“As ignorable as it is interesting.” That’s the classic definition of ambient music, stated by Brian Eno in 1978 on the sleeve notes to his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports. And he should know, since he basically invented the genre three years earlier with his album Discreet Music. But while Eno’s definition of ambient has been cited continuously in the decades since, the sphere of music he first defined has broadened, especially if you judge by how that word is used by listeners. “Ambient” is now used to describe all kinds of music, from tracks you can dance to all the way to harsh noise. For our exploration of the greatest ambient albums, we polled critics for their favorites, with the suggestion that “ambient” meant, in part, music that creates an environment, something like a cloud of sound, be it soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous. We also suggested that our take on ambient music shies away from heavy rhythms and tends more toward “drifting” than “driving,” which meant de-emphasizing ambient house. And we considered the fact that not all albums in a given artist’s catalogue qualify as ambient. Taking into account our writers’ interpretation of those loose guidelines, here’s our list of the 50 best ambient albums.
There are a lot of albums I don’t know on this list. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t classify all of them as ambient (such as Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air). But this is a great list, and I’m going to be exploring some of these.
I really think that for us, who all grew up listening primarily to recorded music, we tend to forget that until about 120 years ago ephemeral experience was the only one people had. I remember reading about a huge fan of Beethoven who lived to the age of 86 [in the era before recordings], and the great triumph of his life was that he’d managed to hear the Fifth Symphony six times. That’s pretty amazing. They would have been spread over many years, so there would have been no way of reliably comparing those performances.
All of our musical experience is based on the possibility of repetition, and of portability, so you can move music around to where you want to be, and scrutiny, because repetition allows scrutiny. You can go into something and hear it again and again. That’s really produced quite a different attitude to what is allowable in music. I always say that modern jazz wouldn’t have existed without recording, because to make improvisations sound sensible, you need to hear them again and again, so that all those little details that sound a bit random at first start to fit. You anticipate them and they seem right after a while. So in a way, the apps and the generative music are borrowing from all of the technology that has evolved in connection with recorded music and making a new kind of live, ephemeral, unfixable music. It’s a quite interesting historical moment.
A fascinating interview about ambient music and more.
Brian Eno invented ambient music, starting with his 1975 album Discreet Music. Its 30-minute title track was “generative music.” Eno acted as a clockmaker, creating phrases and melodies that were then played through equalizers, echo units, and tape machines, to create a work that had no fixed direction, but that unfolded with an element of chance.
Over the years, Eno released a number of recordings of generative works–Thursday Afternoon, Neroli, and others–and each of these albums was, in effect, a small section of a potentially unlimited stream of music.
On January 1 of this year, Brian Eno released a new album called Reflection, which repeats this technique […]
In addition to the CD and vinyl releases, there is a “deluxe generative version” of Reflection, released as an app for iOS and Apple TV.
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.
Moby has released four hours of free ambient music he composed for sleeping and relaxing. On his website, he says:
over the last couple of years i’ve been making really really really quiet music to listen to when i do yoga or sleep or meditate or panic. i ended up with 4 hours of music and have decided to give it away.
it’s really quiet: no drums, no vocals, just very slow calm pretty chords and sounds and things for sleeping and yoga and etc. and feel free to share it or give it away or whatever, it’s not protected or anything, or at least it shouldn’t be.
This music is similar in tone to Max Richter’s Sleep. It’s simple, undemanding music that you can play in the background, or use to relax.
Download the music from Moby’s website. Or use the links on the site to stream it on Apple Music, Spotify, and other services.
Max Richter has released a new work called Sleep, and it’s available in two versions. The first is a one-hour version that you can get on CD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), or stream on Apple Music, and the second is the full 8-hour, 24-minute version, which is only available by download from the iTunes Store for $35. The one-hour versions consists of excerpts from the longer version; it’s not just tracks from the eight-hour version, and each track on the short version has a name that’s not in the long version.
As I mentioned last week, when I wrote about the availability of this work by download, I’m quite enamored of long musical works. I’ve listened to all of Sleep over the weekend, in a variety of situations: while working, when reading, and when lying in bed just relaxing. (I have not, however, listened to it when sleeping.)
While Sleep is on the Deutsche Grammophon record label – a classical label with a long history – it’s certainly not classical music. It’s an attractive ambient composition for piano, strings, electronics, and vocals. It’s not the Brian Eno kind of ambient music, which is often generative, or created using randomness, but which has more texture and depth. And it’s not the new age tripe that you hear on the speakers in health food stores.
