Brian Eno – “Thursday Afternoon” (1985)

December 2, 2012 at 1:02 am (Brian Eno, Music)


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Brian Eno & David Byrne – “Qu’ran” (1981)

December 2, 2012 at 12:03 am (Brian Eno, Music, Talking Heads)

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Roxy Music – “Ladytron” (TV – 1972)

December 1, 2012 at 11:31 pm (Brian Eno, Music)

Taken from The Old Grey Whistle Test

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Roxy Music – “Pyjamarama” (1973)

June 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

A review of Roxy Music’s 1973 single by English DJ John Peel from the Feb. 24, 1973 issue of Disc magazine…

Another dandy pearl from the boys. Opening with ringing chords that stir up strange echoes that include a sound not unlike that of a pencil being moved hither and yon in the neck of a milk bottle, this is another case of don’t know-what’s-coming-next-but-it’s-bound-to-be-good. And it is: Bryan Ferry’s highly distinctive voice, flexible and partially decayed, moves a bit into Bolan territory at times here, but it’s no matter. The record is assembled with wit and imagination and those are commodities in short supply in these troubled times. There’s a kazoo-like flurry from the synthesizer – or it could even be a synthesizer-like flurry from the kazoo. Whichever it be it is a handsome row. The drumming throughout is urgent (that’s a reviewer’s word) in the Keith Moon Read the rest of this entry »

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Mark Richardson – “Pitchfork Interviews Brian Eno” (2010)

January 19, 2011 at 7:30 am (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

A November 1st, 2010 interview with the ever-fascinating Brian Eno, from the Pitchfork website…

Brian Eno’s impact on music over the past four decades can be easy to overlook because it reaches into so many different areas. As a solo artist, he essentially invented the idea of ambient music and changed the way that people thought about electronics. As a collaborator, he was a catalyst for brilliant work by Roxy Music, David Bowie, Cluster, Harmonia, Talking Heads, U2, and Coldplay. His dual role in experimental and popular music is without precedent, and his influence on the music scene as a whole is difficult to overstate.

In the past couple of years, we’ve been hearing about Eno mostly through his collaborative work. There was the fine 2008 album with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his work with Coldplay and U2, and the apps “Bloom” and “Trope”, created with designer Peter Chilvers, which allows you to create generative music on your iPhone. This year, the big news from the Eno front was a new solo album, an instrumental record called Small Craft on a Milk Sea, created in collaboration with keyboardist Read the rest of this entry »

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Brian Eno – “Small Craft on a Milk Sea” (2010)

November 20, 2010 at 8:26 pm (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Corey Beasley’s Nov. 1st, 2010 PopMatters review of the new Brian Eno album…

Finally, Warp Records and Brian Eno come together. These two names hold equal footing in the pantheon of electronic music, Eno having charted the way and the Warp Records roster picking up on his cues to continually push the genre forward in the past two decades. Crucially, neither Eno nor the folks at Warp ever seem comfortable merely repeating patterns of success. Eno’s music ranges from avant-garde pop to the surreally ambient (and he coined the term, let’s not forget), while Warp’s recent releases include works from math rock revivalists Battles and chamber pop heroes Grizzly Bear. Both Eno and his new home label find their creative fuel Read the rest of this entry »

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Brian Eno – “The Studio as Compositional Tool” (1983)

February 10, 2010 at 12:57 am (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Brian Eno’s famous essay, first given as a lecture in 1979, and then printed in Down Beat magazine in July and August of 1983…


Brian Eno delivered the following lecture during New Music New York, the first New Music America Festival sponsored in 1979 by the Kitchen. His remarks were amplified by demonstrations from his own recordings; here we’ve attempted to excerpt the general sense of his more specific points.

The first thing about recording is that it makes repeatable what was otherwise transient and ephemeral. Music, until about 1900, was an event that was perceived in a particular situation, and that disappeared when it was finished. There was no way of actually hearing that piece again, identically, and there was no way of knowing whether your perception was telling you it was different or whether it was different the second time you heard it. The piece disappeared when it was finished, so it was something that only existed in time.

The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension. As soon as you do that, you’re in a position of being able to listen again and again to a performance, to become familiar with details you most certainly had missed the first time through, and to become very fond of details that weren’t intended by the composer or the musicians.

The effect of this on the composer is that he can think in terms of supplying material that would actually be too subtle for a first listening. Around about the 1920s — or maybe that’s too early, perhaps around the ’30s — composers started thinking that their work was recordable, and they started making use of the special liberty of being recorded.

I think the first place this had a real effect was in jazz. Jazz is an improvised form, primarily, and the interesting thing about improvisations is that they become more interesting as you listen to them more times. What seemed like an almost arbitrary collision of events comes to seem very meaningful on relistening. Actually, almost any arbitrary collision of events listened to enough times comes to seem very meaningful. (There’s an interesting and useful bit of information for a composer, I can tell you.) I think recording created the jazz idiom, in a sense; jazz was, from 1925 onwards, a recorded medium, and from’35 onwards I guess — I’m not a jazz expert by any means — it was a medium that most people received via records. So they were listening to things that were once only improvisations for many hundreds of times, and they were hearing these details as being compositionally significant.

Now, let’s talk about another aspect of recording, which I call the detachable aspect. As soon as you record something, you make it available for any situation that has a record player. You take it out of the ambience and locale in which it was made, and it can be transposed into any situation. This morning I was listening to a Thai lady singing; I can hear the sound of the St. Sophia Church in Belgrade or Max’s Kansas City in my own apartment, and I can listen with a fair degree of conviction about what these sounds mean. As Marshall McLuhan said, it makes all music all present. So not only is the whole history of our music with us now, in some sense, on record, but the whole global musical culture is also available. That means that a composer is really in the position, if he listens to records a lot, of having a culture unbounded, both temporally and geographically, and therefore it’s not at all surprising that composers should have ceased writing in a European classical tradition, and have branched out into all sorts of other experiments. Of course, that’s not the only reason that they did, either.

