Reissue Spotlight: Brian Eno’s Ambient Music

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As a conceptualist in music, sound, and visual art, Brian Eno has few contemporary equals. Like John Cage, Eno is interested in not only how music sounds, but in sounds themselves—whether found in music, in nature, or in city life. He incorporated sounds made by “non-instruments” into his compositions and also considered the modern recording studio as a musical instrument, using studio techniques to create new backgrounds and atmospheres. (He has cited “The Mountains High” by Dick and Deedee as an example of how modern recording techniques affect the sound of recorded music.) Eno’s pioneering work in what’s now known as ambient music influenced not only pop recording artists, but producers and engineers in the studio.

The recent reissue of four fascinating albums by Eno offers a glimpse into the mind of one of the most interesting artists of our time and traces his evolving conception of ambient music from 1975 to 1982. I was thrilled to see Universal/Virgin EMI reissue 1975’s Discreet Music, 1976’s Music for Films, 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airportsand 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land. The lavishly-produced, double gatefold 180 gram vinyl discs were cut using half-speed mastering at the renowned Abbey Road Studios and play at 45 RPM for audiophile sound. Standard single LP vinyl, remastered for 33 RPM play are also available.

Brian Eno (Photo courtesy of Opal Ltd.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

An early exploration of ambient music, 1975’s Discreet Music was inspired by an experience Eno had after a car accident. During his recovery, he was listening to an album of harp music that his girlfriend brought him. One channel was missing and the volume was too low, but he lacked the energy to get up and tinker with it. The random notes of the harp merged with the sound of the rain outside as well as the color of the light in his room. The strange effect presented for Eno a somewhat ghostly musical abstraction—a new way of listening to and experiencing music.

1976’s Music for Films consists entirely of shorter tracks composed as an imaginary soundtrack for films, although directors John Woo and Derek Jarman later used excerpts in their films. Eno mixed in music by John Cale, Robert Fripp, and other prominent UK musicians.

I was particularly happy to see 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports included in this deluxe reissue. Eno conceived the idea for this album while waiting at a German airport, where he was annoyed by the innocuous music he heard. He created Ambient 1: Music for Airports as a sound installation to be continuously looped and to induce calm at an airport. It was played at New York’s La Guardia airport back in the 1980’s, and for the album’s 40th anniversary, the London City Airport played it on loop in April 2018. My favorite track has always been “2/1” with the voices. It is music for dreaming.

Finally, 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land features acoustic sounds of chains, sticks, insects, Honduran frogs, stones and other “real” noises. Eno combines these “non-instrument” sounds with Jon Hassell’s trumpet, Bill Laswell’s bass, as well as contributions from Michael Brook, Laraaji, and Daniel Lanois. I think this album’s use of “real” sounds shows John Cage’s influence on Eno’s thinking. Cage’s infamous 4’33” reflected his idea that any sound could be considered music—even that of a squirming audience.

These four new deluxe vinyl albums present a treasure trove for Brian Eno fans, audiophiles, and vinyl collectors. The seminal works have not been available on vinyl since the original Editions E.G. recordings, and will certainly outperform the originals in every way. Also of interest are Eno’s liner notes, found on the inside of each gatefold cover. For Discreet Music, Eno recounts his accidental discovery of ambient sound’s effect on music (as briefly summarized above). Even the album’s title suggests that it is music to be noticed but not focused on. For Music for Films, Eno describes the creative process and collaborators. In the notes for Ambient 1: Music for Airports, he describes his interest in Muzak and other early forms of background music as an inspiration. Finally, on the inner sleeve of Ambient 4: On Land, Eno illustrates in a diagram his concept of an ambient speaker system. Although you can listen to these albums digitally, the special vinyl reissues are truly worth experiencing for those of you with turntables.