The 31 tracks of Sleep range from melodic cello melodies over a subtle background to slowly evolving drones, to sections with minimal vocals. In some ways, Sleep makes me think of what Philip Glass’s music would sound like if you sanded down all the arpeggios: it’s got the same types of chord progressions, and there are parts of Sleep that have a melody that reminds me of Glass’s soundtrack for the movie Koyaanisqatsi. But while Glass has a melodic drive in much of his music, as though he’s trying to get somewhere, Richter is content with just being where he is.
The whole thing about it being designed for sleeping is a bit of a gimmick. You can certainly use it for that, and, in doing so, you’d miss out on a lot of good music. But that gimmick stretches the work out to a length that it doesn’t need. Richter talks about the piece being made up of variations in the liner notes; they’re not really variations, they are rather different arrangements of the same melodic material. There’s a lot of repetition, but that’s all right. You’re not going to listen to the entire work at any one time, and the repetitions remind you of Sleep’s themes.
I respect the fact that Richter doesn’t present this music as something that needs to be listened to, but rather touts it as background music. In the composer’s mind, this music might help create dreams; or it might simply be a soft, subtle accompaniment to your sleep. But it can also be background music for your day, or you could listen to an hour of it when you want to relax.
This may sound a tad critical, but I actually like the music. There are some parts that sound a bit like filler – the drone sections, for example – but much of the melodic material in the work is catchy, in a slow kind of way. There’s probably about three or four CDs worth of music in this set, and it’s been padded to get past the eight hour mark, but that’s okay. If you buy it from the iTunes Store, you pay $35, or the cost of three and a half full albums.
Sleep is functional music, furniture music, a soundtrack for relaxing and sleeping, and as such it’s successful. It’s not “classical” music, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It does what it claims, and it’s enjoyable, and that’s a good enough recommendation to anyone who wants some light music to listen to when taking a break.
I’ve written a number of articles here about the music of John Foxx, formerly of Ultravox, and who has had a long solo career since leaving the band in 1979. I’ve written about Ultravox, and about Foxx’s first solo album, Metamatic, which is one of the classics of electro-punk.
Foxx’s music comes in many flavors. There’s the early, glam/art-rock of Ultravox, the electro-punk, or more staid electro-pop, of his early solo career, but there’s also ambient music, which he’s recorded solo, and with artists like Harold Budd, Robin Guthries, and others.
This new album by Codex, a group that features John Foxx, together with Benge, and violinist Diana Yukawa, is part of that latter style. Much of it is atmospheric ambient music, with layered synthesizers and subtle waves of vocal melodies. Some of it includes improvisations by violinist Diana Yukawa, who provides an ethereal tone, and fits in perfectly with the slightly gray-tinged ambient sound of the album. In fact, my preferred track – the album is meant to be listened to as one long track, but is split into five – is the longest one, When We Came to this Shore, which features Yukawa’s violin prominently.
John Foxx constantly challenges himself to make new music, not music that sounds like what he’s done before, and in this collaboration, he succeeds very well with this long, atmospheric ambient work.
In 1980, I first heard the music of Harold Budd. The only piece I heard at the time was a single piece of music on an obscure sampler called From Brussels with Love, (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) released by a (then) little-known Belgian label called Les Disques du Crepuscule. (Fortunately, this recording has since been released on CD. Children on the Hill has also been released on Budd’s The Serpent in Quicksilver. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)) You can also buy the song alone on the iTunes Store.
This cassette contained music by many other musicians and groups that I have come to love – such as The Durutti Column, John Foxx, Michael Nyman, and Gavin Bryars – but what stuck with me most about this tape was the one simple piano piece by Harold Budd.
Deceptively simple, subtly emotional, this is a chromatic piano piece about five minutes long where the right hand plays a haunting melody over a simple rhythmic left-hand part that, for most of the piece, plays just four notes.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of this piece and its understated melody that rises and falls like the eternal breath of life. But when I first heard it, I was so taken by the music that I copied it to an endless loop cassette tape and would spend hours listening to it. Even today, hearing this piece brings tears to my eyes.
I later discovered other music by Harold Budd, including his albums The Plateaux of Mirror, released the same year; The Pavilion of Dreams, released in 1978; and his 1984 classic The Pearl, recorded with Brian Eno, who produced much of his work, and then his later recordings (I have a couple dozen Harold Budd albums now). One notable recent recording by Harold Budd is a live piano recital from 2006, Perhaps (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), which contains one track that is a riff on the melodies of Children on the Hill. It’s worth noting that when Budd performed this piece live, he would improvise on it for a long time. You can download a 23-minute version from a 1982 concert here. An excerpt of this performance was included on a cassette that Les Disques de Crépuscule released called Chicago 1982: A Dip in the Lake.
