What better way to ring in the new year than with a new release by Brian Eno. His latest album Reflection is now available. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) And with it comes an app, for iOS and Apple TV, also called Reflection.
Eno created ambient music, starting with his first generative piece Discreet Music in 1975. Over the years, he has released a number of album-length recordings, such as Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, which are hour-long pieces, and Lux, which contains four shorter soundscapes. Reflection is similar to these albums, featuring multiple layers of slow, meandering sounds and melodies. There are also similarities with the 16-minute Ikebukuro, from the 1992 album The Shutov Assembly. Reflection is another beautiful work in this vein, but this release offers much more than others.
Eno describes this new work as follows:
Reflection is the latest work in a long series. It started (as far as record releases are concerned) with Discreet Music in 1975 ( – or did it start with the first Fripp and Eno album in 1973? Or did it start with the first original piece of music I ever made, at Ipswich Art School in 1965 – recordings of a metal lampshade slowed down to half and quarter speed, all overlaid?)
Anyway, it’s the music that I later called ‘Ambient’. I don’t think I understand what that term stands for anymore – 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.
The pedigree of this piece includes Thursday Afternoon, Neroli (whose subtitle is Thinking Music IV) and LUX. I’ve made a lot of thinking music, but most of it I’ve kept for myself. Now I notice that people are using some of those earlier records in the way that I use them – as provocative spaces for thinking – so I feel more inclined to make them public.
Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them. I then set the whole system playing and see what it does, adjusting the sounds and the phrases and the rules until I get something I’m happy with. Because those rules are probabilistic ( – often taking the form ‘perform operation x, y percent of the time’) the piece unfolds differently every time it is activated. What you have here is a recording of one of those unfoldings.
Reflection is so called because I find it makes me think back. It makes me think things over. It seems to create a psychological space that encourages internal conversation. And external ones actually – people seem to enjoy it as the background to their conversations. When I make a piece like this most of my time is spent listening to it for long periods – sometimes several whole days – observing what it does to different situations, seeing how it makes me feel. I make my observations and then tweak the rules. Because everything in the pieces is probabilistic and because the probabilities pile up it can take a very long time to get an idea of all the variations that might occur in the piece. One rule might say ‘raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones’ and another might say ‘raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones’. If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes – very rarely – they will both operate on the same note so something like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. You won’t know which of those 5000 notes it’s going to be. Since there are a lot of these types of operations going on together, on different but parallel data streams, the end result is a complex and unpredictable web.
Perhaps you can divide artists into two categories: farmers and cowboys. The farmers settle a piece of land and cultivate it carefully, finding more and more value in it. The cowboys look for new places and are excited by the sheer fact of discovery, and the freedom of being somewhere that not many people have been before. I used to think I was temperamentally more cowboy than farmer but the fact that the series to which this piece belongs has been running now for over 4 decades makes me think that there’s quite a big bit of farmer in me.
The album is a 54-minute version of the piece, and is vintage Eno. If you like this type of music, you’ll be delighted to have yet another long ambient work. But the iOS and Apple TV app, developed by Peter Chilvers, is quite special. It lets you play an endless river of music, revolving around the themes and melodies in this work. Eno says:
“REFLECTION is the most recent of my Ambient experiments and represents the most sophisticated of them so far. My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time – ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings – whether vinyl, cassette or CD – are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them. So in the past I was limited to making the systems which make the music, but then recording 30 minutes or an hour and releasing that. REFLECTION in its album form – on vinyl or CD – is like this. But the app by which REFLECTION is produced is not restricted: it creates an endless and endlessly changing version of the piece of music.
The creation of a piece of music like this falls into three stages: the first is the selection of sonic materials and a musical mode – a constellation of musical relationships. These are then patterned and explored by a system of algorithms which vary and permutate the initial elements I feed into them, resulting in a constantly morphing stream (or river) of music. The third stage is listening. Once I have the system up and running I spend a long time – many days and weeks in fact – seeing what it does and fine-tuning the materials and sets of rules that run the algorithms. It’s a lot like gardening: you plant the seeds and then you keep tending to them until you get a garden you like.”
Listening to the music from the app is interesting. With an album like Discreet Music, which I’ve been listening to for 40 years, you become familiar with the music, even if it was generated in a random manner. And with the CD of Reflection, if you listen to it often enough, you’ll remember the bits where different melodies and sounds come in. But I’ve been listening to the app for a couple of hours, and it’s as though I’m hearing a series of variations on a theme, or a long improvisation. In a way, you lose something, because you don’t have those landmarks along the way that you do with a fixed recording. But you hear the sounds and themes morph over time, and discover a different way of listening. The music becomes more alive, more real than something that is fixed in time.
The visuals also change, very slowly. If you’re familiar with Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings, you have an idea of the type of changes you’ll see. I don’t know how many patterns there are; for now, I’m only seeing changing colors. (And when I first used the app, the changes were much slower. I quit it and relaunched it, and it’s working correctly.)
You may be a bit thrown by the high price of the app: at $40, it’s one of the more expensive iOS apps I’ve seen, other than some productivity apps. But it’s a fount of music that endlessly permeates, offering a much more expansive version of the work that’s been frozen on record. If you’re a fan of Brian Eno’s work, you’ll probably want to get this app.
A note for users of the iOS app. I stream music to AirPlay devices, and when I launched the app, and swiped up to display Control Center, the only option for AirPlay Mirroring was my Apple TV. This is because the app also has visuals that display on that device if you stream it. Swipe to the right to get to the music player, and you’ll be able to select other devices, such as amplifiers or speakers.