Brian Eno is the musical equivalent of Nikola Tesla. Just as Tesla is under-appreciated for his pivotal role advancing electrical engineering in the past two centuries, Eno is often left off lists of “most influential artists” though he quietly remains one of the most important forces in music. Those who listen to Lux without knowledge of Eno’s background, might not give Lux enough attention to notice its subtle shifts and refined production techniques. Ambient music is rarely stumbled upon when we’re in a position to notice it—and when we do notice it, we rarely appreciate it. But Eno has been working against this all along, and to understand this it helps to know something about Eno’s path.
Originally a member of the band Roxy Music, Eno’s musical career began in the late sixties and early seventies. This time period also marks the point when new technology in the studio started to become common. Granted, producers were always important to mix and master tracks, but the use of tape-delay systems and different synthesizers were just gaining traction. With these recording methods, instruments were freed from the constraints of their operators. Sounds could be delayed, altered or distorted any which way. Needless to say, the effects were tremendous, and from this new technology came new genres of music such as reggae and ambient. Ambient music was pioneered by Eno as an approach to music that creates a sonic atmosphere designed to alter our perception of our environment and evoke specific emotions and sentiments.
Ambient music has never become a major genre, and with it, Eno’s reputation has rarely moved outside the small world of electronic musicians and art critics. Often designed for specific art displays, films and videos, his works seek to create a world within the sound where subtle shifts register and songs don’t have objective beginnings and endings. This doesn’t translate to radio, and it’s not radio’s fault. Ambient music is not meant to be listened to in that way. It’s a different approach to music, where the goal is to follow the emotional tide of the notes; it’s best enjoyed in a low-volume environment where the music doesn’t dominate or control but complements and enhances.
While this is his trademark, it is far from his legacy. Ambient music will always point to Eno as its founder, but the entire modern day EDM scene also quietly tips their hat to the master producer. Due to the fact that he was not a traditional instrumentalist, Eno is the first person to have changed the world of music while referring to himself as a “non-musician”. Instead, Eno describes his method of modifying music and sounds as “treatments” and credits his career as a producer to his use of the studio as a compositional tool, using technologies like tape-delays and synthesizers as his instruments. Almost every DJ we see today copies this method of production, and as disturbing as this may be to his art-loving fanbase, this is the artist’s most lasting impact.
So now, when I say that Lux, his first totally independent effort since 2005, is a return to his classic ambient music, you have a better sense of what I mean. Lacking an easily appreciable song structure, Lux saunters and shifts lightly between its various musical elements and no element dominates. Meant to be a sonic accompaniment to an Italian art installation that represents the play of light, Eno’s piano notes tap-dance around careful plucks from a harp, and for seventy-five minutes he stretches each note to its full effect. In classic Eno fashion, his harmonic progressions and detailed, layered notes are simple and come on slowly but boast of sophistication and detail. While Lux will not come to define Eno’s catalogue or represent a pinnacle in his career, it is a trip that only he can deliver.