Today’s post focuses on a style of music that is drastically different from anything else featured here on Audio Intimacy. Today, we’re talking about Brian Eno. There’s a good chance you may have heard the name before. After all, he does happen to be one of the main proponents and principal innovators of experimental electronic music production. There is, quite literally, too much to say about the man to cover it all in a post here. When Eno first came onto the scene in the early ’70s, the music industry was undergoing an intense period of transition (isn’t it always, though?). More specifically, it was going through something of a technological Renaissance as multitrack recording became more and more expansive. Music recordings became subject to a continuously increasing amount of manipulation and editing. This set the stage for Eno to find inspiration in his innovative philosophy of “The Studio As a Compositional Tool.”
The main premise behind this philosophy is that the art of recording music is just that – an art. It is no longer simply a means of transmitting a single performance as accurately as possible. With the development of multitrack recording, producers to have the incredible ability to manipulate everything from the arrangement of the song to the individual timbres of the instruments. They can put an echo effect on the entire song, or just on the guitar track for two seconds on the bridge. This affects composition on both the macro level and the micro level. The infinite amount of unique combinations of sound that were made possible by this new approach is too awe-inspiring for words, yet it is something that we take for granted in the 21st century.
But it was not always that way. Before the era of Brian Eno, recorded music was fairly straightforward; its sole purpose was to take the musical information of a specific piece, performed in a specific setting, and make it available for anyone to listen to in the comfort of their living room. So it was in this period of musical expansion that Eno began composing and producing (which came to be combined into the same creative process, as described above) what he coined “ambient” music. It would be appropriate to mention at this point that Eno self-admittedly could neither read nor write music, nor could he play any instrument well (this was true back in the ’70s; I am not aware if this is still the case or not).
Despite these shortcomings, Eno used the evolutionary nature of the music technology to forge his own path as a new kind of music composer. The production studio was his instrument, and his language was that of audio samples, not of meticulously notated pitches and rhythms. With these newfound tools, he pioneered this ambient style of music which, as he put it, could be either “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener,” existing on the “cusp between melody and texture.” As he developed his music further throughout the ’70s, it became distinguished as an experiment in creating soundscapes, rather than a strictly structured piece of music that demands to be the auditory focus throughout its duration.
In this sense, Eno’s music gained the distinct ability to augment the listener’s current reality, rather than transforming it altogether into a clearly defined composition. In other words, the music does not hold a monopoly on all of the listener’s aural experiences. Rather, it exists in the background, acting as a subtle framework for the sounds of your life as you go about your day. This creates a highly cognitive experience that lets you drift in and out of the omnipresent sonic landscape. Have you ever wanted a soundtrack to your life? Well here it is, perfectly crafted with just the right amount of subtlety.
This brings us to Eno’s newest album, Lux. Released last year, the music on Lux was commissioned by the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria as a sound installation. The crystal clear sonic textures were designed to permeate throughout the vast, reverberant halls of the gallery as the perfect sonic texture to match the ambience of the setting. It doesn’t take long after listening to the album to realize just how perfectly suited it is for such an environment.
The arrangements of the four movements of “Lux” are remarkably simple. Pearly piano notes and soft strings are seamlessly woven together amidst soothing synth tones. This is surely minimalism at its best; Eno triggers more waves of emotion with raw simplicity than many artists do with rapid streams of complex music and lyrics. There is an evident connection with the original sound that he developed several decades ago, however there’s also a clear difference in production quality. The sounds of Lux are extremely refined, having benefited from over thirty years of maturation.
Lux is only the latest in a series of highly anticipated and well-received creative experiments on his part, including Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. He has also had other sound installations in the past, such as Lightness: Music for the Marble Palace at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and Compact Forest Proposal at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts. The experience of the ambient compositions by Brian Eno is deeply personal, emotional, and simultaneously intellectually stimulating. It is an experience like no other, and it is a necessity from a musical, as well as psychological, standpoint for anyone who desires some time for quiet reflection.