The Which Where and Why of the Best of Brian Eno's Ambient Discs
By Mark S. Wynne
It could be argued that the British synthesist Brian Eno effectively invented the modern ambient form in the early Seventies with his experimental synthesizer collages and collaborations with artists like Robert Fripp and David Bowie. However, ambient music has been around at least as long as Tibetan Monks have been chanting, or even creatures of the rain forest have been creating their beautiful cacophony. It took an artist like Eno to hear what most dismiss as the ubiquitous background sounds of life and synthesize them into relevant art. Typically Eno's ambient work differs from the mainstream of ambient and techno music in that he rarely utilizes percussive rhythm, and he achieves an astonishing depth of sound from deceptively simple sonic textures. Usually a piece will be in one key, or in some cases the constraints of polyphony are eschewed completely, immersing the listener in an ocean of microtonal sounds. One of Eno's favorite sound-sources is nature, where he meshes the sounds of field of crickets or a forest of tree-frogs with his electric manipulations. To someone unfamiliar to Eno's ambient works perhaps the lack of a driving beat or the sheer alien-ness of his landscapes might be off-putting, but this is not music to be listened to in the traditional sense. Rather, his music listens to you. It subtly creeps beneath one's defenses and expectations and insinuates itself into one's subconscious. It melts into the sounds around you, sounds from your open window, the sound of turning pages, your keyboard, your heart, even your thoughts, and responds. It is a non-intrusive presence that demands only the vibrations of the space around you. But this is not simply sonic wallpaper (although it can be treated as such); Brian Eno is one of the best producers the music industry has, and the resolution on his ambient discs is immaculate. Take time to listen into his work, and to discover that what at first sounded simple actually contains uncharted depths. Here is a partial listing of his ambient music:
THURSDAY AFTERNOON (1985)
This disc is the soundtrack for a collection of video paintings presented on vertical format television by Christine Alicino. It also represents the most important piece of ambient music Eno has recorded. I have seen the video art, meant to be viewed with your television turned on its right side, and the actual soundtrack differs from the disc in its length (it's longer than the disc) and its production (it contains an extra track of a bell-like piano and is fragmented into episodes following the video). At first, Thursday Afternoon sounds to be a recording of a piano playing the same series of notes in a large hall: note-clusters in a similar mode. There are no chord changes, and it goes on in the same manner for over an hour. What is happening here, however, is quite subtle and wonderful. A glacial crescendo, a gradual gathering of sonic density over the space of an hour quietly peaks, as the piano recedes and recedes, and is overcome by beautiful silence. As the piece progresses Eno introduces sheets of shimmering choruses, wind instruments and even bird calls against a background of dark blue silence, so far back in the sonic landscape as to make their presence almost subliminal. The buildup of this piece is so gradual and unobtrusive that most might miss it at first listening. Delicate and light, turning it off in the middle can seem like blowing the airlock: it fills the room like so much oxygen. Get it on compact disc: it was tailor made for the medium.
AMBIENT 4 / ON LAND (1982)
This disc is a collection of shorter ambient works recorded between September 1978 and January 1982 with such artists as Jon Hassell, Michael Brook, Dan Lanois, and the frogs of Choloma, Honduras. Dark, dense and mysterious, this disc contains music that lingers in the shadow-edge of consciousness. Most of the pieces here blend the sounds of nature with Eno's weightless atmospheres, but you will not find the typical bird song and ocean waves associated with "new age" music. If anything, Ambient 4 is "ancient age" music; sounds leading to images swimming up from the depth of racial memory, triggered by a wild call that can not quite be placed. The foreboding, almost sinister "The Lost Day" on track two echoes with distant chimes blowing in a spirit wind: a lone traveler wandering along a dark ocean shore at dusk. The distant calls of unnamed beasts in "Lantern Marsh" meld with a nimbus of maroon sound against a background of buzzing primal energy: a sense of ageless beauty and power that presents itself delicately. In "Unfamiliar Wind (Leek Hills)" on track 6 Eno fills the stereoscape with thousands of chirping frogs, and as gently whirling harmonics pulse a vast sense of calm expands outward. Perhaps in one of the darkest pieces Eno has recorded, "Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960" has a feel, in its coldly echoing piano and chimes, of accepted fate. With a title as specific with time and place as this, one wonders what happened on that beach so long ago.
