An atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint

I started out trying to write about something very different today, but I really couldn't put it together without talking about this first.

It's rare for individual works of art to define a genre.  Usually, you can't look at the history of art and say, "before X, this didn't exist; afterwards, it did."

In the 1970s, Brian Eno recorded four consecutive records in which he began calling the entire enterprise of making pop music into question.  He discarded one old idea of music performance and composition after another.  He abandoned the idea of being a rock star, or even a singer/songwriter.  He dug deeper and deeper into the idea that the recording studio _itself_ was the instrument.  If you listen to these four albums in order - Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, and Before And After Science - you can hear Eno retraining his sensibilities as he works, getting more and more into the question of how and why recorded music sounds the way it does, and trying to discover new ways that it can be made to sound.

Those four records are points on a continuum.  You can listen to (say) "On Some Faraway Beach" from his first record and "Spider & I" from his fourth and hear the elaboration of ideas that connects them.  But they're still basically the same kind of thing.

At the same time he was making these records (and, significantly, while he was recovering from injuries sustained in an auto accident in 1975), Eno was beginning to persuade himself there was a need for a different approach to music.  A new kind of music.  He had already figured out how to make music that people listened to.  Was there something to be found in making music that people just heard?

The idea of music as a form of aural wallpaper already existed.  Muzak made a significant fortune during the 60s and 70s by denaturing pop music into an even, quiet, vaguely recognizable sound-bed, and then selling it as a technology for public spaces.  It was famously cheesy.  Muzak prompted a lot of imitators, such as radio channels that programmed familiar, bland, "easy listening" music to be played in workplaces and homes.

Eno asked the question:  What if musicians took on this problem directly?  What if musicians made music that was specifically intended to be used as an ambiance?

"Ambient Music," as he called it, "must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."   This is from the liner notes to 1978's Ambient 1: Music For Airports.

This record is a strange kind of manifesto.  It doesn't demand your attention, which is normally what a manifesto designed to do.  You can sit down and listen to it if you want to, but that's really not what it's for.  It's for creating a space where you can experience quiet without experiencing silence.  As Eno put it, it's intended to induce calm and a space to think.

A lot of people thought this record was stupid.  It's just four long tracks with slow melodies, little harmonic movement, no real sense even of a beginning and an end.  I can tell you that it was _very disappointing_ to come home from the record store and put this on.  It was not at all what the young Eno enthusiast of 1978 was looking for.  I wanted more "Sky Saw," not this.  

It's not Eno's best record.  It's not even his best ambient record (that would be Ambient 4: On Land, from 1982).

And yet, it's one of the most influential records of the last 40 years.  Four boring tracks and a paragraph of liner notes.  It opened the door to an entire generation of musicians.  (For good and for ill.)

I gotta say:  It's pretty good music to listen to at work, or when getting your teeth cleaned.  It's a damn sight better than the awful variations on "Rhapsody In Blue" that United Airlines forces on you as you ride the beltway between B and C concourse at O'Hare, a missed opportunity for calm and comfort that annoys me every time I experience it.


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