So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone — like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc — all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

Initially tape recording was a single track, all the information contained and already mixed together on that one track. Then in the mid-’50s experiments were starting with stereo, which was not significantly different. The only difference was that you had two microphones pointing to your ensemble, and you had some impression of a real acousticsound came to you from two different sources as you listened. Then came threetrack recording; it allowed the option of adding another voice or putting a string section on, or something like that. Now this is a significant step, I think; it’s the first time it was acknowledged that the performance isn’t the finished item, and that the work can be added to in the control room, or in the studio itself. For the first time composers – almost always pop composers, as very few classical composers were thinking in this form — were thinking, “Well, this is the music. What can I do with it? I’ve got this extra facility of one track.” Tricky things start getting added. Then it went to four-track after that, and the usual layout for recording a band on four track at that time.

You should remember that everything, including the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was done on four-track until 1968. Normally engineers would do something like this: the drums on one track, the voices spread on two tracks with the guitars and the piano, say, on one of those tracks, and then the strings and additional effects on the fourth track. This was because they were thinking in terms of mono output; eventually, it would be mixed down to one signal again, to be played on radio or whatever. When stereo came in big, it gave them a problem. When they converted to stereo, things were put in either the middle, or dramatically to one side, or you’d hear some very idiosyncratic panning.

Anyway, after four-track it moved to eight track – this was in ’68, I guess — then very quickly escalated: eight-track till ’70, 16-track from’70 to’ 74, 24-track to now when you can easily work on 48-track, for instance, and there are such things as 64-track machines. The interesting thing is that after 16-track, I would say, the differences are differences of degree, not differences of kind. Because after you get to 16-track, you have far more tracks than you need to record a conventional rock band. Even if you spread the drums across six tracks, have the basson two, have the vocals, have the guitars, you’ve still got six tracks left. People started to think, “What shall we do with those six tracks?”

From that impulse two things happened: you got an additive approach to recording, the idea that composition is the process of adding more, which was very common in early ’70s rock (this gave rise to the well known and gladly departed orchestral rock tradition, and it also gave rise to heavy metal music — that sound can’t be got on simpler equipment); it also gave rise to the particular area that I’m involved in: in-studio composition, where you no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing at all. I often start working with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you’re not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of it, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you’re left with — actually constructing a piece in the studio.

In a compositional sense this takes the making of music away from any traditional way that composers worked, as far as I’m concerned, and one becomes empirical in a way that the classical composer never was. You’re working directly with sound, and there’s no transmission loss between you and the sound — you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter — he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc.

Compare that to the transmission intervals in a classical sequence: the composer writes a piece of music in a language that might not be adequate to his ideas — he has to say this note or this one, when he might mean this one just in between, or nearly this one here. He has to specify things in terms of a number of available instruments. He has to, in fact, use a language that, like all languages, will shape what he wants to do. Of course, any good composer understands that and works within that framework of limitations. Finally he has something on the page, and by a process this arrives at a conductor. The conductor looks at that, and if he isn’t in contact with the composer, his job is to make an interpretation of it on the basis of what he thinks the composer meant, or whatever it is he’d like to do. There’s very likely another transmission loss here — there won’t be an identity between what he supposes and what the composer supposes. Then the conductor has the job of getting a group of probably intransigent musicians to follow his instructions, to realize this image of the music he has. Those of you who work with classical musicians know what a dreadful task this is, not to be wished on anyone.

So they come up with something. One can see there’s not necessarily an identity between what the composer — or the conductor — thought, and what they did, so that’s three transmission losses. I’d argue there is another one in the performance of the piece: since you’re not making a record, you’re not working in terms of a controlled acoustic, and you’re not working in a medium that is quite so predictable as a record. If I make a record, I assume it’s going to be the same every time it’s played. So I think there is a difference in kind between the kind of composition I do and the kind a classical composer does. This is evidenced by the fact that I can neither read nor write music, and I can’t play any instruments really well, either. You can’t imagine a situation prior to this where anyone like me could have been a composer. It couldn’t have happened. How could I do it without tape and without technology?

One thing I said about the traditional composer was that he worked with a finite set of possibilities; that is, he knew what an orchestra was composed of, and what those things sounded like, within a range. If you carry on the painting analogy, it’s like he was working with a palette, with a number of colors which were and weren’t mixable. Of course, you can mix clarinets and strings to get different sounds, but you’re still dealing with a range that extends from here to here. It’s nothing like the range of sounds that’s possible once electronics enter the picture. The composer was also dealing with a finite set of relationships between sounds; the instruments are only so loud, and that’s what you’re dealing with, unless you stick one out in a field and one up close to your ear. It was out of the question that he could use something, for example, as the Beach Boys once did — making the sound of someone chewing celery the loudest thing on a track.

Of course, everyone is constrained in one way or another, and you work within your constraints. It doesn’t mean that suddenly the world is open, and we’re going to do much better music, because we’re not constrained in certain ways. We’re going to do different music because we’re not constrained in certain ways we operate under a different set of constraints. I want to explain how multitrack technology works, not electronically, but how it works in spirit. On a 24-track tape recorder you have two-inch tape — it’s that wide — on two big, heavy reels. You have 24 record heads, 24 playback heads. If you want to record a band, you can put one microphone on the bass drum, one microphone on the snare drum, one microphone — on the drummer’s knee-joint if you like — you can separate things very carefully. You can end up with this two-inch piece of tape with 24 distinct signals, and once you’re in this position, you have considerable freedom as to what you can do with each of these sounds.

You can do what the classical composer couldn’t: you can infinitely extend the timbre of any instrument. You are also in the position of being able to subtract or add with discrimination: you can put an echo on the bass drum and not on anything else. The 24-track tape works to separate things off, and keeps them separate until you feed the whole thing back through a mixing head, and you mix it all in some manner of your choice. The mixer is really the central part of the studio.

Most people see a large mixer, and they’re completely bewildered because there are something like 800 or 900 knobs on it. Actually it’s not so complex as it looks – it’s the same thing repeated many times. Since you’re dealing with 24 tracks, everything has to be multiplied by 24; it’s not a very complex system. Each track from the tape recorder plays back on one channel of the mixer. Each individual channel has a whole set of controls that duplicate the other channels; that’s all.

Each channel on the mixer is a long strip. Generally at the bottom is a level control, for how loud you want that channel to play back. Next up, normally, there’s a pan control, for where you want the sound object in the stereo/quad image. Next up is an echo control, and echo is really a separate issue, which has to do with something very unique to recording: briefly, it enables you to locate something in an artifical acoustic space. There’s also equalization — a device by which you can create a timbral change in an instrument, which in rock music is especially important, because many different rock records, in my opinion, are predicated not on a structure, or a melodic line, or a rhythm, but on a sound; this is why studios and producers keep putting their names on records, because they have a lot to do with that aspect of the work. Apart from equalization, there are other facilities which are widely used, such as limiting, compression — which has the effect of altering the envelope of a note or an instrument, so you can do something I’ve been interested in, creating hybrid instruments.

