As long as anyone remembers, there’s been a divisive reception of ambient music, and, indeed, the wider epoch of minimalist art. Whether it’s emptiness constitutes volume; whether it’s apparently lazy lack of content might instead be a masterful construction. Even more simply, we’ve asked: is ambient music exhilarating, emotional and mindful – or is it a boring, self-indulgent, pain in the arse excuse for the marketing of recorded sound? Whatever your standpoint, there’s a plethora of polarising reviews around most major ambient works – pursue them as you fancy and agree with whom you like. My review here, is concerned less with whether or not I like ambient music, and more with this simple fact: Brian Eno and/or his label have seen fit to release an excerpt from his new record, Reflection, as a single.
Since the 1970s, Eno has experimented with ambient music in different ways. Most successfully, to my ear, these experiments have provided lush background arrangements – thick soundscapes for other intricacies to play out on top of (Bowie’s Art Decade and Heroes are great examples of this). More explicitly, Eno’s solo albums (specifically those bearing the variously-numerated ‘ambient’ title) have provided incredibly lengthy, looping compositions with minimal texture. It’s these, which have the potential to be read as uneventful; perhaps even, unnecessarily difficult. Critics and listeners shouldn’t, in my opinion, shy away from admitting this. There is something inherently unfocused and directionless about Eno’s ambient music and there is, I believe, a real challenge to be had in ascribing pleasure to the experience of indefinitely interpreting the recordings only to arrive where you started because, as well you probably know, there are no answers as such.
With this in mind, and with exception of the tonal variations brought on by the use of different instruments, many ambient compositions sound incredibly similar. Reflection is not really that different.
At exactly 54 minutes in length, it’s a one-track record. Remarkably however, it’s produced a single, Reflection (Excerpt) – and it’s this editing exercise that I believe proves a very significant point about the epic scale of ambient music and whether any artistic commentary can really facilitate its enormous sparseness. By virtue of its release, Warp records implore you to listen to this single. They have, therefore, deemed it perfectly listenable. However, if Eno’s artwork can be reduced to almost a 14th of its original size, and successfully marketed as a fragment (this being on the pretext that someone would choose to listen to it – perhaps even instead of the full record), then surely there exists a basis for suggesting that the full-length recording is redundant? You could admittedly, argue the same about single releases from a pop/rock record; fragments of a whole eliminating the need for that whole. But then, we’ve readily admitted an interest in enjoying that partiality and it’s reflected in our singles charts – where a one-song toe-dip is par for the course. Ambience’s shtick, by contrast, is one of intense commitment. An ambient single, therefore, perversely undermines the need for that commitment. Doesn’t it? And, while we’re criticising the totality of Reflection, there’s the vinyl pressing to consider. Surely, presenting the track in two halves damages the run-through concept…? And what about the app created by Eno, that plays a new version of Reflection every time using an algorithm? Doesn’t that totally erase the need for a recorded take?
In addition, I’m going to provide you with a purely objective description of the music. It’s 54 minutes of droning synthesisers, with the res knobs dialled down to zero and with the occasional, randomised smattering of Eno’s softly bronzed ringing. The piece is purely instrumental and gathers neither rhythmic momentum, nor volume. Reverb and recording ambience remain largely unchanged for the duration, with only the solitary, minimalist ‘melody’ layer, occasionally vacillating between stasis and a crawl. Reflection is very, very slow.
I’m going to be a little removed here, and fairly suggest you take my review not as a list of enforcing statements on taste, but as a palette of suggestions that could help you see things the way I do – which is, of course, by no means definitive. In this sense, I suppose, the dialogue here is a very conversational one: I’d like to make it resolutely clear that you needn’t agree or disagree with me. For what it’s worth, my two cents are thus: I’m bored by Reflection, in a massive way. I find the rhetoric surrounding its release to be pretentiously crowded given the vapidity of the arrangement, and it’s my feeling that the work is lazy, from the vinyl release’s inessential division of the tracks into ‘movements’ (cemented by these divisions’ absence in digital and on CD) and in fact, in the grainy, lo-res ‘down-to-earthness’ of the iPhone-shot cover-art. I also think that the inter-format redundancy issue is tardy and cheap and a stab at self-reflexivity that careens violently into the impenetrably self-indulgent – an ever-evolving version of something that is, by it’s nature, numbingly consistent? Brilliant, Brian…
Moreover though, and outside the question of taste (yours or mine), it’s my thinking that Reflection poses a sudden and new question. Not one that is asking whether or not ambient music is good or not, but which instead, self-reflexively inquires as to whether the genre is in fact, still alive. Listen to what Eno’s got to offer here and reflect on that.