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On Brian Eno and the End of De-Civilization

Originally published on Vice

"Everything we do is music." These are the enduring words of avant-garde pathfinder, John Cage, who coined the phrase as a postscript to his seminal piece, 4'33." Cage played amplified cacti with a feather, consulted the I Ching as a compositional directive, and, in the case of the aforementioned 4'33", dedicated an entire piece to the observation of silence—when he said everything, he meant everything. Cage radicalized our conception of music and, in doing so, he gave future creators permission to do just about anything.


Brian Eno is one such creator. Throughout his career, he's adopted various Cagisms and merged them with more popular streams, using outré techniques to make art music more accessible to mainstream listeners—or, depending on your perspective, to make conventional pop music more interesting. After leaving Roxy Music in the early '70s, Eno began exploring an experimental style that would come to be called 'ambient'. Without the Cagian groundwork, it's unlikely his ambient music would have gained much traction—and perhaps he would have never pursued it all. But it was there and he did, and today we recognize Brian Eno as ambient music's most essential figure.

Eno's new ambient record Reflection arrived on the first day of 2017. According to the self-written press release, it's the "latest work in a long series" that extends back to his 1975 record, Discreet Music. The entire ambient genre parallels Eno's timeline because where Eno went, ambient went too. A handful of German bands (Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream) were toying with ambient sounds before Eno, and the idea of background music has existed since 19th-century composer Erik Satie imagined something called furniture music, but Eno is unassailably ambient's godfather. Before him, ambient sounds were just swathes of noise without a home. There was no explicit term or function for "ambient," and it wasn't until the arrival of his 1978 record, Music for Airports, that the music and its motives were delineated.

"Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting," Eno wrote in the album's liner notes. In Music for Airports, Eno's compositions relied on improvisational exercises and chance. After recording his musicians improvising, the producer listened to the takes and discovered bits of melodic lines that intersected in interesting ways. He looped them, phased them, slowed them down, and whittled everything into protracted meditations on sound and life. He curated moments of chaos.


Like Cage, Eno has often genuflected to randomness. His Oblique Strategies, a deck of cryptic cards intended to help overcome creative block, was partially inspired by Cage's I Ching divination, and it served as a method for creating randomized sound solutions. But Eno does not adhere to chaos alone—he allows his voice to shine through. In a 2005 interview, Eno established this distinction between Cage and himself:


"John Cage … made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I choose to interfere and guide… The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn't filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don't interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I'll ditch it and do something else."


What Eno is alluding to is "generative music," an approach to composition he's been using for his ambient records since Discreet Music. To create his generative systems, Eno feeds sounds through algorithms in software of his own design. The string of resultant music is endless and ever changing, subject to the software's infinite permutations. To make Reflection, the producer spent many days and weeks listening to his output, examining its interplay with life in various situations and then adjusting it to his liking. "It's a lot like gardening," Eno wrote. "You plant the seeds and then you keep tending to them until you get a garden you like."

As is the case with cultivating a garden, writing music isn't a terminable process. We only think of it that way because of the static nature of the record—especially physical records—but music can continue to grow and change after its initial release. Leonard Cohen continued to work on "Hallelujah" for years after he first released the song in 1984. And Kanye has infamously used his administrative Tidal privileges to release numerous updates to The Life of Pablo. So, what if we thought of a recording as a midpoint rather than as a terminus?


This is how we should consider Reflection, which is just one of the midpoints in Eno's generative system. The single 54-minute piece has layers and ideas that appear to be constantly changing, but, of course, it's the same 54 minutes of change every time it's played. To create an actual generative experience, Eno supplemented the release by offering an app that is truly endless and ever changing. The algorithms shift slightly each time the app is opened, resulting in an unending variation of Eno's album. The $40 asking price is steep, but what you're paying for is an interminable experience. It's like "sitting by a river," Eno wrote. "It's always the same river, but it's always changing."