Compression is quite interesting over a whole track; if you’re using severe compression and limiting at the same time, when you push one instrument up, the track is governed so that the overall level will never change. Pushing one instrument up effectively pushes the others down, so all you do is alter the ratio between the instruments where you make a move. I started to use this as a deliberate, compositional, sound-type device; it’s generally been ignored or regarded as a misuse of the equipment before, but I’ll let you judge for yourself. On “Helen Thormdale” from the No New York album (Antilles), I put an echo on the guitar part’s click, and used that to trigger the compression on the whole track, so it sounds like helicopter blades.

Naturally, all of these things are variable throughout the entire course of the music. These are the kinds of things that you, as a listener, don’t generally notice; some of them operate almost subliminally — they are the ambiance of a track, not the obvious aspects of the track. Those are very much the things that traditional production is concerned with. And they allow you to rearrange the priorities of the music in a large number of ways.

We’ve spoken of the transition from the ’50s concept of music to the contemporary concept of mixing. If you listen to records from the ’50s, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud — your first impression of the piece is of melody — and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly. The bass is indistinct, and the bass is only playing the root note of the chord in most cases, adding some resonance. As time goes on you’ll find this spectrum, which was very wide, with vocals way up there and the bass drum way down there, beginning to compress, until at the beginning of funk it is very narrow, indeed. Things are all about equally loud.

Then, from the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album, there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix. A timbral change also takes place. The bass becomes a very defined instrument; by the use of amplitude control filters, the bass actually begins to take on a very vocal attack. The bass drum gains a more physical sound, and also has a click to it; generally you’ll find that bass drums are equalized very heavily, something like 1000-1500 cycles, to give a real sharp click. It becomes the loudest instrument in disco — watch the vu meter while a disco track is playing, and you’ll see the needle peak each time the bass drum hits.

Okay. I’ve been talking about some of the possibilities of multi-track recording, which is almost completely what I do. I don’t really have a musical identity outside of studios. Now I’m going to discuss some pieces of mine, because I know how they were made, production-wise, and I can say with confidence how they were built.

Starting with R.A.F, a very obscure B-side of an even more obscure single that came out in ’78 — it’s an interesting piece on a lot of levels. It’s by me and a band called Snatch. This piece started off many years ago; it was just a tatty little tape left over from a mess – around we’d had in the studio which lasted 35 seconds. But that 35 seconds was quite interesting — after that it deteriorated into jamming — but I always kept in mind that I was going to do something with that piece, sometime. I have about 700 pieces like that. Judy Nieland of Snatch suggested doing a reportage piece on the Baader Meinhoff terrorists, and I remembered this piece and pulled it out.

The first thing I had to do was extend it somehow, so I copied the 24-track onto another 24-track machine, four or five times, and I pieced them together, so I had the thing song-length by then. And you’ll hear, in a cleverly disguised fashion, exactly the same parts repeated. Which makes you think that Percy Jones of Brand X is an incredible bass player, because he does every complex, idiosyncratic thing three our four times in a row. That’s a trick I like using.

We had a recording Judy made in Germany of the telephone announcement you could call, where a lady would say, “Good evening, blah blah blah, we’re trying to apprehend the Baader Meinhoff terrorists, this is a recording of one of their voices,” and then the terrorist’s voice would come on, which had been recorded off another telephone when they were making ransom demands. The scenario of this piece was interesting, production-wise, because some of the record is set outside, on the streets, then it suddenly cuts to an airplane which is being hijacked. I wanted to get the effect of going from a very hectic, open space into a very tight, air-conditioned airplane. What I did to achieve that was take all the echo off of everything, and put a very peculiar, tunnel-type echo on things. To me, it works: I get this sense of a contraction of space, and the soft voices working over it. After that it’goes back outside, into the wide world again.

There are two pieces of mine, “Skysaw” from Another Green World, and “A Major Groove” from Music for Films (both Editions EG), which are exactly the same track, mixed differently, slowed down, and fiddled about with a bit. I also gave it to Ultravox for one of the songs on their first album. It’s been a long way, this backing track. Listen to all three, and you hear what kind of range of difference usage is possible. “M386” on Music for Films is another one that’s had four different lives. This is actually quite similar to what reggae producers have been doing for a while. Once you’re on tape, there are so many variations you can make that you don’t really.need to spend all that money hiring musicians; you can do a great deal with one piece of work. So when you buy a reggae record, there’s a 90 percent chance the drummer is Sly Dunbar. You get the impression that Sly Dunbar is chained to a studio seat somewhere in Jamaica, but in fact what happens is that his drum tracks are so interesting, they get used again and again.

This takes us to reggae, which is a very interesting music in that it’s the first that didn’t base itself around the standard approach of making work by addition. Earlier I said the contemporary studio composer is like a painter who puts things on, puts things together, tries things out, and erases them. The condition of the reggae composer is like that of the sculptor, I think. Five or six musicians play; they’re well isolated from one another. Then the thing they played, which you can regard as a kind of cube of music, is hacked away at — things are taken out, for long periods.

A guitar will appear for two strums, then never appear again; the bass will suddenly drop out, and an interesting space is created. Reggae composers have created a sense of dimension in the music, by very clever, unconventional use of echo, by leaving out instruments, and by the very open rhythmic structure of the music. Then, too, someone like Lee Perry, a producer who’s always been very intelligent as far as using the constraints of the situation goes, might find there’s hiss building up on tracks he’s used over and over. A Western engineer might get frightened by this, and use all sorts of noise reduction and filtration. Perry says, “Okay, that’s part of the sound, so we’ll just add something else to it and use it’ ” This adds an ambiance of weirdness behind what was straightforward reggae.

