's Nevermind, a release that would later be hailed by the same publication as the greatest LP of the '90s. Such contradictions are a testament to the cerebral oddity that, even though stories are told forward, they're formed backward - events, or works of art, that occur at a certain time can take on greater importance when subsequent events lend them meaning. The then-present may have deemed Bandwagonesque just as compelling as Nevermind, but the future rendered Nirvana's record far more important.

This bothersome epistemological fact has led the world of academic art in the twentieth century - ever concerned with securing historical posterity - to adopt a curious mindset. Artists have had to learn to speak a language of continuous self-analysis, regarding themselves in historical and present contexts so as to constantly reaffirm and even force their relevance within such stories. In modern art, it's been widely complained, the justification of a piece can be more important than its content. The artist learns a craft, but also a thought process that demonstrates a constant awareness of his or her continuity with the past, importance in the present, and meaning for the future - every artist is equal parts analyst, critic, and salesperson.

Brian Eno has gradually been placed - and has placed himself - at the beginning of a growing number of stories regarding contemporary music; needless to say, the man went to art school. His historical-analytical mindset has angered some when it's led him to make sweeping claims such as, "I invented ambient music." Of course, much music has both ideologically and aesthetically predated Eno's (an issue explored in Mark Pendergast's The Ambient Century). The sense in which Eno invented ambient music is that he was able to identify its parts and impact, and thus hone a thesis stated through his Ambient 1-4 series. He took a loose collection of artistic impressions that were somehow related and defined their connection and import, creating - as John Dewey's Art As Experience would've called it - a unified, qualitative aesthetic experience. He "discovered" ambient music in the same way that most countries have been "discovered" - when a Westerner finds it, names it, and gives it borders. His works are breathtaking, but the polemics that accompany them are of equal parts accomplishment and influence.

Eno's ambient ideal was formed in 1975 during months of lying in a hospital bed recovering from a car accident, forced to listen to too-quiet eighteenth century harp music that his body cast prevented him from turning up. This alerted him to the way that recorded sound can effectively merge with the environment in which it's played, appealing to "many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular." He aimed to create a cocoon for thought and reflection through a music that could be used with utilitarian purpose. He has described the process as a painter taking the human figure out of a landscape. In music, this figure took the form of his own voice, a cohesive melody, and other evidence of human intervention - by eliminating these, he created a sense of space where there was once an object.

Brian Eno's affinity with composer John Cage is strong, in both their shared conception of environment as music and use of chance operations to illustrate this effect. The difference is that John Cage saw even musical basics like tonality and harmony - the things that lend music emotional content - as subject to his own theoretical rigidity, making some of his work ultimately uninviting to an average listener. But Eno's ambient works subvert themselves to the standards of musical beauty even in the farthest absence of humanity. Thus, in the same way that the most nihilistic of literary resolutions can somehow offer transcendence of meaning if the writing is beautiful, the ambient albums embody a duality of emotional distance and deep affection within that detachment.

As in a dream, such music has the power to make one nostalgic for places either never visited or nonexistent. And to many modern listeners, the melancholic nostalgia in these works has become twofold; it's both inherent in the music itself, and in the now-datedness of the recording style, which evokes a world of 1970s and '80s synthesizer music. One thinks of, for example, the soundtracks to grainy science-fiction movies such as Vangelis' score to Blade Runner, or that of Dune (the theme of which Eno contributed). Eno's sound appeals today to the ideal worlds both of abstract perfection and to the media of our own younger lives.

The most direct outgrowth of Eno's epiphanal experience was the Discreet Music, released in the same year as his accident; indeed, he recommended that it be played over hospital speakers to create an environment soothing to patients (it has, in fact, become a popular piece for expecting mothers). The thirty-minute title track is one of the most pure realizations of Eno's original vision, a gentle immersion in slow, warm waves of sound. It's intended to be played at low volumes "even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility." The piece is an analog version of several theories that Eno would explore fully through computer software in the '90s. It's based in a sort of musical systems theory - self-organizing works in a free-roaming environment of musical parameters predetermined by the composer. Thus, the actual execution of the music requires "little to no intervention" on the musician's part. Such systems create pieces that could go on forever, static in terms of musical movement yet never repeating exactly. In this case, Eno hooked his synth up to a tape delay system that allowed two melodic lines to linger and evolve with minimal input on his behalf. The result remains one of the greatest single ambient pieces that Eno has produced.

The album also includes three smaller works, variations upon Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D Major derived by applying chance procedures to the original score and performed by a group of musicians conducted by Gavin Bryars - composer of the beautiful The Sinking Of The Titanic. If the piece Discreet Music is an aural statement of what ambient sounds like, then these are the term's ideological distillations. By building swirling drones upon a staple of the classical repertoire, Eno representationally strips music of its functionality - the classic tension and resolution of one chord moving toward the next. Pachelbel's Canon, in its circle-of-fifths progression, is a textbook piece of functional harmony; Eno's deconstruction, conversely, makes any expectation of musical movement impossible. Thus, though not the most enveloping or appealing of Eno's works, these variations gently force the listener to switch fundamental modes of hearing.

