On New Year’s Day, Brian Eno, the English composer and producer, released Reflection, his 26th solo album. It has one track, also called “Reflection,” that plays, uninterrupted, for 54 minutes. The same day, Eno also issued an app, which features a grid of colors that transmogrify, gently, while the app rearranges each of the track’s constituent parts. Like much of Eno’s work, the experience of Reflection—of listening to it, of looking at it, of listening to it while looking at it—is both cerebral and instinctive. The whole enterprise can seem high-minded if not baffling on paper, but in practice it’s merely soothing. Something loosens in you. You sink a little deeper into the earth.
Eno, who is now 68, has amassed a vast and multitudinous discography since his solo debut, Here Come the Warm Jets, appeared in 1974. He produced records (some iconic) for the Talking Heads, Devo, David Bowie, U2, John Cale, and Coldplay, and composed—if that’s the right word—the three-second Windows 95 start-up sound. After leaving the glam-rock band Roxy Music, he released his avant-pop masterwork Another Green World and became an early pioneer of “ambient music,” an art-school movement that furthered the notion that music could be as fluid and dynamic as a sunbeam. This might be the innovation he’s best known for now.
Historically, ambient music has been defined by what it enables—by the transcendental or granular activities the music manages to lubricate—rather than by a particular sound or technique. Two experimental German ensembles from the late 1960s, Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream, were among the first Western acts to fuss with the idea, though it has roots, conceptually, in Roman and Gallic chants and in many strains of non-Western music, religious and otherwise.
The thought was always to allow the mind to unfocus for a moment, and the effect of the music reminds me of a sneaky old reporter’s trick: Get your subject to agree to an interview while he or she is driving a car. Operating a vehicle occupies just enough of the person’s conscious mind that other thoughts are released, and so something might slip out unmediated; a door might be left slightly ajar.
All of the best ambient records welcome these kinds of strange currencies. Which is not to say that they can’t be engrossing on their own, or that the thoughts or work they generate is always inadvertent—but the idea of music-as-catalyst is still there, baked in. These days, one could argue that the experience produced by background music isn’t even especially novel: Not only do songs play quietly in public spaces all the time when no one is really listening, or at least not listening mindfully, but it seems plausible to assert that the sorry state of the contemporary attention span has rendered life itself a kind of ambient experience. “What music isn’t ambient in the 21st century?” the electronic musician Keith Fullerton Whitman recently asked. “Listening to the average three-to-five-minute pop song with the distractions and thought processes of the world abated feels like a heroic act.”
Eno himself admits some confusion over the parameters of the genre: “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.”