Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.
Sometime after sunrise on the first day of the new year, Brian Eno sent some light into the darkness. Reflection—the experimental pioneer's latest full-length—had been out in the world for a few hours, so he took to his Facebook page to offer some words of inspiration to accompany it. Over the course of a few paragraphs, he looked back on what he aptly described as "a pretty rough year," suggesting that 2016's closure might have marked the end of a long period of societal decline, rather than its beginning.
But even as "knee-jerk nationalism" dominated global political discourse, he argues, there was an awakening of another sort, an undercurrent of thinkers weighing the nature of democracy—and figuring out how we can make it work anew. The vague solutions that Eno proposes—"thoughtful and creative social and political action"—involve, not spontaneous action, but careful contemplation and meaningful collaboration. Put another way, you might say that the way forward begins with Reflection.
Eno's newest ambient work can be purchased as a 54-minute CD, LP, and digital download, or streamed on cloud-based service of your choice. The version ported to these formats is about what you'd expect: a collection of synthesized tones that sound as pristine and warm as freshly fired ceramics. It's the sort of comfortably escapist album that Eno has been making since he first coined and popularized the term "ambient music" in the mid 1970s—or maybe even before. As he mentions in the press release for Reflection, one of his first-ever recordings was a slowed-down drone, sourced from the striking of a metal lampshade.
Like title suggests—and as Eno himself proposes in the same press release—it's a record meant to provoke you take a moment to sit still and contemplate things. The sinewy chords don't have a skeleton to hang onto, so instead of admiring their narrative structure, you drift off and look inwards. This function has become a given for those who seek sounds like this, and Reflection, as a discrete piece of music, isn't necessarily more useful in the cultural context he describes in his New Year's Day letter than it might have otherwise been. It's a beautiful record that can function as a concentration aid, but its charms are diffuse by design.
The tricky thing about the version of Reflection that's available for purchase from most music retailers is that it's an insignificant fraction of the entire piece. As with many of Eno's recent works, Reflection is actually born from a generative music system—a software, designed by the artist himself, that algorithmically generates music from a library of sounds and rules. So this album essentially wrote itself, based on the boundaries Eno assigned to the software. In another press release, he posed a hypothetical as a way of explaining the process to the uninitiated:
"One rule might say 'raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones' and another might say 'raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones.' If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes— very rarely—they will both operate on the same note...so something like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. [But] you won't know which of those 5000 notes it's going to be."
Obviously, the rules that make up all of the breaths and contemplative pauses on Reflection are even more complex than simple tonal considerations. For this reason, listening to the recorded version can start to feel unnecessarily restrictive at a point, as if you've been asked to appreciate the image in a 5000 piece puzzle from a single piece—however pretty it may be. But those willing to shell out a little more money have an alternative. For the (admittedly steep) price of $40, an app version of the release runs the generative version of the piece on your phone alongside a similarly generative visual work by artist and long-time collaborator Peter Chilvers.
It's in this form that Reflection is most rewarding, or at least most addictive. Since purchasing it, I've found myself listening far beyond the runtime of the LP version, letting it ebb and flow throughout my work day—as pleasantly charming as watching the changing tides out a seaside window. Its charms are emergent; suddenly from a dazed lull, a cluster of church bell tones will swell into a dense thicket as woozily overwhelming as any of his collaborations with the similarly glossine composer Harold Budd. Then, the moment of beauty fades back into nothingness, and you'll never hear anything exactly like it ever again.
To my ears at least, what Eno is offering is unpredictable expanse—the sounds themselves are fixed texturally, but they swell and subside in endless variations. It's easy to get lost in this piece—or to forget you're listening to it entirely. Buried in the rhythms of its probabilistic composition, all of a sudden you can find yourself adrift in your own thoughts, just as Eno intended.
The more I wander out into the expanses of Reflection, the more I'm convinced that it's a fulfilment of one of the things I most want from ambient music. Some composers who make generative music do so for its applications in public spaces—it's said to have salutary effects for the stressed masses in airports, banks, and retail stores—and at a lecture, I once heard Eno talk about the beneficial effects that an installation of his reportedly had in a hospital. But Reflection is explicitly designed for inner spaces; it offers a vast netherland where you're cushioned from the outside world and have time to deal with yourself.
As the world got weird last year—personally, politically—I often turned to music like this, sinking into Huerco S. and Dedekind Cut's down-comforter-heavy synthesizers as a way of blanketing myself from things that felt difficult. That I could take such refuge in Reflection forever, and always find new corners to its plasticine bliss is the ultimate promise of this kind of music. It's sort of like what people imagine when they think of what virtual reality can offer. Pull on a mask. Enter another world. Only come back when you want to.
But sometimes the infiniteness of Reflection feels lonely. Occasionally, I find myself dwelling on the fact that however many hours I put into listening to this app, I'm no closer, practically speaking, to experiencing its totality than I was when I started. The hours are comforting, but they can feel inert—like spending a whole week in a sauna when, clearly, a day will do. We seek these sorts of recharging experiences because we want to feel their effects in our day-to-day lives—not because we want to live in them forever.
Eno himself seems to know this, which could be why he paired the release with that contradictory New Year's gesture. His Facebook post is a rallying cry, calling on fans to process the past into actionable ideas for the future. He wants you to hit the pavement, to go and do things that bring about change on both macro and micro levels. And when you can't press any harder, or when the world seems too much to bear, then it's time for Reflection again.
Colin Joyce is THUMP's resident zoner and Managing Editor. You can find him on Twitter.