Which puts me in mind of the first piece on Music for Airports (Editions EG). I had four musicians in the studio, and we were doing some improvising exercises that I’d suggested. I couldn’t hear the musicians very well at the time, and I’m sure they couldn’t hear each other, but listening back, later, I found this very short section of tape where two pianos, unbeknownst to each other, played melodic lines that interlocked in an interesting way. To make a piece of music out of it, I cut that part out, made a stereo loop on the 24-track, then I discovered I liked it best at half speed, so the instruments sounded very soft, and the whole movement was very slow. I didn’t want the bass and guitar — they weren’t necessary for the piece — but there was a bit of Fred Frith’s guitar breaking through the acoustic piano mic, a kind of scrape I couldn’t get rid of. Usually I like Fred’s scrapes a lot, but this wasn’t in keeping, so I had to find a way of dealing with that scrape, and I had the idea of putting in variable orchestration each time the loop repeated. You only hear Fred’s scrape the first time the loop goes around.

There are other examples of things I do with loops and editing based on fairly simple material, to get singular, very rare events I couldn’t have forseen. But perhaps I should mention that you only have control of your studio composition to the pressing plant — then the reproduction is completely arbitrary. So when I mix a record, I mix on at least two speaker systems — and often more than two — so I’m not mixing just for optimum conditions. Most of my records don’t sound good in optimum conditions, where there are very large speakers which are extremely well balanced and have lots of high and low frequencies. I mix, really, for what I imagine most people have medium-priced hi-fi — and for radio a bit as well. It’s the very naive producer who works only on optimum systems.

Brian Eno

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Roxy Music – “Ladytron” (TV – 1972)

February 9, 2010 at 4:13 pm (Brian Eno, Music)

Taken from The Old Grey Whistle Test. Check out Brian Eno, the mad genius scientist.. 

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(Various Artists) – “No New York” (1978)

February 3, 2010 at 12:13 am (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

The 1978 “no wave” compilation produced by none other than Brian Eno. This review comes from Richard C. Walls from Creem magazine, April 1979…


Welcome to the unwave. I haven’t heard so much ferociously avant-garde and aggressively ugly music since Albert Ayler puked all over my brain back in — what? — 64. And like Ayler, who started at the end of his development and then started working his way backward (and eventually jumped into the Hudson River for a permanent swim), this music has no future. But it does have a vindictive present. It’s a nihilistic burnt-out last blast of mangled energy that scours the spirit. Its cleansing power that is unreal — spend a few hours with this record and then everything sounds different.

The spirit scourers are four New York underground rock groups — Contortions, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A. — each represented by four selections. The lyrics of each song are textbook surrealistic (yes, there’s a lyric sheet, printed in late Beckett blocked paragraphs, and for some reason they’re on the inside of the record sleeve so you have to rip the sleeve apart to get at em) and the music of each group falls somewhere between Velvet Underground electric and Loft Jazz sound and silence seminars. But the lyrics (almost all of ’em unintelligible without the lyric sheet) and the music (with its avant-garde conventions) ain’t where the excitement lies on this album. It’s the uses of voice which give the record its apocalyptic ambiance and each group its individual face.

And a bizarre collection of faces they are. Contortions is fronted by James Chance, whose vocals are unrelentingly jacked up to shouting level, the words of his exhortation lost in his open-throated approach. The effect is numbing. The trio of Jerks are led by Lydia Lunch who plays a droning lead guitar and favors a whooping (as in whoo-OOPA) vocal inflection. Listening to her is about as pleasant as being kicked in the stomach. Mars has your typical Martian chipmunks suspended in jelly sound while D.N.A., the most conservative of the four, is somewhat reminiscent of Eno, who produced the album. It all amounts to a solid statement of no-ness which shakes the listener’s complacency and (this is important) gives you something new to think about. Still…what do they do for an encore?

If you’re intrepid enough to want to hear this stuff (a friend, 3/4 into the first side, complained that the music was painful — she wasn’t referring to any abstract reaction, she was grimacing), be advised that Antilles is a division of Island Records, which ain’t exactly Transamerica Corp. You’ll probably have to make a little effort to procure it, because there’s no way it’s going to come to you.

Richard C. Walls

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Matthew Weiner – “Brian Eno and the Ambient Series: 1978-1982” (2004)

October 27, 2009 at 9:27 pm (Brian Eno, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from Stylus magazine, Sept. 27, 2004, this article explores in depth Brian Eno’s Ambient recordins from the late-70s, early-80s. Interesting article although I disagree strongly with his assessment of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (yes, it was controversial but it was still an amazing recording, and very much ahead of its time). I also disagree with views on Bill Laswell and his Celluloid imprint. Other than that, a very good article…


Much has been written about Eno’s pioneering Ambient Music—music “as ignorable as it is interesting.” But what was the pop egghead going for with his four-record ambient series? And was its legacy anything more than wanker chill-out records? More than a quarter-century since Music for Airports’ release, Matthew Weiner and Todd Burns put on their headphones and try to find out…

Question: What is a boring question?
Eno: One to which you know the answer.
Paul Morley’s liner notes to Eno Box II, 1993

For Brian Eno, the easy route simply couldn’t be trusted. It wasn’t so much that he was a masochist who liked to make things hard on himself as it was a mistrust, disdain even, for the obvious—according to his own mother, young Brian was “always looking for something different,” bored silly by everything else. And from hours spent as a young man messing with recordings of static on cassette players to his tenure with the willfully-amateur Portsmouth Sinfonia to his first gig as a feather boa-clad synthesizer provocateur with proto-glam outfit Roxy Music, the waifish, prematurely balding former art student relished the different, letting it guide his professional career.

Leaving Roxy after only two albums in the early 1970s, Eno proclaimed himself a “non-musician,” releasing a pair of quirky pop records on his own before unleashing Another Green World in 1975, a mysterious and ethereal long-player that arrived just as the music industry was collapsing in on itself—a victim of its own corporate bloat. Ironically, the record’s buzz transformed Eno into the industry’s hottest commodity, leading to production and collaborative offers from pop’s leading luminaries, with David Bowie only the most famous.

Logging an ever-increasing number of hours in the studio as he produced, wrote and experimented with recorded sound, Eno would devise ways to inspire himself and his collaborators. He found ways to “treat” acoustic sounds electronically, to give them a distinctive sheen. He devised the Oblique Strategies card set, a series of I Ching-derived aphorisms that guided the musician through the doldrums of the recording process. And he started the Obscure label, for which he could release and produce works by non-pop experimental artists like Gavin Bryars and Harold Budd. In almost every respect—whether it was his creative methods, his attitudes about marketing or his business practices—Eno was subverting the music industry—challenging it to be more interesting, stimulating and provocative.

