By Doug Dumais
A little Reflection is just what everyone needs at the start of a new year.
In 1975, Brian Eno was in a car accident. While recovering in the hospital, he couldn’t reach over far enough to turn up his radio. The rain outside drowned out the music in his room, and Eno realized that music didn’t have to be at the forefront of experience. Music could be like the colour of the paint on the walls, the light spilling through the curtains, or the rain hitting the window. Music could be balanced and complementary with life—music could be ambient.
Ambient music entails a commitment. It is difficult to imagine just sitting and listening to Eno’s new album, Reflection, for all 54 minutes without distractions. I tried, but I accidentally wrote this review.
For those with absolute patience, an endlessly changing version of Reflection is available as an iOS app for $54.99. This is Eno’s latest foray into generative music, or musical pieces that write themselves and are constantly changing. According to an essay on Eno’s website, he coded a number of musical rules—for example, raise the pitch of one out of every 50 bell sounds by seven semitones—that the app follows according to a random algorithm. In this sense, the sounds will always be the same, but the program randomly generates the pitch and the order in which they appear. Eno has said that listening to the app version is “like sitting by a river. It’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.”
The version of Reflection available for streaming and purchase on digital, CD, and vinyl, is one 54-minute version of a potentially infinite combination of those same sequences. The album version is more like a photograph of the river Eno describes. Your vinyl will never change, but there’s a version out there that will continue as long as iOS apps still exist.
Reflection doesn’t have track titles or singles. It is one continuous soundscape with a constant ebb and flow. The album feels like a grey and rainy shore on the coast before the storm. Its bells and feedback pull time forward at their own pace.
Unlike most ambient albums that have title tracks, Reflection doesn’t ground you with expectations or any set ideas. When you listen to Moby’s 2016 release Long Ambients1: Calm. Sleep, which has 11 songs all called “LA” followed by the track number, you know what’s expected of you—spoiler: you won’t be doing the bop, and you’ll probably be imagining Los Angeles. Reflection only asks you to sit and, well, reflect.
The cover mirrors the themes of the music found within it. It is a barely-illuminated photograph of Eno, which I read as a sign of the eternally provisional knowledge of the self—like the app version of the album, aren’t we always changing? This album begs us to take some time away from the loud and busy lifestyles we lead and just think. It restores balance to our thoughts and ourselves, if only temporarily. As Eno himself puts it, Reflection provides the listener with “provocative spaces for thinking.”
What’s worthwhile about the album is its pervasive subtlety, which falls prey to no gimmicks whatsoever. There are no climactic crescendos, nor any claims to abstract concepts or sweeping ideas. It relies on the arrangement of only about four or five sounds total: low, atmospheric synth in the background, bells, whistling waves, feedback, and finally, thought. It allows the listeners space to fill it with themselves.
Eno is the Barnett Newman of music. Anyone could probably learn to arrange ambient sounds in the way that Eno has. Few can claim, however, to do it with such un-self-consciousness and timing.
My recommendation for the beginning of 2017, instead of looking to the stormy seas of the semester ahead: stare into your Reflection for a little bit. What you find may surprise you.