In a recent posting on his website, Brian Eno confesses he doesn’t understand the contemporary definition of the term “ambient music,” the tag penned to a series of atmospheric instrumental albums he has created over the past three decades exuding music that moves in glacial tonal increments rather than through rhythm. It’s no wonder, too, given the music’s appropriation by scores of pop, techno and even dub artists during the generation that followed such early Eno mood-piece experiments as “Discreet Music” (1975) and “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978).
Even Eno himself has sought to find new placement and purpose for his soundscapes. On “The Ship,” an Eno album released last spring, he used his ambient prototypes as a backdrop for vocal meditations, a few dissonant eruptions and even a slice of majestically reinvented pop (via his version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free”).
On “Reflection,” the focus falls back on the ambient sound that started it all. The record is a single, 51-minute composition, an instrumental tone poem of sorts that glides with patience and grace. Through the music’s slo-mo unveiling, a few variances appear and contract like a fragment of melody that washes in at low tide only to be eventually pulled back into the sea. Sometimes, a suggestion of a pulse is detected, but the echo is distant — a call from an outside land the music seems to have purposely drifted away from. In other instances, the sense of contemplation is underscored by a few modest accents — a chant-like accent that briefly mimics birdsong here, the chill of what sounds like vibraphone there. But given the album’s processed sound and its lack of detailed liner notes, you can seldom tell what the specific instrumental voice is.
There is also something of a paradox within the music. It begins fully realized, as a gentle swirl of mock-percussive effects connect like wind chimes, before the music quickly evolves into an unhurried sonic wash of humming keyboard orchestration that revels in its state of subtlety. Not so with the ending. While “Reflection” wastes no time in lifting off, it takes a beauteous eternity to bid adieu. Its slow (as in, very slow) fade seems to suggest that it has every intention on lingering on even as it eventually disappears from our rearview mirror.
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This is not music for everyone. Many dismissed the minimalist dissention of Eno’s ambient music back in the 1970s as a crashing bore, a music that sounds more like muzak, only more static. But for those ears favoring a sense of impressionistic introspection — or for anyone simply seeking 51 minutes of glorious peace and quiet — “Reflection” is a fascinating one-way trip to the heart of Eno’s ambient cosmos.