Brian Eno Strives for the Infinite With His Ambient 'Reflection'

For thirty years Eno’s ambient albums have been tweaking a piano sound that’s like a struck bell.EXPAND
For thirty years Eno’s ambient albums have been tweaking a piano sound that’s like a struck bell.
Shamil Tanna/Warp Records

A few years ago, I was trying to figure out if audio resolution was a perceptible thing or just a bunch of baloney, so I invited some teenagers over. I played songs they had chosen in three different formats: CD, MP3, and vinyl. They had no opinions about the sound quality, and were weirded out by the equipment. (The transcript states that Boy 1 said to Girl 1: "Who has stuff like this?") After fifteen minutes, the girl turned and said, "Wow." Maybe a spatial relationship had been sensed, frequencies detected. Nope. "This is the first time I've ever listened to music without doing something else," she clarified.

When Brian Eno releases an ambient album like Reflection, which he did on New Year's Day, he is no longer competing with himself to provide background music. In a world of multitasking, he is competing with all music. This doesn't invalidate Eno's project so much as indicate how drastically listener tendencies have changed since he started putting out ambient music in the Seventies. On his website, Eno addresses the genre he is, more than any other, responsible for: "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." He then notes that the albums relevant to Reflection are Thursday Afternoon (1985), Neroli (1993), and LUX (2012). He groups these albums as "thinking music," the subtitle of Neroli. All four albums are roughly an hour; only LUX is broken into parts, meekly numbered quarters that don't seem necessary, as the album feels like its cousins: a single "performance."

The scare quotes relate to the aspect of Reflection that makes it an upset in a decades-long game. The parameters for all his ambient albums are set up beforehand. Music follows from rules, which Eno adjusts as that music is "performed." For the commercial version, Eno picks one of the iterations he has recorded. As he describes it: "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."

This is aleatory work, where chance does the arranging. This is not to say that generative music is aesthetically random. Eno's tastes are so consistent that Reflection could be played end to end with Thursday Afternoon, more than thirty years old, and suggest a single piece. There is a long history of tinkering in this gentle workshop. The sound Eno keeps tweaking is a descendant of the piano heard on Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It is something like a struck bell, or the resonating metal at the heart of an electric piano or vibraphone. The sounds always sustain — this music is as much about the nature of long decay as it is about anything else. There are no brief, staccato events on Eno's ambient albums.

The official audio release of Reflection is fifty-four minutes, give or take a second. For music made from a limited palette of options, it is rich: more wood, less tinsel. The new element here is the bass range, hinted at on Thursday Afternoon but absent from LUX. The bell-adjacent sounds alternate with softer smudges, then a wave of low end heaves up, possibly the only menacing thing that's ever happened on an Eno album. There are a handful of high-pitched moments, which add a level of anxiety to a low-anxiety setting. But for music that claims the background, the mapping of a review like this doesn't make much sense. If we're supposed to ignore it and let it work subconsciously, then why not ignore it?

Because somebody has to shell out the money for this stuff, and here is where the performance of Reflection gets interesting and difficult. One of Eno's stated aims for his ambient music was to let it be "endless," constantly self-generating and playing out the rules governing duration and introduction of elements. In Eno's studio, all these albums could have been playing endlessly, or as long as the equipment of the time allowed. He could hear that, but we couldn't. Reflection is the first one to be released as an app, making it possible for a consumer to play this album infinitely, or more specifically, to hear a version that only ends when you turn off the app. Here's the problem: The app is forty dollars.

My first reaction was: Fuck outta here. But music is especially good now at revealing price points as abstractions. The triple vinyl for the soundtrack to the Bowie musical, Lazarus? Fifty bucks. The premium monthly rate for Spotify? Ten bucks. A floor ticket for Kanye's Pablo tour? Two hundred and up. I have no idea if the programming inside the Reflection app is more powerful and intricate than the geolocation and data-gathering that renders changes by the second in the free Google Maps app, though my gut says the latter is much more complex.

So what does the Reflection app do? The constituent elements of the album play in entirely different formations every time you launch it. The siren sound that seems like a life event on the fixed version could be the first thing you hear in the app, as an overlapping flock of whoops. The software also provides visuals — your screen lights up with a series of geometric shapes — though these serve little purpose beyond reaffirming how uniformly terrible the digital art that Eno has made since the Nineties is. Here is the frustrating bit: The app's audio gyration of Reflection is probably the most rewarding ambient act Eno has ever pulled off. Apple generously populates both your iPad and iPhone from a single purchase. Armed with both, and hooked up to two Bluetooth speakers, I set up one copy of Reflection on my right, one on my left: asynchronous stereo. Over the course of two days, the apps interacted in a frighteningly beautiful way. Reflection faded from my mind while retaining a regional office in my body. A burst of synchronized activity would then draw me back in — the bells are tangled, the waves are crashing, the pulse is caught on the wires.

Eno, of course, is entitled to charge whatever he wants for his wares. Maybe this utopian suggestion will catch his ear, though: Make Reflection freeware, and it could be one of the greatest browser extensions ever. Open up two tabs — no need to look at them, honestly — and let the reflections ring. Thingy of the year.


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