uch 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
"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.
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.
By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2004-09-27