Brian Eno Explains the Origins of Ambient Music

When William Basin­s­ki released The Dis­in­te­gra­tion Loops in the years after the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 attacks, it was the sound of decay pre­served for pos­ter­i­ty — record­ings of decades-old tape loops lit­er­al­ly falling apart on their reels, as the World Trade Cen­ter ruins smol­dered across the riv­er from the composer’s Brook­lyn stu­dio. The piece was per­formed ten years lat­er by an orches­tra at the Tem­ple of Den­dur, at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, for the tenth anniver­sary of the attacks. Anohni (then known as Antony of Antony and the John­sons) called it “the most help­ful and use­ful music I have ever known.”

This might mark the first time a piece of ambi­ent music has been award­ed such grav­i­tas and made the cen­ter­piece of a sig­nif­i­cant memo­r­i­al. It seems a long way from the ori­gins of the form in Bri­an Eno’s Dis­creet Music (1975) and Music for Air­ports (1978), in which Eno pushed music to the periph­ery of expe­ri­ence, turn­ing it into unob­tru­sive back­ground stim­u­lus that “cre­at­ed a sort of land­scape you could belong to,” he says above, like the end­less­ly repeat­ing worlds of a video game. In music, how­ev­er, “rep­e­ti­tion is a form of change,” Eno remind­ed us, or as Basinski’s loops sug­gest­ed, writes Sasha Frere-Jones at The New York­er, “rep­e­ti­tion is change.”

Anoth­er curi­ous trait links Basinski’s 21st cen­tu­ry lamen­ta­tions and Eno’s 70s air­port lounge music, one that seems to change the terms of the con­tract that ambi­ent music, as we usu­al­ly under­stand it, makes with the lis­ten­er. We might think of it as music that makes no par­tic­u­lar demands on us and take Eno’s state­ments about it as encour­ag­ing a kind of pas­sive con­sump­tion: ambi­ent music as no more than pleas­ant accom­pa­ni­ment for bet­ter queu­ing-up and calmer shop­ping. (Not that there’s any­thing wrong with stress relief….)

But what Basin­s­ki and Eno both describe in intense acts of ambi­ent cre­ation is more extreme. It begins with a kind of help­less­ness in the face of dis­tress — in the first case an of help­less­ly watch­ing low­er Man­hat­tan burn from the roof of a Williams­burg loft. Eno’s predica­ment was more per­son­al and inti­mate, he tells Riz Khan above, but no less help­less. Con­va­lesc­ing in his bed after a car acci­dent, he found him­self unable to move when a friend put on a record and left him alone. The expe­ri­ence of immo­bil­i­ty became a cat­a­lyst.

The album of “18th cen­tu­ry harp music” was too qui­et. He couldn’t turn it up over the sound of rain out­side his win­dow. At first, Eno says, he was frus­trat­ed by his lack of con­trol over the envi­ron­ment. But as he “start­ed lis­ten­ing to the rain and lis­ten­ing to these odd notes of the harp that were just loud enough to be heard above the rain,” it became for him “a great musi­cal expe­ri­ence…. I sud­den­ly thought of this idea of mak­ing music that didn’t impose itself on your space in the same way.”

In pay­ing atten­tion to a loss of con­trol, Eno dis­cov­ered music that relin­quish­es con­trol over the lis­ten­er. In lis­ten­ing to his own shock and grief, Basin­s­ki dis­cov­ered music that lets itself fall apart, slow­ly and beau­ti­ful­ly over time. What he “pompous­ly called” ambi­ent music, Eno jokes above, “became some­thing I no longer rec­og­nize.” And, yes, it may have come to take up more space than he intend­ed. But it still func­tions as a cre­ative response to cir­cum­stances in which, it seems, there may be lit­tle else to do but lis­ten care­ful­ly and wait.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear Bri­an Eno Rein­vent Pachelbel’s Canon (1975)

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Dis­cov­er the Ambi­ent Music of Hiroshi Yoshimu­ra, the Pio­neer­ing Japan­ese Com­pos­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (4)
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  • Tarlach says:

    Brian’s friend, who put on the record at low vol­ume, was Pat­ti Pal­adin who was involved with Eno at the time. It was not a record, but a cas­sette tape she had made for him. It was designed by her to be played at a low vol­ume. So tech­ni­cal­ly it was her who cre­at­ed the first ambi­ent music. To this day she dis­putes Eno’s ver­sion of this sto­ry. She claims that it is typ­i­cal patri­ar­chal behav­iour to take the cred­it away from the woman.
    I don’t know, no one only they know. But I tend to believe her ver­sion.
    I still admire and respect Bri­an Eno.

  • Berenice Atget says:

    Tar­lach, thank you for the addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion as I’ve nev­er heard that before.

    On anoth­er note. I was expect­ing to see a ref­er­ence to Fur­ni­ture Music, a term coined by Erik Satie to describe music intend­ed to he used as back­ground music.

  • Toby Carroll says:

    It’s crazy to state that she cre­at­ed ambi­ent music. Where she just dropped off some music for Bri­an to lis­ten to.
    It was­n’t her inten­tion to play it so qui­et­ly and was­n’t there while Eno was lis­ten­ing and she did­n’t put out any ambi­ent music.

    With biz­zare state­ments like this, if I dropped off some old bananas and you made a deli­cious pie out of them should I get all the cred­it for the pie?


  • Dale Hoyt says:

    Actu­al­ly it was Pat­ti’s col­lab­o­ra­tor Judy Nylon who brought the record. r who knows maybe they went togeth­er.

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