For all his innovations and contributions to the working methods of pop, it was a series of four, coffee table-like records with which Eno would make his most profound mark. Over a period of three years, his once-frantic music had grown progressively quieter, more textural and somnolent, as if the compositional process had become one of elimination—a highly unconventional precept for pop in the Seventies. But the moment “1/1”’s round electric piano tones opened 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Eno introduced to pop listeners an idea even more radical: that background music could not only be challenging if one so chose to listen to it, but it could also be of serious artistic consequence. To differentiate his work from Muzak, he called it, simply: “Ambient Music.”

In championing music you didn’t even need to pay much attention to—that was, as he famously put it in Airports’ liner notes, “as ignorable as it is interesting”—Eno was laying down a gauntlet of sorts by challenging the one thing The Beatles, Motown and the rest of the Sixties pop royalty had agreed upon: that music mattered—that they were aspiring to something important. In western music, such aspirations went back as far as Bach, who composed for the glory of God Himself—a pretension, of course, that Cage had punctured with his infamous ode to nothingness, “4’33.” But by proposing this notion not to academic eggheads but a pop audience in 1978 (then infatuated with the likes of Debbie Boone) that music was no more important than its surrounding environment—well, that was crazy talk.

As if to prove his point, Eno would undertake a similarly designed, sequentially-numbered, four record Ambient Series that studied the concept intensely—Music for Airports, Plateaux of Mirror (1980, with Harold Budd), Day of Radiance (1981, with Laraaji) and On Land (1982). While Airports’ may have sold nearly a quarter-million copies, with his findings on those records ultimately forming a critical template for much of today’s modern pop (his work with Bowie and U2 being but the most obvious), Eno himself rarely speaks about the Budd and Laraaji records in any detail, much less of his specific intentions for the series itself. As such, Ambient’s legacy remains largely misrepresented, leaving the series that started it all remarkably, if you’ll pardon the expression, obscure.

More than twenty-five years later, myths persist and questions remain—and they’re by no means boring.

Airport Access-Roads: Frippery, Discreet Music, and Another Green World

Like everything with Eno, it began with collaboration. Roxy honcho Bryan Ferry had introduced his foil to King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp sometime in the early 1970s, and in 1972, the pair undertook their first effort together. Eno was anxious to use the collaboration to tap into his fascination with technology, in particular, how it could create things that did not exist in nature. For the recording that would later be released as No Pussyfooting, Eno would devise a system of two interlocking Revox tape decks that could repeat the incoming signal almost indefinitely; on tracks such as “The Heavenly Music Corporation,” Fripp spun sometimes-dazzling improvisations that lasted upwards near 20 minutes, ebbing and flowing as the pair built up layers of guitars, resulting in an impressive wash of electronic sound. Though perhaps a bit unaffecting, Pussyfooting was, by Eno’s measure anyway, a success.

But it was another three years and one infamous hospital visit later before the experiment began to pay dividends artistically for Eno. The story of Eno being struck by a cab in 1975, lying bedridden and immobile as a record of harp music played at barely-audible levels has been recounted several times over the years. The experience of listening to music as background created for Eno, “a new way of hearing music.”

And the results were immediate. By year’s end, Eno had released two records that would form two distinct components of the Ambient template. The first was Another Green World, ten tracks that were closer to brief instrumental sketches than the pop songs on which had made his name to that point. Not only was the self-proclaimed “sub-Bowie” leaving behind vocals for much of Green World, even more radically, there was little-to-no sense of linear development in many of the tracks; in fact, several sounded as if their length was arbitrary, or, as he put it, “just a chunk out of a larger continuum.”

Discreet Music (released a month after Green World on Obscure) was an altogether different beast, though it did share its predecessor’s somnambulant tones. Employing the Revox tape system he’d devised with Fripp, the 31-minute title track (“the longest I could get on record at the time”) created the illusion of direction, with gentle, synthesized flute loops piling on top of one another. But where Pussyfooting created a sense of (somewhat muted) harmonic development, on “Discreet Music,” that development begins from nothing but leads to nowhere. This was partly due to Eno’s limited choice in notes; where Fripp shifted modes during the songs’ duration by one writer’s account three times, often venturing outside those even, here Eno employs but six notes, chosen and positioned carefully so as not to create any sense of “groundedness.” Combined with Eno’s emphasis on equalization to subtly adjust the sonic timbre, the result is a sustained mood, but one that never quite resolves itself.

Both records advanced the idea of Ambient considerably. Eno would call a few of his later ambient records “the purest expressions of what I thought ambient music should be: endless, relatively unchanging moods.” A couple years and one last pop record later, he would pursue that ideal with a radical, unflinching vengeance.

Transit Soundtracks and “Serious Music: Music for Airports

In retrospect, Discreet Music and the Another Green World had made it increasingly clear that Eno was falling out of love with the song as a means of expression. Not that he’d abandoned pop; over the next 36 months, Eno would collaborate with German group Cluster; produced albums for Ultravox, Devo, the Talking Heads and David Bowie as well as recording his fourth and final pop album, the masterful (and not a little ambient) Before and After Science. But with the release of 1978’s entirely instrumental Music for Films (assembled largely out of Science outtakes), his interest in pop, insofar that it was anything more than a reliable paycheck that kept him constantly in the studio, was in obvious decline.

When Eno wasn’t in the studio, he could often be found flying to one, often across the Atlantic. Languishing one day in a Cologne airport in 1978, Eno found himself appalled by the “nervous” and “tingly” music being piped in through the PA. Doing little to put him at ease, he wondered what music might best replace it, realizing it would have to be something that could withstand constant interruption and mishearing. For the increasingly frazzled producer, preferably something calm and uplifting.

The Cologne episode arrived at a time when Eno was becoming increasingly aware of the effects music had on an audience’s mood. He was fascinated with how people in the Seventies were beginning to make choices about what they played in their homes and places of business based on “stillness, homogeneity [and] lack of variety.” To that point, such music had been the dreaded Muzak—as he put it in his next release’s sleeve notes: “familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner.” But what Eno was envisioning wouldn’t be finding its way into dentists’ offices, not anytime soon anyway. Rather, he hoped to placate the potential airport dweller into a calm state that would accurately represent the wonderment of being propelled into flight—an antidote to the disturbing, intrusive noise he endured in the Cologne airport. Music for Airports—it virtually titled itself.

