Brian Eno is famous for three things: playing the synths in British art-rock band Roxy Music, pioneering the genre of ambient music, and creating the Windows 95 start-up sound which, incidentally, he composed on an Apple Mac. This review focuses on Eno’s second achievement, his ambient work.
In 1978, after leaving Roxy Music and releasing several critically acclaimed art-rock solo albums (Here Come the Warm Jets, Another Green World), Eno brought out Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Bored and uninspired by the background music when stuck at a German airport, the album was supposed to be continuously looped as a sound installation and a calming effort to diffuse the tense atmosphere terminal buildings exude. It was to be one of four albums in his ‘Ambient’ series, a genre principally defined by being beat-less, and minimalist in its composition.
Eno pioneered the genre, drawing inspiration from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century French composer, Erik Satie. In 1917, Satie coined the term ‘furniture music’, denoting a form of background music designed to be performed by live musicians. The pieces were very short, with an indefinite number of repeats, but on his death the concept slipped into obscurity. In mid-1960s New York however, spearheaded by La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, minimalism emerged and developed ideas established half a century earlier. Satie’s Vexations, a piece performed with 840 repeats, was commissioned by John Cage in 1963, and lasted 18 hours. Audience members received a nickel back from their ticket price for every twenty minutes they were able to stay and listen. Eno took the idea and made it his own, using synthesisers rather than classical instrumentation.
Almost thirty-five years after Music For Airports, Eno has released Lux, proving the lasting capabilities of ambient music. Eno crafts four soundscapes of about twenty minutes each, all of which have been previously installed in art galleries and airport terminals. Earlier this month, the album was previewed at Japan’s Haneda Airport, making conscious reference to his groundbreaking beginnings. It is a return to form after some recent disappointing collaborative efforts (Small Craft On A Milk Sea, Drums Between The Bells) and is best compared with his early innovative works.
Writing this review on a train journey back to Oxford, Lux takes you far away from your temporal location. Eno outlined the philosophy behind ambient music in the liner notes to Music for Airports. “Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.” On Lux, violins gently strain over melodious drones of sound, as synths lightly pulse and faintly-struck percussion emits a softly decaying timbre like a ripple. Calm, indeed.
To quote again from the Music for Airports liner notes, Eno argues that, “ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular, it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” This is the difficult part. Too much of the ‘ambient’ music produced since its inception fails to permit this dichotomous engagement, usually becoming all to ignorable. Lux however, is as engaging as it is acquiescent. It gives as much as the listener demands. Electronic sounds fuse with organic tones, and a dense layer of sound washes over you. Eno remains undiminished in his ability to craft the most atmospheric of works within the genre he pioneered all those years ago.