Budd’s music has always retained this naïve simplicity, yet his seemingly simple melodies hide a powerful ability to move and transfix the listener. His music exudes stillness and quiet, and speaks to each listener in a unique way.
Unforgettable, like a sunset on a lonely beach, Harold Budd’s music is inimitable.
It’s difficult to review a recording of a new piece of music when it has won the Pulitzer Prize (when did that become important for music, and not just writing?), and when it has been universally acclaimed. It’s also difficult to review said work when it is programmatic; when it is supposed to be about something. As the Pulitzer Committee says, Become Ocean (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”
And, as we reach the end of 2014, this record is on a number of “best of the year lists.” Which puzzles me.
I guess the part about the ocean is obvious from the cover of the CD, and from the fact that, for my first listen, I accidentally put the DVD into my living room optical disc player, just after playing a Blu-Ray disc, and seeing the visuals that accompany the music. (I had thought there was just a CD, and simply hadn’t gotten around to turning off the TV.) As the music plays, there are a series of photos of water; some from above, others below. So, water is clearly something that this music is “about.”
I’d only heard two recordings by this Mr. Adams before (he is not to be confused with the minimalist composer John Adams, or the politician of the same name), one of which, Four Thousand Holes, I reviewed for MusicWeb. I found it sounded like ambient music, by Brian Eno or Harold Budd, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
The difference here is that Mr. Adams has a symphony at his disposal; the full range of instrumentation and dynamic range. Yet it sounds as though he really doesn’t know how to composer for an orchestra; Become Ocean is a 42-minute drone work, with rising and falling waves of volume, and with arpeggios, played by different instruments, arising and fading away.
Nothing about it suggests a “tidal surge,” or “melting polar ice and rising sea levels;” those ideas would never cross my mind, if I hadn’t read what the Pulitzer Committee had to say. Very little happens in this work, other than the dynamics of the music changing as the instruments play louder and more softly. It has little actual melody; it sounds like one massive chord going through subtle changes, as different instrumental groups are heard.
I was quite astounded to see the otherwise circumspect Alex Ross writing in the New Yorker compare this premiere to that of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. Mr. Ross was clearly moved by the work, saying “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history,” which is, of course, quoted on the CD. Mr. Ross’s discussion of the work borders on incomprehensible. He says, for example:
“The majestic sonorities emerge from a musical machine, an inexorable process. (“Inexorable” is, in fact, the indication at the head of the score.) There are six hundred and thirty bars of music, plus a bar of silence. The three main sections of the orchestra play sequences of varying lengths, each of which swells to a climax and then fades, and each of which reverses course at its midpoint, in the manner of a palindrome. The winds have fifteen units of forty-two bars (including rests); the brass nine units of seventy bars; the strings twenty-one units of thirty bars. At three points, the crescendos of the various groups coincide, resulting in those Debussy-like climaxes. The really confounding thing is that at Bar 316 the music begins running in reverse. The work is a gigantic palindrome, ending where it began.”
The way the music was made seems to take precedence over the music itself. Who really cares — other than composers or musicians — about what the above paragraph describes? That tells me nothing about the music, about the feeling of listening to the music. In fact much of Mr. Ross’s review discusses the backstory to the work: what inspired Mr. Adams, how it was written, but not so much about the music itself. (Yes, he does talk about chords and how the music recalls Debussy, Sibelius and Wagner, but not what the music sounds like.) I would sum it up as a series of crescendos and diminuendos (sorry, I used technical words, but ones that most people will understand), than eventually die out at the end. One very important problem here is how to know how loud to play this disc; in concert, the dynamics of the music are important, but there’s no benchmark here to know what the correct volume should be. Is the music very soft, building to mildly loud? Or does it begin fairly loud, reaching even louder crescendos? In the absence of any way to know how to listen to it, does it even make sense to listen to it?
This work isn’t easy to label. One could broadly call it minimalist, since not much happens; but it’s not the kind of repetitive minimalism of Reich or Glass. It’s closer to the kind of dark ambient drone music that is quite popular among aficionados of electronic music, with a bit of Sigur Rós thrown in. But I assume that, for the usual audience that attends concerts of symphony orchestras, it will be a surprise; nothing like Le Sacre de Printemps (sorry Mr. Ross), but a surprise nonetheless. And one that may have them squirming in their seats for 42 minutes.