AMBIENT 1 / MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS (1978)
This disc, the first in his Ambient series, contains four tracks of music written specifically to be played as a background for a large public place, such as an airport. Whereas traditionally the kind of background music one hears in the mall, or an airport (if any) is Muzak: recycled pop music trickling banally from hidden speakers. Eno has created music specifically to fill a purpose: wholly original utilitarian art. Where Muzak's purpose is (I suppose), to make the experience of being in a public place a more enjoyable one, Eno's Music for Airports becomes part of the experience, melding itself to the ambient mood-sound of everyone around. While not as sonically dense and complex as Ambient 4 or Thursday afternoon, the four pieces here that are Music for Airports contain a beautiful, calm simplicity: the first piece, called "1/1," repeats the same series of piano notes over a gradual accumulation of warm synth chords. The second, "2/1" has a series of intervals sung by realistic synthesized (?) voices: again a simple repeating series of note-clusters. In the third piece, called "1/2," the piano returns over a quieter background of shifting voice-intervals. The overall feel of this piece is more traditionally musical than most of Eno's ambients, and has a lovely, slightly sad tone. "2/2" is the last piece, another series of note-patterns using this time a very warm synth-horn patch with a slow, full attack. A friend was in a London airport recently and reported they were playing Enos Music for Airports ("2/1," or "The Voices"), and I was delighted to here this piece was being utilized properly; however, one does not have to be in an airport to enjoy this work. It is one of the greatest stress relieving compositions I have heard, especially the first one, and quite beautiful as well.
THE SHUTOV ASSEMBLY (1985 - 1990)
This collection of ten Ambient works was originally used as a part of a Russian art exhibit (or so I am told), and in the five years of work represented here, each piece has a unique character, while preserving the overall feel of the production. This disc is in the "On Land" mode, and the overall feeling is one of dark, long forgotten places. The second piece is an excellent example of the "Eno sound": sheets of oily, high frequency sound over an huge, powerful ocean of bass. "02.ALHONDIGA" is also one of the most eerie and effective ambient works Eno has produced; it really gets into one's subconscious. "04.LANZAROTE" creates a subtle tension between a pulsing synth-field of hisses and dark harmonics and strategically played piano notes. Very far down deep in the production can be heard profoundly flanged synth-strings underscoring the anticipation of this piece. The centerpiece of this collection is the very Zen "09.IKEBURKO." A sixteen minute piece without a distinct beginning or end, it can be put on infinite repeat in one listening area to create a zone of calm thoughtfulness. This is a strange piece. Huge, echoing chimes repeat a series of slow, occasionally harmonized notes, which seem to stretch out forever after struck. Occasionally can be heard the sound of someone twirling a large stick(?), creating a "whoosh... whoosh... whoosh..." sound that walks back and forth across the stereoscape. A single bird can be heard in the distance, and occasionally very distant sounds from the rain forest. But that's about it. As simple as it is, perhaps because of it's simplicity, "09.IKEBURKO" is a mesmerizing, almost hypnotic work, and it sounds as if it has emerged from some prehistoric rite. It is interesting to note that all of the ten pieces represented here all have exactly nine letters in their titles.