Eno's first official statement of larger intent came three years later with Ambient 1: Music For Airports. The dispassionate title reflects the smooth, sterile, modernist surfaces that the music evokes. Eno picked a building similar to a hospital, the location of ambient music's conception. Both hospitals and airports are centered on mechanized rituals that are simultaneously in the service of, and often numb to, basic human needs. Eno thus aimed to make a music that would "get rid of people's nervousness." The music comes in four sparse sections - some of them solo piano, some synthesized voices and other tones, all altered through subtle tape manipulation. In long, disintegrating notes that echo the work of Morton Feldman, Music For Airports gives the listener nothing to hold onto, remaining as transitory as its location.

In describing this album, Eno said, "One of the things music can do is change your sense of time so you don't really mind if things slip away or alter in some way." In Music For Airports' meeting of place and sound, Eno realizes music's capacity to unify contrasting conceptions of time. The imagery of airports implies constant movement - passengers rushing to catch a flight, planes taking off, lines of people and conveyor belts moving forward. Yet Eno's work is composed of placid, sustained tones that connote stillness. This contrast evokes both the inherent transcendent suspension in speed and the sense of "rushing forward" within a warm drone, and it's why many have likened the emotional content of Eno's work to the barrage of sixteenth notes found in minimalist pieces. Though opposite in rhythmic conceits, both seem to warp one's sense of movement through space.

Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980) is Eno's collaboration with pianist Harold Budd, a late bloomer of a musician who became a master of playing his instrument at barely audible volumes. In the Grand Unified Story of Music, it's definitely the ambient album that most directly leads to much of the Windham Hill label's output - a connection Eno would care to forget, as he's complained that new age mimics his aesthetic universe while divesting it of deeper meaning. Budd's placid, Satie-like melodies on reverbed piano are backed by hushed tones from Eno. The Plateaux Of Mirror matches Eno's other ambient albums in its moments of deep beauty, though it does little to mute the human presence. One gets the feeling that Harold Budd was after something slightly different from Eno, as his playing seems a bit busy under the concept at hand. Still, left on in the background, Eno. Plateaux is a light-filled album that accomplishes the goal of transforming its environment. It can turn any room into a place of fragile reverence, and it can offer poignancy to the most mundane of actions.

Ambient 4: On Land (1982) has been cited by both Eno and many fans as his best work. It's a complete realization of several artistic aims, and of all his albums it remains the most distinctive - there are hardly any successful imitators of its unique universe. As Discreet Music foretold the manner by which Eno would realize self-contained musical environments, On Land presages the sound of several musical elements acting independently, coinciding only by chance yet remaining cohesive. The tracks of On Land, all fairly unchanging environments in this way, seem to similarly extend infinitely past the boundaries of their beginnings and ends.

Eno has talked of finding his inspiration for On Land in Ghana, when he used a microphone and headphones to hear the conflated sounds of his surrounding radius. "The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame; they became music." (For a demonstration of this effect, just walk around outside with a microphone amplified into a pair of headphones: It really is striking to hear the world flattened into two dimensions upon one's ears.) The result was an attempt to make dense "worlds" of sound using the same sense of disparate yet spatially connected elements. The album is both more varied than his other ambient works and more foreboding. The atmospheres in many of On Land's pieces are so dense as to leave one staring down a chasm of sound, with no visible bottom apparent. Eno used several nonmusical objects and field recordings to contribute to On Land's thick aural web, the album being a testament to Eno's use of the studio as an instrument. On Land intensifies the most subtle and indescribable of emotions, and it stands at the forefront of the transformative possibilities inherent in non-rhythmic, non-melodic music.

Brian Eno's ambient works received criticism similar to minimalist music of the time. About Steve Reich, a critic once sniped that listening to his pieces was like watching waves roll upon the shore - pretty but meaningless. About Eno, guitarist Lydia Lunch once complained that all ambient did was "flow and weave," that its emotional ambiguity was oppressive and vapid. Both criticisms assumed a certain way of perceiving sound to be the only valid conceits under which to compose. But as time progresses, we find more and more artists influenced by Eno's expansion of sonic possibility, rendering earlier criticisms inherently moot. Some may find Eno's constant analysis aggrandizing, but it's that very mode of thought that allowed him to identify "ambient" as a coherent idea in the first place. He both verbalized and demonstrated a concept that perfectly fit its time and place, and that has visibly shifted the landscape of musical thought. For that, Eno gets to join the ranks of those who have accomplished such sea changes throughout history - a shift in thought we often attribute to "genius."