Instead of “regulating” environments, as Muzak did by conforming them to one particular standard, Ambient music could enhance them, weaving in and out of the listener’s consciousness, as suitable for close examination as it was unconscious listening. Discreet Music had, by and large, functioned this way. But where that record had used equalization to draw out hidden melodies and textures, on Music for Airports, the technique was also used to enhance the low bass and high treble frequencies to allow airport patrons to carry on their conversations at normal volumes. This new music would be customized.

The idea of stretching music’s purpose beyond pure “enlightenment” had been kicking around for years in Eno’s head, as had different methods of creating it. Such notions had begun when he was still in school; where his pop music had been most obviously influenced by Sixties royalty—The Velvet Underground, The Beatles and so forth—Eno had long drawn on his years in art-school for many of his ideas. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the future “non-musician” had, in fact, studied avant-garde composition. It was in college that Eno was first exposed to “serious” composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, whose minimalist tape-loop piece, “It’s Gonna Rain,” showed the young student that “variety [could] be generated by very, very simple systems.” There, he had performed La Monte Young’s “X for Henry Flynt,” where the performer is instructed to produce an “unspecified sound over and over for an unspecified interval of time.” In fact, in his very first public performance in 1967, Eno performed the “Flynt” for an hour, pounding piano clusters with his elbow, realizing how the slightest variance was magnified by reiteration. It would later inform one of the most cherished axioms in his Oblique Strategies set: “Repetition is a form of change.”

Though the ideas of Young, Reich and Riley had certainly contributed to No Pussyfooting and Discreet Music, it was Music for Airports on which Eno would debut a systematic approach to composition that consciously mimicked the composers’ methods. One track, “1/2,” was composed of 22 tape loops of varying lengths, set to run in the studio for the duration of the piece. The tape loops, each of a length between 50 and 70 feet, essentially composed the track for Eno as he stood by and recorded the results. By virtue of constructing the tape loops beforehand, he had a general idea of what the result would ultimately sound like, at the same time allowing chance to enter into the picture as well. Though the academic establishment might not have approved of Eno deleting one stray piano note which didn’t quite sound right (he was a pop musician, after all), it didn’t change the fact that “1/2” and the rest of Airports were easily among the most avant-garde creations in pop to date—and barring perhaps only The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” probably its most widely disseminated, ultimately selling a quarter-million copies.

Despite its commercial success, five years of near- unanimous critical adulation came to a crashing end with Music for Airports, with more than one past champion calling his new ideas “unoriginal” and the resultant music “a bore.” In fairness, they weren’t wrong on either count; for the first time, Eno was wearing his pretensions on his sleeve (literally, considering Airport’s dry liner essay). Musically, the record was equally arid—overlong, brutally repetitive, much of it sounding like the cutting-room floor scraps from a rejected Paul Bley ECM release. Only album-closer “2/2,” with its synthesized saw wave trumpets lapping at one another, did Eno achieve his goal of creating music as interesting as it was ignorable.

Still, possibly for the novelty of it all, Music for Airports was ultimately piped into New York’s LaGuardia airport for a spell during 1980. And the record’s real achievement was considerable. For all its theoretical unoriginality, Airports represented the most fully realized appropriation yet of avant-garde sensibilities and methods by a pop musician—a fact that did not go unnoticed (consciously or otherwise) by other pop musicians, particularly those looking to make their own mark in punk’s wake during 1978.

In any event, Ambient 1: Music for Airports was but the first in a series. “My intention,” Eno wrote in the record’s liner notes, his nose presumably facing north, “is to produce original pieces ostensibly (but not exclusively) for particular times and situations with a view to building up a small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres.” He would soon discover prescribed forums for listening were somewhat impractical to the casual listener who, it should be remembered, remained his target audience. And so Eno’s idea of Ambient would transform once again, this time from soundtracks for specific places to imagined ones—inarguably, a much better fit for his conception of the genre. Once more, he realized that being a pop musician traveling in academic circles had its advantages.

The Plateaux of Mirror / Day of Radiance: “Eternally Pretty Music,” New Age, and Imprints

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, 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 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.

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 30- or 40-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.

On Land, Fourth World, and Imagination on Tape

“We were making music to swim in, to float in, to get lost inside.”

At the dawn of the Eighties, Brian Eno’s prevailing interests were no longer western, much less pop. Ironically, 1980 had been the high-water mark of Eno’s pop production career to that point; the year had seen the release of such exotic masterpieces as Talking Heads’ seminal Afro-funk appropriation, Remain in Light, and the producer’s critically hailed “Fourth World” collaboration with avant trumpeter, Jon Hassell, which presented an imaginary electro-acoustic landscape suggestive of foreign cultures unknown to western ears. The hard work paid off; although utterly bored by pop’s “progressively insular” tendencies, Eno found himself the toast of the critical cognoscenti.

Such recognition did not come without its price, however. A year before the success of Remain in Light would elevate Talking Heads to a place among pop’s elite, Hassell (then a struggling composer in Soho’s ultra-hip loft scene) had turned Eno and head Head David Byrne on to African and world musics with recordings from the French Ocara label. They inspired an idea: “fake ethnic music.” That it might already have been explored by The Residents’ on their Eskimo and on Can’s Ethnological Forgery Series didn’t seem to faze them; as such, the project went ahead as planned and plans were drawn up for the trio to record somewhere out in the California desert. But while Hassell was waiting back in New York for the call to fly out and add his parts, little did he know that Eno and Byrne had gone ahead with the project without him. When he eventually heard the results, the trumpeter was aghast at what he perceived to be an obvious theft of his Fourth World concept: “found sounds” like tapes of evangelists, radio call-in shows and Lebanese mountain singers—worst of all—set to a chattering funk beat. He dismissed the whole matter as two egos out of control, saying “I imagine it went something like, ‘We’re rich and famous…we can get away with it, so we’ll do it.”

And Hassell wasn’t alone in his disgust. The estate of evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman forbade Eno and Byrne from using her voice, forcing them to re-record one track; the pair’s English distributor insisted the pair drop another from the record’s UK release due to the inclusion of a potentially blasphemous recording of Muslims chanting the Koran. Though in truth a prescient example of hip-hop sound splicing, all the legal scrambling (and perhaps a bit of karma) forced the release of the record, by now titled My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, back almost two years to 1981.