: NEROLI : / (THINKING MUSIC PART IV) (1993)
This hour-long piece is another of Eno's "system" pieces, that is, like "Thursday Afternoon" there is a non-linear series of note-clusters presented in a repeating pattern, all in the same mode. In this case, the mode is Phrygian, one of the most ancient of scales. The feeling here is one of floating; Eno wanted to create "a kind of music that existed on the cusp between melody and texture, and whose musical logic was elusive enough to reward attention, but not so strict as to demand it" [(C) C.S.J. BOFOP March 1993]. The sound of this piece is -- again -- deceptively simple: a low, muted chime playing the same series of notes over and over. However--again--this simplicity belies the deeper sonic-complexity of the piece. Each note-interval struck is allowed to decay very slowly, as if it were playing in a huge hall, and depending on the distance between the notes in each interval creates complex shifting oscillations. Also, contained within each note is a subtle series of harmonics, which seem the rise to the ceiling in a sonic-double-helix. The most fascinating aspect of this piece is Eno's use of subsonic notes. A subsonic is a sound with such a low frequency as to be almost out of the range of the human ear. Think of the sound of a large truck going by your house at night. In ": NEROLI :" Eno has placed subsonic notes throughout: one does note hear then as much as feel them on a subliminal level. I know that some film sound-engineers use subsonics to create a feeling of unease during suspenseful scenes in the movies, and the effect here is no different. Perhaps Eno uses them here the keep the mind slightly on edge, restless, thinking. If you have a Compact Disc player with a "Mega-Bass" function, turn it on and plug your tuner into the headphone output to actually hear what these subsonics sound like; but be warned: if your speakers have an extended bass output you may end up rattling the dishes out of your cupboard.
MUSIC FOR FILMS (1978)
Most of the music on this disc represents "fragments" of Eno's recorded work from over a period of two or three years. Many of the pieces were recorded specifically for use in films, while others were appropriated. Some of the artists who perform on this disc are Phil Collins, Robert Fripp, John Cale, and others, but there is no singing here or songs in the traditional sense: this is all classic Eno ambient. Although there is no corresponding literature linking each short piece with a film, the title are very suggestive of film sequence: "Alternative 3," "Events in a Dense Fog," "Patrolling Wire Borders." "From the Same Hill" has a warm shifting pattern of synth notes played behind a smooth acoustic guitar line; a love scene, perhaps. "Two Rapid Formations" is actually a slow groove, bass and drums with trippy sliding synth-screeches interspersed with a grandiose fanfare, suggestive of a pipe-organ. "Alternative 3" is a short, very foreboding work of low synth notes, repeating sonar-blips and horror-movie violins reminiscent of the music of John Carpenter. The most subtle work on the disc also has the best title: "Events in a Dense Fog," which describes the work perfectly. Widely spaced boops and beeps, long silences, and a nimbus of white, echoing notes culminate in a strange and lovely crescendo. "A Measured Room" is basically a funky bass-line (Percy Jones) over a cool, sliding synth solo: a night cruise on an empty turnpike in a slick set of wheels. The final piece, aptly titled "Final Sunset" really evokes the feeling of the setting sun, especially the last moments: the echoing descending piano note at the end really feel like its the end of the world. "Music For Films" is the first time that Eno explores that area of the sub conscience where emotions are born: like a powerful scene from a good film, this music makes one think and feel in unexpected ways.
This primer of Eno's ambient discs was selected mainly in terms of the success of the disc (artistically), and its availability, as much of Eno's ambient music is rare and out of print. I have not included his soundtrack for "Apollo," as it is really half ambient and half a strange mixture of country guitar and pop (although "Apollo" does have some superb ambient tracks). Fortunately, the best of Eno's ambient output (including rare tracks and tracks from "Apollo") has been anthologized and packaged beautifully in a boxed set called "BRIAN eno instrumental / a three cd box set," recorded from original masters with "High Definition Remastering" or "Super Bit Mapping" technology from Sony. The sound clarity, especially from the remastered 1970's music, is crystalline and warm, and also includes an excellent booklet titled Webs, all about Brian Eno and ambient music. I would encourage anyone with an open mind, a taste for the unusual, and a good stereo system to give a listen to this visionary artist.