Andrew Lindsay-Diaz On Brian Eno’s Reflection

In Brian Eno's latest foray into ambient music – a generative piece of, quite literally, endless possibility – Andrew Lindsay-Diaz finds an answer to cynical critics of the genre, and a piece of work very much right for the present moment

In January of 1975, Brian Eno was bedridden. While confined to his bed after a minor car accident, a friend brought him a record of 18th-century harp music. “Having laid down,” he relates in the liner notes to his seminal 1975 release, Discreet Music, “I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly.” And thus, a genre was born. Discreet Music went on to become the first tangible step in his discovery of ambient music—a label that would be explicitly codified three years later, with his release of Ambient 1: Music for Airports. More than just a genre, ambient music became a new paradigm for listening: further proof that music didn’t have to exist at the foreground, to be constantly and actively engaged with. Rather, ambient music proved that music could be something that just is.

More than forty years later, Brian Eno’s name has become, among other things, a disclaimer: a warning that any project he touches will carry a certain artistic gravitas. With this in mind, Reflection was admittedly, upon first listening, a disappointment. Not that this was a poor or uninspired effort—quite to the contrary. But with Eno, there’s always the lingering hope (though certainly not as strong as it once was) that every new record will somehow be genre-establishing or paradigm-shifting. Reflection is neither of these; it falls quite comfortably in the lineage of his earlier ambient compositions like Discreet Music and Music for Airports. While it may not be particularly groundbreaking, Reflection is a continuous 54 minutes of ambient music at its best: an inviting, yet provocative space to do exactly that which the title demands.

Musically, Reflection is a maze without solution, with a feeling of endlessness that is difficult to place. A lion’s share of this sense is due to the set of timbres Eno employs. New-Agey and reverberant, the synth tones are always melding, creating sinuous successions of sound. In Reflection’s more static moments, they can take on a drone-like character, while in its busier moments those same tones combine in elaborate harmony. Yet, even during these more engrossing, texturally dense stretches (of which there are many), Reflection is never forceful. Sombre? Certainly. But never overpowering.

Not just a product of the sounds Eno utilises, Reflection is perpetual by design. In composing the piece, he used algorithmic, or what he calls “generative” composition – a method he began experimenting with in the 1970s while composing Discreet Music. After choosing the sonic building blocks, in Eno’s words, they are “patterned and explored by a system of algorithms which vary and permutate the initial elements…resulting in a constantly morphing stream (or river) of music.” And thus the method in the madness: the open-ended sense of “river-ness” emerges from the compositional method. That is to say, if one gets the sense that Reflection feels endless, that is, well, because it is. The 54 minutes we hear on the physical and digital editions is a mere sonic snapshot of the generative process working itself out.

If this makes you feel like you’re getting a raw deal, Eno also released an iOS companion app (a technological affordance surely not available in the ‘70s that manages to tap into the expansive potential of generative composition) that will let you listen to your heart’s content.

This is about the time (if they made it this far) that critics of ambient music will come hooting and hollering, “What am I supposed to do with an hour’s worth of aimless river-music?”

Well, to start, the record’s title gives a fairly good hint.

Steve Reich, a founding father of Minimalist music, whose early process-driven compositions for tape were direct influences on Eno’s early ambient work, provides a much less snarky answer. Focusing in on the music “makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it.” This idea of music as an object—as an “it”—wasn’t new, even when Reich wrote these words in 1968. As early as 1917, Erik Satie was using the term “furniture music” in reference to compositions of his that were so ubiquitous and unarresting that they might as well have been furnishings in a room.

So is that the answer to the ambient critic’s question? Is Reflection a comfy couch to sink into after a particularly tough day at work? Maybe, but let’s give it a little more credit than that. Consider a traditional pop song, where the listener is constantly interpreting and anticipating, perhaps with regards to a particularly poignant lyric or the inevitable return of an earworm hook. On the other hand, as musical object, Reflection invites listeners to leave this subjectivity—this constantly self-referential mode of listening—at the door and engage the sounds at hand in a totally selfless manner; a musical rendition of acid-fueled ego death, if you will.

It is with this selfless, reflective, and totally immersive mode of listening that Reflection reaches its full potential. Granted, the record is full of pretty and appealing sounds; it would be easy to treat it—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach—as that comfy couch with accompanying cup of herbal tea. But the true substance of the album is in the nitty-gritty. It’s in those barely perceptible details that the algorithm generates: that shocking moment at about 8’, where a piercing, church organ tone emerges from near silence, or 35’, where the pulses in the high harmonic ringing momentarily settle into a rhythmic lilt, but only when listening in a certain way.

In 1988, the eminently important (and recently late) experimental composer, Pauline Oliveros, would more robustly theorise this mode of listening as “Deep Listening,” adding to it a panoptic worldview with a distinctly social-political bent. “Compassion (spiritual development),” she comments, “and understanding comes from listening impartially…New fields of thought can be opened and the individual may be expanded and find opportunity to connect in new ways to communities of interest. Practice enhances openness.” So maybe this is the answer to the ambient critic’s question. While, in its most banal application, Reflection might very well be some pretty and relaxing sounds, perhaps it can also function as practice for a widely applicable brand of mindfulness.

And here we are, at the beginning of 2017 with Reflection in hand after a 2016 that, from the start, pushed us up against the ropes and kept the kidney shots coming. If 2016 was the year of realising things, then 2017 will likely prove itself to be the year of reckoning—with President of the United States Donald Trump, with the inevitability of an EU without the UK, with a now unignorable global element of white nationalism, and with the reality that, sooner rather than later, we’re going to need to drag each other out of the mess we’ve created.

And Eno certainly seems to agree. In a politically-charged New Year’s Facebook post, he reflected, “People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan.” It’s during times like these—times in which reflection and the ensuing individual and collective action is so imperative—that Deep Listening is more important than ever. While in Reflection, Brian Eno may not given us a groundbreaking record, he did give us a remarkable (and functional) ambient project: an all-too-fitting avenue through which to escape and reflect in the midst of a challenging year to come.

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