“I don’t think I understand what the term ‘ambient’ stands for anymore,” reflects Brian Eno in the self-penned press release for his latest Warp release. “It seems to have swollen to accommodate some quite unexpected bedfellows, but I still use it to distinguish it from pieces of music that have fixed duration and rhythmically connected, locked together elements.”
Eno has the supreme right to ponder what this genre of music has become, for he is its founding father. Though even Eno himself isn't sure which piece of music precisely ushered the ambient form into existence, its development has nevertheless occupied him for the best part of four decades. There is the apocryphal story that the concept of ambient music came to Eno while he was laid up in bed recovering from an illness, whereupon a heightened awareness of the natural sounds of his environment merged seamlessly with the piece of classical music that a well-wisher had gifted him. It was music with a sense of space, but not music without purpose, unlike the bland background music that some have interpreted the ambient concept to be.
Given that this single, 54-minute piece can be placed within the context of a body of work encompassing everything from ‘Music For Airports’, ‘The Shutov Assembly’ to more recent pieces like ‘LUX’, its framework is essentially familiar. Tones quiver, sounds swell up gently then fade away into harmonics, shimmering reverb plays across the surface of the music, a melody – a melody that can only be appreciated when zooming out from the detail and hearing the piece as a whole – emerges. There is structure, for sure, but it is not overt; the whole piece has a sense of order, but only in the same way that a gentle breeze moving through a wooded landscape might find the same leaves and branches moving, but each breath of air sees different interactions, different combinations, different patterns and unique events.
That sense of almost ‘incidental’ structure is a conscious strand of Eno’s ambient interests in the last two decades, whether that be in his early pioneering use of software like Koan or his development of apps like Bloom that themselves allow the user to develop ambient music of their own. This is music that is, in his words, ‘generative’; in other words, using a programmed set of rules and frameworks, the music is allowed to develop by itself, giving rise to that feeling of music following a path which is not entirely clear at the outset. This is perhaps the most enduring of Eno’s infamous ‘oblique strategies’, even though it succeeded those, and one that literally could produce an infinite number of outcomes. The fact that ‘Reflection’ concludes some way short of an hour feels like a deliberate arbitrary intervention by its creator, but he could have easily let it run for far longer.
Writing about this sort of music is an elusive, fruitless and arguably pointless exercise, the best exemplification yet of the adage that one might as well be dancing to architecture. It is simply profoundly and stirringly beautiful, a piece with a deep, almost spiritual resonance while never once sounding New Age; a piece that allows you to ponder – without need for the hokey framework of ‘mindfulness’ – your small place in the universe; or a piece you could put on at the start of a flight to aid sleep and relaxation. This is what we have come to the expect from Eno’s ambient endeavours, and it remains as beguiling and original as ever.
Words: Mat Smith / @mjasmith
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