The version that Eno chose to give us opens with reverberating bell tones. They are recognizable—marginally evocative of Zeppelin's "No Quarter"—and yet arcane, like shimmering afterthoughts or secrets withheld. Reflection is arrhythmic and unpredictable but still intentional in its unfolding. Its textures, richly made, gain gravity as sounds emerge to fill out the frequency spectrum. Subtle bass pads rise from the depths. Glimmering synthesizers fly above. Pay attention and you'll fall beneath its spell, lost in transcendent reverie. Let it be, though, and it will simply be, facilitating the inner machinations of your subconscious; or perhaps it will simply float by, as ignorable as it is interesting.

Eno accompanied the January 1 release with an impassioned Facebook post as an addendum to what he called "a pretty rough year." The ample post is meant to drum up much-needed resistance. "This is the start of something big," he wrote. "It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too." He doesn't mention the album, but as it arrived on the same day, we must interpret the expressions as a pair.


Since Reflection is soft, languid, and ostensibly docile, it's tempting to note some dissonance between Eno's post and his music. We might ask: is Reflection simply an opus of escapism that allows us to momentarily shield ourselves from the ceaseless onslaught of shit that's inundated us since Bowie died last January? It could certainly function as that, but I don't think that's what it is.


Reflection, as a concept, is a clarion call for action. Action should be necessitated by reflection, not the other way around. It's that other way around that has incited an epidemic of what Eno called "kneejerk nationalism." It's the reason people "grabbed the nearest Trump-like object and hit the Establishment over the head with it." It's the divisive spur deepening the chasm between our supposedly antithetical identities: Republican vs. Democrat, rural vs. urban, capitalist vs. creator.


In the press release, Eno went further and divided creators into two more seemingly opposite identities: farmers and cowboys. Farmers "settle a piece of land and cultivate it carefully." Cowboys "look for new places and are excited by the sheer fact of discovery." Eno once thought himself to be more cowboy than farmer, but he reconsidered when he realized Reflection belongs to a series that has been running for more than 40 years. Given some reflection, most of us would probably realize we contain more of the other than we think, too.

I made the trek to D.C. on January 20 bear witness as all of these identities converged. On Inauguration Day, I saw protest groups occupy the downtown area's squares. I saw hoards of Trump supporters filtering through the streets that connect them. I saw Richard Spencer (before he got punched in the face) standing on a corner sputtering facile defenses against protestors' claims that he's a Nazi. An hour later, I returned to that same corner and found Jill Stein quoting MLK. The division was there, evident in minor outbursts and identifying insignia, but mostly people were just walking on city streets, observing, wholly unbothered by their proximity to the other.


The night before, we watched an inauguration concert that seemed more reality TV competition than cultural celebration. Trump was notably unable to attract any artists that illustrate the "incredible wealth and beauty of American popular music," as the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik wrote on January 13. That inability is revelatory of a deep "abyss between the man about to assume power and the shared traditions of the country he represents," he continued. "There is no music in this man."


As if in affirmation, in his inauguration speech, Trump didn't mention any of the traditions that have led us here and brought us together. Instead he spun incendiary tales of "American carnage," suggesting division from our past and isolation in our future. "From this day forward," he said, "A new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first."

Those words feel like the birth of an ominous new era, but this day has been a long time coming. "I wonder if it's the end—not the beginning—of a long decline," Eno wrote in his Facebook post. "Or at least the beginning of the end [of] a slow process of de-civilisation."


We are assuredly at some midpoint in this process. The world is fragile right now. Our systems are broken, and if life—like music, like gardens—is to stay an interminable process, we cannot sit passively by and let our systems generate the same piece over and over again. Like Eno, we should choose to interfere and guide. We need all of our permutations, so let's not waste time deciding who's on whose side. Let's collectively reflect and recognize that Trump isn't on any of them. He is neither farmer nor cowboy; he's a billionaire hiring billionaires to help billionaires—regardless of what he may say. If, as Cage said, everything we do is music, we should seek a leader that has it. We can't adjust the system as easily as Eno can adjust his, but we can still acknowledge that these end results are not good and that they need ditching.

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