The package includes a CD and a DVD-audio, the latter of which offers both stereo and surround mixes. There is no information about the work itself, nothing about the different formats in the package (for example, does the DVD-A contain high-resolution audio?), and nothing to even tell you that you get both a CD and DVD. If I hadn’t accidentally pulled out the DVD, I might not have known that there are two discs. There is a quote from the composer, saying: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
I found this to be a fairly bland work, with little originality, and not enough “music” to interest me. I’m a big fan of ambient music, and I can see listening to this in the background, and I can even imagine that it might be quite exciting to hear live. But there’s little on this recording that makes me want to listen to Become Ocean repeatedly. I’m clearly in the minority; as I said at the beginning of the review, this disc is showing up in lists of the best recordings of the year. Go figure.
Brian Eno has long been a musical chameleon, since his early days in Roxy Music, through his creation of ambient music, with compositions such as Discreet Music and Music for Airports, and through his “song” albums of the 1970s, such as Another Green World and Before and After Science. Over the years, he has created music for installations, soundtracks, and the ubiquitous “Microsoft Sound,” which was the start-up sound for Windows 95 and later. As each decade has passed, Eno has explored new types of music, constantly changing and defying expectations.
Throughout his career, he has pushed the boundaries of music, both as composer and as producer, working with David Bowie (“Heroes” and others), U2 (The Unforgettable Fire, etc.), Coldplay (Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends), and many others. The 1990s were, for Eno, a period when he produced much more than he recorded. Nevertheless, this decade saw the release of four Brian Eno albums, all very different, which cover the range of his musical creation. All Saints Records has just released expanded editions of these albums, full of extra content.
I remember when I first heard the 1992 Nerve Net. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) I had found the CD in a used record store, back in the pre-internet days when you couldn’t find this type of music easily. I had no awareness of what Eno had been recording since the last records of his I had bought in the early 1980s. Nerve Net is a kick in the head, an aggressive collection of electronic music that begins with the catchy, reverbed beat of Fractal Zoom, and continues through 12 songs that redefine electronic music. There are synthesizers, of course, but these are harsh, metallic, industrial sounds, all bearing, nevertheless, the marks of Eno’s layering and textures. The searing guitar of Robert Fripp comes to the forefront on Wire Shock, and Pierre in Mist features a quirky, jazzy sound that Eno would later use on The Drop. The best track on the album is Web (Lascaux Mix), a dark, droning ambient work with Fripp’s guitar sounding like a demon trying to break out of a rhythmic prison.
At the time, this wasn’t an easy album to listen to. I probably spun it a few times, then put it aside for a decade. But over the years, I’ve listened to it more and more, appreciating how far ahead of its time Nerve Net was; many of the sounds on this album are now common in electronic music.
The bonus disc with Nerve Net is the 1991 album My Squelchy Life, which, after being completed, and after promotional copies circulated, was withdrawn and never released until now. Some of the songs have appeared on various other collections or recordings, such as Eno’s Vocal Box Set, Shutov Assembly, and even Another Day on Earth (Under). It’s a mixture between Eno’s more accessible side and the dark sounds of Nerve Net, and it’s delightful to hear it. (Though it has been widely bootlegged, and isn’t hard to find.)
The 1992 The Shutov Assembly (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is the alter ego of Nerve Net. Where the latter is dark and metallic, The Shutov Assembly is liquid, smooth and atmospheric, recalling the sounds of Music for Airports or Discreet Music. The lush synthesizers play slow music, that puts you in a different state of mind than Nerve Net. Recorded between 1985 and 1990, this is a collection of works of the same style that were written to accompany installations. As All Saints Records’ description of the album states:
“Reissue of Brian Eno’s 1992 album dedicated to Russian artist and friend Sergei Shutov, and a continuation of the atmospheric ambient work found on records such as On Land and Thursday Afternoon. Eno had discovered that Shutov often painted to his music but was unable to obtain many of his records in then-communist Russia. He resolved to collate a tape of previously unreleased material (recorded between 1985 and 1990) to give to Shutov and upon listening himself discovered a previously unnoticed thread that ran through the pieces, creating an unintentional full length work. Each piece is named after and derived from one of Eno’s audio-visual installations. “
Notable on this album is the 16-minute Ikebukoro, which reminds me of the music from the Myst game. It sounds very much like Discreet Music, in the way that small phrases repeat, but it has a spooky undertone that makes it very moving. Eno said about this album, “”it’s the association with danger that I didn’t use to like, and it’s exactly that, what I do like now …. The Shutov Assembly is sort of the out-of-town version of it, the outside-the-city-limits version of danger”
The bonus disc with The Shutov Assembly features seven tracks that don’t really have the same feel as the original disc; many of them sound more like the types of music Eno would explore on The Drop, and pieces like Storm and Rendition are much more in the vein of Nerve Net. Nevertheless, this disc has 34 minutes of great music and is worth owning.
