by Lisa Cordaro ‘Ethereal’ is an overused word when it comes to Brian Eno. However, it is an apt one, so I apologise for using it again here. Wordless and ethereal is where I am right now musically: I’m listening to a lot of Thomas Newman, Michael Hedges and Eno’s back catalogue. As the godfather of ambient himself says: ‘In the early seventies I found myself preferring film soundtracks to most other types of records. What drew me to them was their sensuality and unfinished-ness – in the absence of the film they invited you, the listener, to complete them in your mind.’
To be honest, I lost my way with Eno a couple of years ago. I wasn’t sure about ‘Small Craft on a Milk Sea’ as an album, or exactly clear where he fitted into the collaboration. To me, ‘Small Craft …’ sounded more like a Jon Hopkins production circa ‘Contact Note’: a mismatched collection of mood music and industrial, with Leo Abrahams thrown in for good measure. Somehow the album doesn’t gel – it’s a challenging listen for those who are used to the Eno canon.
2011’s ‘Drums Between the Bells’ confused me equally. I freely admit I’m not a fan of spoken word over music: the only track I really like in this genre is Paddy McAloon’s ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’. McAloon is indeed highly individual, underrated and not filed under the ‘serious artist’ tag reserved for avant-gardistes such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and, of course, Eno. Prefab Sprout’s hot dogs and jumping frogs don’t fit the bill; however, delve into McAloon’s subterranean archive of experimental noodling, and you’ll find quite a leftfield composer.
The problem these days is that we’re well past avant-garde – arguably, well past postmodernism and on our way to who knows where? It’s hard to be genuinely new, and ‘Drums Between the Bells’ seems more artificial than artistic.
With this in mind, critical reception of Eno’s latest offering, ‘Lux’, has been mixed. Some feel he is on safe ground; others report it to be ‘bland’. One could argue that Eno may be putting more of the same into the soundscape, but reviewers who niggle at his current release for being ‘pointless’ might be missing the point. As Eno says:
‘When we think of what composers do, we think of them rather like architects: people who specify every instant, every detail of something, and then somehow get it made. Pieces like Lux aren’t made that way. It’s more like creating a number of musical seeds, and then seeing how they grow. You’re not ever sure how they’re going to combine with one another.’
Eno is still navigating unchartered waters; if others aren’t on the boat, well, that’s their problem. Besides, ambient as a genre defies the neat little boxes people like to tick. It is constructed yet ostensibly random. It can be warm and analogue, yet alien and detached. It’s paradoxical, period.
Exploring what happens when music is approached as a treatment, broken down into fragments, motifs and textures, has always been Eno’s thing. It produces a meditative quality that is gossamer for the ears. Eno modestly states that the kind of music he makes was pioneered equally by his contemporaries, but his influence and stature are beyond question. Artists such as Jon Hopkins exist today precisely because of him.
‘Lux’ is Eno’s first solo work for seven years, and it’s pleasing to find the album takes up where his ‘music for thinking’ project left off in the early 1990s with ‘Neroli’, and before that in the mid-1970s with ‘Discreet Music’. A 75-minute composition in four movements, characteristically titled ‘Lux’ 1, 2, 3 and 4, the album evolved from a sonic artwork housed in the Galleria Grande at the Palace of Venaria, Turin. Picture this: you are standing in a 100 metre-long room, completely surrounded by sound. Single, powerful notes hang in the air from a nine-second reverb. In this scenario ‘Lux’ really begins to make sense. Even without the palatial setting, it translates seamlessly from installation to CD.
The work puts me in mind of an artist’s garden I once visited. The meandering path from the house to her studio was shaded by trees, decorated with exquisite glass pendants, swaying and tinkling gently in the breeze. It felt like a journey to somewhere magical and unknown.
Listening to ‘Lux’ is a similar experience. I picture a walk through an unfathomed space suspended with delicate pendants of sound.
I don’t care that Eno’s signature ambience has remained much the same for nearly 40 years. I don’t even care that some critics have dismissed ‘Lux’ as beautiful yet ultimately wallpaper music. I do like putting ‘Thursday Afternoon’ or ‘Music for Airports’ on the hi-fi, knowing they are sublime soundtracks for movies that do not exist.
Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt; sometimes it simply reassures. This new album does just that, and more besides. I say ‘Lux aeterna’, and thank heavens for Brian Eno.
Lisa Cordaro – December 2012