Evolving metaphors, in my opinion, is what artists do. They produce work that gives you the chance to experience in a safe environment, because nothing really happens to you when you looking at artwork, they give you the chance to experience what might be quite dangerous and radical new ideas. They give you a chance to step out of real life into simulator life. A metaphor is a way of explaining something that we’ve experienced in a set of terms, a different set of terms.
—Brian Eno, 1996 (Lecture reprinted here, courtesy of InMotion Magazine)
If they didn’t follow each other chronologically, it would likely seem perverse that Brian Eno chose to follow up the recent and incredibly well-received reissues of his four best mid-‘70s pop albums with these current reissues of his late ‘70s ambient albums. Not that the ambient albums aren’t important or even enjoyable in their own way, but the close re-release of these two diametrically opposed bodies of work pinpoints the nagging contradictions that underlie Eno’s fiendishly contrarious career.
While sharing certain sonic fingerprints as a remnant of their shared parentage, Another Green World and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) couldn’t be more different from any of Eno’s work in the Ambient series, of which The Plateaux of Mirror is the second. Anyone who knows Eno’s biography knows that he had been slowly losing interest in pop music since he left Roxy Music back in the early ‘70s, his stellar production work for groups and artists as diverse as the Talking Heads, David Bowie and U2 notwithstanding. Considering how good he was at making pop music, the fact that he very rarely wishes to do so is very frustrating. But in light of Eno’s consistent activism in the cause of generative (i.e., programmatically created, with minimal artistic intervention) music, we must consider the four chapters in the Ambient series as his “shots across the bow” of contemporary pop. Eno’s devilish intent belies the music’s unassuming nature.
Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror is not very impressive; particularly annoying is that it’s, for all intents and purposes, intentionally banal. As the epigraph illustrates, Eno has long been far more interested in exploring the abstract idea-space behind the concept of modern music than in actual music itself. In fact, the impulse behind Eno’s conception of generative music is the abnegation of the artist as the primary force in music’s creation. As with much of the unremarkable new age music that poured forth in the wake of Eno’s initial experimentation, Ambient 2 is almost entirely featureless. It is not designed to engage the listener on anything but a subconscious level. Trying to pay the music your full attention will result in nothing but frustration: nothing’s really there.
However much we may reject the notion of music as sonic wallpaper, Eno and Budd explicitly refuse any other intent—insomuch as intent may be said to exist in ambient music. In Howard Budd, Eno found the perfect collaborator: a pianist obsessed with achieving sonic perfection by subtracting mediocre notes from all his compositions. Eno contributed the ambient synth washes that compose the soundscapes; Budd tinkled the ivories a bit. The result was purposefully, profoundly tepid music designed to inspire not through force of its personality (there is none), but by the negative force of its innocuous invisibility. Ideally, the unexceptional nature of this music will create a vacuum into which your own ideas will naturally flow. Your results may vary.
Ultimately, Eno’s ambient music exists on another plateau entirely from most pop fans’ conception of music, and his strictly structuralist amputation of the artist from the art is counterindicated by most of the postmodernist composers and theorists he name-checks. One of the most pressing issues in the field of “New” music is the fine line between composition and improvisation: it must be noted that this conflict could not exist without the explicit acceptance of the musician as the master of the music.
What is art without the artist? In creating his ambient touchstones, potentially paving the way for purely digital generative music, Eno meant to create a definition of music as a primal force separate from human will and caprice, existing simply on its own merits and as an object totally independent of ulterior interpretation. This is certainly an interesting idea in theory, but who, in practice, is at all interested in art that exists for no reason? Art should exist to define the ideas and idioms of our life, not merely as a metaphor to reflect the formless substance of our days. In pursuing art without an artist, Eno managed to create a distinctive kind of stillborn monster: one which horrifies through its absence of a face.