It was Brian Eno’s 70th birthday recently, and to that I say many happy returns to one of the greatest musicians that got their start in the 70s or earlier. (Others in my top 5: Dylan, McCartney, Glass, Rollins.) I’m still not up to the challenge of reviewing Another Green World – his best album, but also where he starts exploring ambient – though I know I’d reference Eno’s interview with Alan Moore (the curmudgeon of Watchmen fame) if ever I get around to it: “I wanted music that I could use like I would use light in a room.”
I bring up that line here because something Moore and Eno discuss right before pertains heavily with Lux (his first solo album in some time, his first solo album for Warp, and his first ambient album for Warp as well), and more generally, much of Eno’s ambient work since Discreet Music almost forty years ago, “AM: You talked just now about how purpose in art is something which has obsessed you. The ambient music, this is music with a social function. Was this kind of a breakthrough for you in actually finding a different way to apply music?” (Eno’s short reply is yes, but his longer reply – and the interview as a whole – is worth listening to in full.)
This traces back, of course, to Erik Satie’s musique d’ameublement (furniture music) and for me, brings up a debate about active listening vs. passive listening. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m against the latter; a co-worker recently remarked about movies and music that she prefers the latter because she can do other things while listening to it. But there’s much to be gained in active listening; really sitting down (or lying down or any comfortable position) and truly absorbing the sounds you are listening to, much in the same way you might sit down on a wooden bench in an art museum and take in all that a painting has to offer. This isn’t to say that I don’t put on music while washing dishes or doing menial work or even studying (even though the studies have shown that this is ultimately detrimental to the primary task; memory recall is best when studying to no music, and then worse when studying to music with no lyrics and worst when studying to music with lyrics), but I find it troublesome that some people think that’s all music is good for: background listening. (I’m also bothered when my mother goes to make tea in the middle of a film, saying “No, don’t pause, I can hear what’s going on.”)
Lux was created as accompany an art installation and then packaged as an album afterwards, which brings to mind 1985’s Thursday Afternoon, which is to say that the music in either case is secondary to another function. As background, both are fine because Eno’s tones are pretty, and there’s thankfully more happening here than on that one with the help of previous collaborators Leo Abraham (guitar) and Neil Catchpole (strings). But the thing is, Eno’s tones are almost always pretty and are 100% guaranteed to work as art installation background music. Which is to say, Lux doesn’t distinguish itself even if every now and then something happens (ie. the occasional bass thrum in the first “movement”). The Guardian‘s Caroline Sullivan coldly states “Eno now makes iPad apps, allowing anyone to construct Enoesque soundscapes; chances are, a dedicated amateur could come up with an ambient piece that has more heart than Lux,” and while I don’t know if I’d go so far (mostly to avoid the predictable response, “So why don’t you try it then?”), I’m inclined to agree a bit.
Which brings me back to that interview. Eno says, “It’s very, very easy to make music now to make pretty good music. I could take anyone in this room and within two hours we could make a pretty good piece of music. I mean, “pretty good” isn’t very interesting but “pretty good” is possible.” I know he says that about songwriting, and how music has shifted since the 1980s towards a producer’s medium, but it also applies here to his ambient work. As background music, Lux is pretty good and not very interesting, especially when you consider the world creation of Another Green World. What worlds do Thursday Afternoonor Lux create? How many of Eno’s ambient albums since 1983 have created anything at all? Out of how many?