All was not lost, however. In preparing the record, Eno had traveled to Ghana with a stereo microphone and tape recorder in tow, with the intention to record indigenous music and speech patterns. Eno would later write, in a moment of clarity that recalls the hospital visit in 1975 that produced Discreet Music:

What I sometimes found myself doing instead was sitting out on the patio in the evenings with the microphone placed to pick up the widest possible catchment of ambient sounds from all directions, and listening to the result on my headphones. The effect of this simple technological system was to cluster all the disparate sounds into one aural frame; they became music.

Of course, the context for those sounds in the final product was important. “If you take a photograph of something, you don’t take a photograph of everything you can see,” he would later tell Modern Recording & Music. “You make a selection and you put a frame on it. When you frame something, you do something very distinct to it—you separate it from the rest of the world and you say, ‘This deserves special attention.’” Listening to the wide stereo spectrum of nature recordings also encouraged his efforts to create what he would later call “virtual spaces.” Where the trend in pop recordings in the late-1970s had been towards producing artists in audio verité—that is, exactly as they would sound in person—Eno was taking exactly the opposite tack, fashioning sound spaces that did not, and sometimes simply could not, exist in nature.

And perhaps the charges of cultural imperialism directed at Byrne and him over Bush of Ghosts weren’t so draining after all. In weathering them, Eno came to recognize, perhaps unconsciously, that regardless of the enormous power the recording studio offered, the issue wasn’t so much whether it was “right” or “wrong” to separate sounds from their natural contexts—rather, it was that separating the two just wasn’t always possible. Armed with those twin notions—that one could “listen to the world in a musical way” and that sounds were imbued with innate meaning—Eno would set about working on the fourth and final in the Ambient Series proper, Ambient 4: On Land.

The result sounded nothing like its predecessors in the series. Gone were the glacial piano melodies of Music for Airports and Plateaux of Mirror; in their place were virtual ecosystems: murky drones and ambient noises like frog croaks, rattling chains and bells. Spurts of melody would bubble to the surface but only occasionally – and then usually courtesy of bassist (and future Ambient impresario) Bill Laswell and Jon Hassell, whose whirring, buzzing trumpet makes a delightfully creepy guest appearance on “Shadow.” Laswell would later tell writer/composer David Toop of the experience helping Eno in the studio one summer in New York: “We would go to Canal Street and we’d buy junk—those hoses you twirl around—and gravel, put it in a box and put reverb on it. All these weird things to make sounds. We’d be in this bathroom with these overhead mikes, making sounds for days.”

By immersing himself in sound, he was also abandoning the last links to linearity in his music – in truth, one of Eno’s goals for Ambient at least as far back as Discreet Music. But Music for Airports had proven how difficult that was to achieve. Melody was a horizontal creation—one note following another. And regardless of how many times a melody was repeated (and Airports’ “1/1” certainly repeated its melody many, many times), its essential horizontality would never change—Oblique Strategies axioms be damned.

Harmony, of course, was another story—though in the case of On Land, Eno wasn’t so much stacking harmonic intervals as he was sounds. By weaving dense sonic tapestries that appeared static from afar but upon closer inspection were in a constant state of microscopic transformation, Eno was essentially forcing the audience to examine the broader soundscape—to pay attention not to horizontal development (one moment to the next) but to what writer Eric Tamm would refer to as the “vertical color of sound.”

Such intricate and sophisticated sound environments also allowed Eno to create an unprecedented sense of place in his music. Since 1978’s Music for Films, he had been naming compositions after locales recalled from his youth in England, often set to poignant, bittersweet music on piano and synthesizer. But with tracks like “Lizard Point,” “Lantern Marsh” and the languid “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960,” the music itself began to specifically reproduce the sound and feel of their titular inspirations—or so Eno imagined. In the pamphlet that accompanied the 1986 reissue of On Land, Eno recalled the effect Fellini’s 1974 film, Amarcord had on his thinking—how he was inspired by the film’s unfaithful reconstruction of childhood moments to embark on an exploration of the “inaccuracies of memory,” creating what he told Musician was a “slightly thrilling sense that you’re almost in some other time, not quite in touch with the present.” And so while places like the real Lantern Marsh could be found near his childhood home, their musical renditions derived not from visiting them but rather spotting them on a map and “imagining where and what [they] might be.”

It was a bold idea. Running musical interpretations of half-memories and associations through echo effects, synthesizers and 70-second reverbs, Eno was turning the Bush of Ghosts controversy regarding the propriety of sound on its head, in essence, committing his memory of childhood to tape. It amounted to what Mark Richardson would later call “an exploration of a psychic landscape”—the sound of nighttime as a child “with the covers pulled over [your] head.”

On Land would prove one of Eno’s most sophisticated and mature releases—and a tidy summary of everything he had been working towards for half a decade. As such, it would also prove an ending of sorts for him and his Ambient Records series—if not his commitment to Ambient music. Given that he would release more than a dozen records that could be classified as ambient over the next two decades, Eno’s interest in Ambient as a genre was far from on the wane—if anything, it was just taking hold. The public? Well, that was another matter.

An Ending: Ambient, Pop, and Eno After the Ambient Series

“I like having ideas but I’m not particularly keen on flogging them to death.”
With On Land quickly (and somewhat obviously) regarded as the highlight of the Ambient Series, Eno saw little reason to continue it as such. In the years immediately following, though, he would release a steady stream of Ambient records before dipping his toe delicately back into pop with 1990’s Wrong Way Up. In that time he would release: 1983’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and Music for Films Vol. 2 (released as part of the Working Backwards 1983-1973 box), 1984’s The Pearl, 1985’s Thursday Afternoon, and Music for Films Vol. 3.

It was easy to see why Eno had called the series to an end. Where each series record proper had staked out utterly new ground musically, compositionally and stylistically, much of his subsequent output was less concerned with innovation than it was refinement. The Pearl, in particular, proved a significant improvement over his previous collaboration with Harold Budd, Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror. Apollo conjured the appropriate level of drift in Ambient, though it was perhaps a touch too melodic in the wake of the hyper-alien worlds of On Land. And the two Music for Films records were, like the first volume, Ambient-ish, if perhaps a touch too teleological (and again, melodic) to be considered the real McCoy. In any event, there’s a sense with Eno that film music doesn’t quite qualify as “Ambient” per se, dependent as it is on its sister medium to grasp fully.

