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Observations on Eno’s Ambient Series and a Remastered Laraaji Album

BrianEno_HaroldBudd
Brian Eno and Harold Budd.

Airports—a means to get to somewhere. We wander through congested terminals without giving it second thought to the scientific reasoning and emotional derivatives that airports can provide. Streamlined shapes and sterile atmospheres unconsciously bring lives together disguised as simple motive. The art of defying gravity has become just another means to get from point A to point B. Even first class options are not as differential and unique to the coach lifestyle like it was in the 1960s and 1970s, where air travel was a class luxury than a simple means of time reduction. In the mid-19th Century, the railway system was a vein of romantic ideas making rapid-line connections with each other. Like a dramatic fairy tale, the results of the Industrial Revolution built its own natural soundtrack of industry and a by-product of its effects. Transportation has grown and morphed into something that has become as ignorable as it has become interesting.

“Ignorable as it has become interesting” is the stand-out phrase from Brian Eno’s linear notes to Ambient 1: Music For Airports. This is Eno’s thesis statement where everything after this moment is judged by the simple perception that this music was an escape from the current state of Rock and Pop. And therefore, Music for Airports not only launched one of the more critical series in music history, but also a birthing of the ambient genre.

We saw a 2004 digital remaster of Ambient One, Two and Four of the series. But now we finally get a digital remaster of Ambient 3: Day of Radiance and the seminal release by Laraaji. From the London days of Roxy Music to New York City and his work with bands like Talking Heads and the No Wave scene, Eno found relief through a meditative state that became the groundwork to Ambient. His quest to find like-minded individuals helped expand the consciousness of what his creative self was mulling over. In Laraaji’s words, this is how his involvement with Eno began: “I was playing (zither) in Washington Square Park and I usually play with my eyes closed because I get into meditative trance states that way, and opening my eyes and collecting my little financial reward from that evening, there was a note, on notebook paper – it looked like it had been ripped from somebody’s expensive notebook – there was a note that says “Dear sir, kindly excuse this impromptu piece of message, I was wondering if you would be interested in talking about participating in a recording project I am doing, signed: Brian Eno.”

Eno, of course, was always searching for something different. We get that through his weird experiments, his solo work, and his production successes. What these four albums did was challenge a music industry that he felt was collapsing on itself. Eno’s philosophy was that ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular. Punk deconstructed rock music while Eno deconstructed pop music to an idiom of non-linear electronic strangeness that escaped from Muzak’s grips and a New Age spectrum only accentuated by its creator. Ambient is defined as “of or relating to the surrounding of something.” Eno turned the definition into something musically tangible, and it spiralled outward. In the liner notes of Music for Airports, Eno states, “Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. “ And this is where our story begins by dissecting each album.

Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Heavily influenced by Erik Satie’s “furniture music” compositions of the late 19th Century, Music for Airports is no more than a thought process. It is also no more about airports as it is music epistemology. A basic line of piano notes break up the space that dominates Eno’s thoughts and no concrete concept of time signature is argued over. The album begins with a short melody that is sporadically re-thought of with a semblance of itself only slightly modified through gentle processing. The second part to this gentle giant, “1/2” poses haunting non-language synth chorals that builds upon the ethereal and funnels a New Age mysticism without being blatantly spiritual. If you look at his treatise in the liner notes, Eno immediately fails because either through restraint or through a fullness in sound, you become more interested and intrigued in the music. The album ends with a majestic tone filled with glimmering orchestral blotches of notes as “2/2” takes to jumping around the stars as if random sampling was its motive. Unlike Satie who was creating music for the individual, Eno was creating music for the masses. He wanted people to take his “environmental music” and react to it based on their own personal experiences. And for a genre that keeps pointing references to this 1978 work, it continues to refine its validity 38 years later; a longevity that out-burned any form of music that accompanied the genre.

Ambient 2: The Plateau of Mirror

For the second album, Brian Eno teamed up with Harold Budd to record what many think in the series is a vision of grandeur. Budd’s piano work on this album is so delicate and humanistic that it transcends the line of perspective and really encapsulates a sense of mood. Eno would feed Budd a sound and Budd would simply improvise and discover new ways to perform on this album as it developed and was recorded. What The Plateau of Mirror proves is exceptional talent through the means of constant self-discovery.

