Essential Music: Brian Eno’s Ambient Compositions

There are some kinds of music that, when you first hear them, sound like they are music that you’ve always heard in your head, but never on a record. That’s how I felt when I first heard Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports shortly after it was first released. The self-effacing title of this 1978 album suggests that it might be a form of muzak, or taffelmusik. In fact, that was, in some ways, the goal of the work. It was designed to be played as background music, but the kind that you could focus on at any time and appreciate the qualities of the music. Eno, according to Wikipedia,

conceived this idea while being stuck at Cologne Bonn Airport in Germany in the mid 70s. He had to spend several hours there and was extremely annoyed by the uninspired sound atmosphere.

This four-part, 48-minute work, was the first album to bear the moniker “ambient,” though it was not Eno’s first truly ambient work. While other albums featuring a similar tone were made prior to Music for Airports, this was the first one consciously designed with what would become the ambient ethos.

Eno’s Discreet Music predated Music for Airports by three years, and, featuring the eponymous 30-minute track, as well as three experimental “remixes” of Pachelbel’s Canon, was the first true ambient work, designed as a background track for Robert Fripp to play over in concert.

Eno would go on to create other album-length ambient works, such as the 61-minute Thursday Afternoon, in 1985 (perhaps his best long work), the 58-minute Neroli (as of this writing, just 99 cents in MP3 format on Amazon) in 1993, and the 1999 I Dormienti, a 40-minute soundtrack for an installation.

Much of Eno’s music is ambient in nature, and he has recorded many other albums with the same tone, but others are more collections of shorter tracks, or collaborations, such as those with Harold Budd or Robert Fripp. But the five long ambient albums remain the most successful approaches to ambient music. While there are now thousands of people composing “ambient” music – after Eno, it became a genre of its own – Brian Eno’s albums are the pillars of this type of music. If you’re unfamiliar with this music, go for Music for Airports and Thursday Afternoon first. The title track of Discreet Music is excellent (though I don’t like the remixes of Pachelbel’s Canon). And Neroli is a dark, yet moving piece as well. No matter what, you owe yourself to discover this moving, meditative music.

8 thoughts on “Essential Music: Brian Eno’s Ambient Compositions

    • Ah, I’m glad I’ve enlightened you. They are both wonderful. In fact, one could perhaps say that they have a strong Feldman influence…

  1. All right, I tried it. The first track on Ambient 1 was less ambient than a snoozer. ;-) Indian classical music is the same way: it can be more of a snooze than background. This seems to me a long voiceless chant, with the notes sustained so long it detracts from the experience. It doesn’t seem compelling to listen to the “echoes” of notes. Come on, listening to echoes is somehow abstruse appreciation?

    I can try downloading it … if you will try downloading an Iron Maiden album. :-D

    • Well, there’s no accounting for taste. :-) I can understand, though, how ambient music is an acquired taste.

      As for Iron Maiden, I’ve listened to some of their stuff; not my cup of tea.

  2. Although not strictly ‘ambient’, Eno’s “Another Green World” is possibly one of the finest electronic music albums ever made (IMHO). It is also very accessible for newcomers to Eno’s music and, in my case at least, leads one to want to delve deeper into his extensive back catalogue.

  3. I, too, was immediately struck by these ambient pieces. They rang a bell in my head as something I needed to hear but had not come across so far. So much so that I’ve now started creating similar pieces. Should you be curious, I have 38 hourlong radio shows (broadcast nightly on a local community stationNorthumberland 89.7) but available to listen here:
    I also made some videos:
    I hope there is something in there that you might like. I am a regular reader of your stuff and greatly enjoy your writing.

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