In many respects, the sixty-one minute Thursday Afternoon rolled the entire Ambient Series into one. As Mark Richardson pointed out, he returned (and not for the last time) to the tape-loop process music that spawned Discreet Music and Music for Airports. The soundworlds of Plateaux and Radiance are conjured with the track’s aimless piano chords, synth pads, organ swells, and relentlessly pleasant G-major pedal. Yet with bits of white noise weaving in and out of the mix and Eno’s constant manipulation of the piano in the stereo soundfield, there is little doubt that he could have made Thursday Afternoon prior to On Land.

Eno had said everything about his musical heritage on Music for Airports and his personal heritage with On Land, with the intervening records providing something of a gateway between the two. With the series, he created a template for others—what Paul Morley called “a platform upon which fantastic lies can grow.” For the time being, however, such lies would be of the “white” variety—that is to say, pleasant but not all that extraordinary.

Dance, Drugs, and the “Godfather” of Ambient

Leave it to the club-goers to bring a good idea to the masses. In the late 1980’s, Paul Oakenfold recruited former Killing Joke roadie Alex Patterson to DJ at his London club, Heaven. There, the one-time A&R man for Eno’s EG label quickly made his reputation in the club’s “chill-out room,” layering the likes of Eno and early Tangerine Dream records with samples of other songs and NASA recordings—all underpinned by thick and soft beats. It was a mind-numbingly simple formula, but for “Dr.” Alex Patterson, as he came to call himself, it was all about providing a soothing agent to ravers slowly coming down off their ecstasy-induced highs. Spawning a partnership with KLF/Justified Ancients of MuMu star, Jimy Cauty as The Orb, Patterson would fashion what the press release for their debut billed as “ambient house for the E Generation.”

And like that, the ultra-modern genre was off and running—for about five years. Bringing along prog rock refuge, Steve Hillage, and the dub-wise Jah Wobble, The Orb’s “Blue Room” represented the apex of ambient house in 1992. And for all its musical and aesthetic crudeness, Eno himself must have approved: at 40-minutes, the song was the longest track in British chart history to enter the Top Ten. Further, it spawned a legendary avant-garde Top of the Pops performance where Patterson and Hillage played 3D chess while video footage of dolphins and an edit of the track was projected in the background. Alas, two years and umpteen Orb collaborators later, Patterson’s innovations had run their course, ending in a haze of marijuana smoke and discarded instructional records. But they had certainly made a mark.

One person who was keeping an eye on Patterson was former Eno collaborator and super-producer, Bill Laswell. Like Eno, he had started his own label in the 80’s, Celluloid, on which he recorded Fourth World-inspired super-jams that fused everything from early hip hop, electro and world music to jazz, funk and spoken word. An attractive idea on paper, the reality was that most of Laswell’s experiments were disastrous exercises in bad taste. To make matters worse, Celluloid lay in ashes.

Not that Laswell cared. With a Rolodex that read like a who’s who of critical favorites—P-Funk alumnus, Middle Eastern violinists, reggae rhythmitists, classic rock heroes, and heavy metal showstoppers—the producer Simon Reynolds would later call “leftfield music’s most assiduous networker” had a new idea in mind. Forming the newly- (and pointedly-) christened Axiom Records in 1990, he seized on the recent innovations of ambient house, believing it the ideal broth into which he could stir his fusion experiments.

In truth, Axiom was every bit the train wreck his already-dated Celluloid work had been. The compilation Axiom Ambient (1994) showed in the starkest of terms the fallacy of Laswell’s conception, its liner notes an almost laughable excursion into new age exotic fetishism. Eno had understood that one of the keys to making Ambient as interesting as it was ignorable was maintaining a sense of unresolved tension—be it in the harmony (“Discreet Music,” “Thursday Afternoon”), the arrangement (On Land’s virtual environments, the subtle instrumental touches on Plateaux), or sometimes even the melody (Apollo’s quivering and brilliant exercise in varispeed, “Stars”). For Laswell, Ambient was no more complicated than in smothering utterly disparate musics in reverbs and dropping a beat and a bassline under it.

Laswell wasn’t the only one taken in by ambient house’s promise of tearing down decades-old stylistic and cultural boundaries. Legions of ambient house acts burst onto the scene in the early 90s: Ultramarine, Future Sound of London, System 7—even Paul McCartney got into the act with his collaboration with Orb-sideman Youth on his Fireman project. Slowly the genre began to mutate into a sort of armchair techno produced by the likes of Aphex Twin, Seefeel and Boards of Canada, where the music itself was that much more sophisticated—its rhythms programmed and textures more detailed and refined.

And electronica exploded. Germany’s Oval churned out records that consisted of samples made from skipping CD’s. Artists such as Christian Fennesz created dense tapestries of electronic texture that could go on infinitely. The German Kompakt and French Perlon labels released record after record of the newly-minted microhouse genre, where variation is created in the subtle sonic mutation of oft-repeated samples. The former even had a so-called Pop Ambient series. Based appropriately in Cologne, the label featured artists like Olaf Dettinger and Ulf Lohmann creating prickly and uncomfortable ambient pieces that evoke not uplifting themes and solace, but dread.

Electronica artists were exploring the most intricate components of sound itself—and influencing others higher up in the pop food chain—David Sylvian, Bjork and countless others. By crossing over into the college market, electronica firmly established what Ambient had posited two decades earlier—that music didn’t need to “develop” along traditional lines to be engaging. The idea was out at last, the theory proven.

Ironic then, that the man who started it all—possibly the ultimate painter in sound—has displayed an almost comical aversion to texture in his own music in recent years. Perhaps not coincidentally, Eno has fostered a rekindled interest in the compositional process. On records such as 1997’s seemingly listless The Drop, he returns to the irregular looping system that produced Music for Airports, but this time looping not the melody but the rhythms. The result was what Ian MacDonald deemed “thunderingly boring,” “virtually devoid of harmonic life” and, perhaps more importantly, missing “his water-colourist sensitivity to atmosphere, landscape and mood.” But perhaps it was merely his way of responding to those who had found his earlier music so texturally fascinating while ignoring the other lessons of Ambient entirely.

But one supposes that Eno would have it no other way. Far from being protective of the genre that he single-handedly created with the Ambient series, Eno always knew and was excited about the possibilities that existed for future investigation: “I was always very confident this is one of the ways music would go,” said Eno in 1995. Of course, he was right. We’re just busy catching up.  

Matthew Weiner

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