The 1993 Neroli (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a 58-minute ambient piece, much in the style of Discreet Music. Titled “Neroli: Thinking Music, Part IV,” this piece features essentially a keyboard playing a series of single melodies, in the Phrygian mode, with just single, soft, rubbery notes echoing for a long time. Short melodic phrases are repeated in a number of variations, then it’s over. As Eno described this album, the music is designed “to reward attention, but not (be) so strict as to demand it.” It’s a beautiful, soft piece of music, with no rough edges; light years away from the 1992 Nerve Net.
This new release comes with a bonus disc, the 61-minute New Space Music. Where Neroli is sparse and tentative, New Space Music is a long drone work, with waves of sound, and slow, gradual melodic change. It’s never quiet; there are no spaces between the notes, as there are in Neroli. It sounds more like Discreet Music with the volume turned up (though, ideally, one should listen to it at a low volume).
The 1997 The Drop (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) has long been one of my favorite Eno albums. It is made up of mostly short pieces, only a few more than three minutes long. After a couple of slow, introductory pieces (Slip, Dip and But If), which sound more like his standard ambient music, the record shifts to a quirky, rhythmic sound that is maintained throughout most of the album. The Drop is a fun record. It sounds strange at first, but then it sounds normal. If you’re used to listening to Brian Eno’s music, you won’t be surprised by this direction.
In an interview with the BBC, Eno said:
“The Drop is the name of the record and Drop is the name of the new type of music invented and explored on this record. It’s as if you had explained jazz to someone from a distant planet without ever playing them any examples of it and they tried to do some on the basis of your rather scant explanation. It’s quite melodic, actually, this record. There are lots of melodies on it, although they move in an angular and slightly irrational fashion, so they are very long and rambling. They remind me a little bit of heat-seeking missiles; they keep changing direction, trying find out where they are going. They don’t have a very strong focus to them. I like this; I like the vagueness to them.”
The highlight, for me, is the final piece on the album, Iced World, one of my favorite Eno works. It’s a subtly rhythmic piece of atmospheric music with a sinewy piano solo playing over a background of drum machines and sonic textures that has a perfect chill-out sound. Two competing rhythms keep the piece moving: a fast, bright sound, like wood blocks and cymbals, and a slower bass sound, somewhat like a heartbeat. A shorter version of this piece is on the Eno/Wobble album Spinner, from 1995; it’s the final, “hidden” track which comes in after a bit of silence following Left Where it Fell. On the original release of The Drop, Iced World ran over 32 minutes; curiously, on the reissue, the track is just under 19 minutes. Comparing the two versions, it seems as though the shorter version is exactly the same as the longer version, and just fades out earlier. So if you like this track, and you have the original version of the album, hold on to it for the long version of Iced World.
The tracks on the bonus disc that comes with The Drop are a strange mixture. Never Stomp sounds like it could be on Nerve Net; System Piano is a slightly different version of Rayonism, from The Drop; Luxor Night Car sounds a lot it would have fit on the Brian Eno and John Cale album Wrong Way Up; Cold is a short version of Iced World; and Little Slicer is a version of Out/Out. The final bonus track is the 19-minute Targa, which is a sort of segue of several different types of music. There’s a mellow soundscape at the beginning, with wind blowing in the background and a synthesized trumpet; it then shifts to a bleeping melody over droning synths; then to a section with slightly chromatic melodies; then to a drone-and-bass drum section; then back to more bleeping, and more drone. This isn’t a good description, but it’s a hard piece to pin down, because it has no character; it’s more of a medley. And it’s musically unrelated to another bonus track, Targa Summer, which is more of a soundscape with a slow 4/4 rhythm, and some a cappella singing.
Taken individually, each of these albums presents a very different aspect of Brian Eno’s music, but when you hear the four of them together, you get a much better idea of what there is in common between very different types of music. The only common thread is Eno himself, and these four albums show how much of a musical polymath he is.