Sometimes recognizable, and sometimes barely audible, Budd’s work on this album is amazing. He really knows how to capture a sombre motive in songs like “First Light” and “Chill Air.” An experience that pretty much set up Windham Hill’s successive catalog, the future was probably the last thing that was on both of their minds. But it goes beyond that. “An Arc Of Doves” sounds like the piano work on the song is being obscured by interference while “Failing Light” feels like you are looking up at the shimmer of each note from the bottom of the ocean. It could be that Budd’s primary influence comes from visual art that fuels a sense of surrealistic mantras.

What this album shows is that ambient music can be limitless and not constrained by the creator itself. A strange utopia that equally focuses on the present as it can exist as sound waves into the future. Budd makes you think there is not one place you cannot explore while Eno is only there to push things along.

Ambient 3: Day of Radiance

The least represented out of the series but the most musically outspoken, Day of Radiance is the brightest of the bunch. Laraaji frames a state of mind instead of building on a mood. Half of the album are dances while the other half transforms into meditations. Learning how Laraaji performs his music, the album’s construct makes sense. Listening to Laraaja is like an out-of-body experience; a metaphysical journey into a hyper-utopia. The music mimics a ‘70s New Age spiritualism with an Old World Eastern foundation. This all comes from a strict study in Jazz and Rock that emanated from being skilled at violin, piano, and trombone.

On the dances, notes fall over themselves until they begin to overlay on top of notes and lap themselves and transforming into a single entity. You stop picking out specific strands and begin letting the composition overcome you. The mediations are more Eno-esque—especially “Meditations 2”— in formula and conform towards the tonality of the series. But what Ambient 3 pronounces is that even with Eno guiding the ship, he has allowed the musicians he has worked with to maintain their individuality. And what Eno did to Laraaji is help him bring out an Eastern philosophy and classical musicianship all at once. What this did is lead to other collaborations that even further extended Laraaji’s talents which stemmed from studying composition at Howard University and came back into focus after relocating to New York City in the ‘70s.

About his view on music, Laraaji sums it up: “I see music as an environment providing thinking, feeling and imagination, an alternative space, container, within which to behave differently. In the case of music as medicine, such music allows for thinking, feeling and imagery to reconnect to a deeper sense of integration, union, oneness …”

What Day of Radiance did was open up doors for Laraaji that led to another dimension in his musical career.

Ambient 4: On Land

Eno finishes his series with an interesting experiment. On the liner notes of his 1982 release, there is a diagram showing how speakers should be set up to best experience this album. A precursor to the surround sound, he calls it an “Ambient Speaker System.” According to Eno, it is the best way to experience the “environment” of this album. His little tweak? A special loudspeaker that serves as a triangle. An audiophile conception that conceivably influenced the Flaming Lips’ Boombox experiments or Zareeka, On Land succeeds in blending a limited synth sound with a limitless natural establishment of field recordings. Both intertwine to become seamless. In a streaming world, the album does not get lost in translation but seems planer to the possibilities allotted. With increased technology and manufactured sound, perhaps to Eno’s specification On Land is not perceived to the fullest. But the album was created through analog means and in a digital society, streaming the album through a medium like Spotify still fulfills, to the best of its ability, the meaning of a living and breathing organism. The album hisses become more plastiche in the conversion.

This album is made for an internal experience and its objectivism comes from the inside out. And although that is how the album is intended to be listened to, many of the songs point to succinct geographical points such as “Lizard Point,” a song about the southernmost tip of Britain or “Lantern Marsh,” a place in East Angilia where Eno grew up, or “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960,” located on the seaport of Dunwich, England. On his previous releases he tackle spirit. In On Land he captures a sense of place.

—–

There is little argument that this series is one of the most important genre expanding non-combined sets of albums in the history of musical thought. Laraaji saw its potential despite blindly being curious about Eno’s proposition. If he would have nonchalantly discarded Eno’s written request the Ambient series would have taken a different direction. What Ambient 3 does is give us diversity in a treatise that otherwise would have possibly nullified the series’ importance. Laraaji reaches out more than any of the other contributors and without him, Ambient would have reacted more like Satie did to individualism. Because of Laraaji, this series is brighter for it and finally gets its due re-mastered treatment because as a whole, these are albums that will never be ignored.

Andrew Duncan
Dug out from a pile of zines and hot sauce, Andrew Duncan has contributed to many publications through the years, including Chord and work with the ever so spunky Readyset...Aesthetic! He now resides deep within your membrane.

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